After our Spanish class last Thursday, I turned to Bill and said something like, “Hey, I’m gonna go down to the U to watch the riots. Wanna come?” He was a little reluctant at first since he was dressed in his school clothes, but he said he’d text me at 4:00 or so and maybe he’d come over. We left it there.
I have been going to a copy shop at the bottom of the LaGasca hill; I know the woman there by now She makes small talk with me, always does the copying right away, and never cheats me out of even a penny. It’s a great place, but everytime there’s a student demonstration, its business suffers. It is about 30 or 40 yards from one of the primary demonstration intersections, and it frequently gets tear-gassed. I’ve gone there half a dozen times during riots and I’ve found the copy woman working the machine with a handkerchief over her mouth.
This past week, I was at the copy store two or three times while just 50 yards away, students were throwing rocks at police. I’ve been on the other side, too: the police usually station themselves near the Santa Clara market, and I’ve been walking from Santa Clara a time or two when I’ve seen the police in their urban camoflauge and gas masks, getting ready to launch tear gas into the meager student crowds. One day, while I was standing in the copy shop with its front-row view of the action, I thought, “I should bring the camera down here and take some pictures. This place is safe, and if things got out of hand, I bet the people at the copy shop would allow me to hide behind their metal pull-down door with them.
And so last Thursday, I invited Bill to go see the demonstrations with me. He text messaged us at 4:00 or so and said he was on his way. When he arrived, I was playing some video game, squinting at the little black and white screen. We took a bus down the hill and walked toward the tear gas, deciding on the way that the best route would be near Santa Clara market on the police side of things. Unfortunately, most of the action was at the far end of campus rather than near my copy shop, so we had to walk a little bit further.
When we finally encountered the action, we found ourselves right behind the police. Most stores were closed for business, their metal pull-down doors, um, pulled down. From our vantage point, we couldn’t actually see any students – only a regulat stream of rocks flying through the air and bouncing at the feet of the police. Just minutes later, we tired of the incomplete scene and decided we needed to get to a better spectating point. The police were at a T intersection, and we were in the stem of the T behind them. We witnessed a young man walk behind the police and go to the left; the rocks were coming from the right. We resolved to follow the guy’s lead and walk right behind the police. We hung out right on the corner for a little while, but since we were very close to the police and pretty much directly in the line of fire for the rock-weilding students, we decided to go join the crowd of spectators in the northwest corner of the T.
We passed the next forty-five minutes watching an oddly amusing back and forth between the police and the students. Rocks were thrown, the occasional tear gas was launched. There was a fortified tank-like vehicle parked pretty close to the students; they were throwing rocks at it and every once in a while, one of them would comically tiptoe up to the tank and start kicking it. Eventually, the tank left. Then the student crowd grew and they began to drive the police back. Some of them seemed completely unaffected by the tear gas; others would grab the smoking can of gas and throw it back at the police. As the students came closer to the stem of the T, they decided that we spectators were in a bad place, so they started throwing a few rocks at us. The crowd of lookers-on turned and ran; a few women were screaming, but most of us were laughing. It was surreal. For the crowd of watchers, this was entertainment, and our occasional transformation into targets only made it more fun.
In my class that night I asked one of my students about the demonstrations. Most of my night class are college-aged kids, and many of them are students at the Universidad Central. My student, Lenin, explained that two years ago, the president promised a discounted bus fair for all students. All you have to do is show your “carneta,” your student id, and the bus drivers are supposed to charge you 12 cents instead of 25. But the busses don’t honor this deal and the president has done nothing to enforce his promise. So every time there is a demonstration elsewhere in the city, the students come out to the Avenida America, a main street that runs right through campus, and they shut it down. They don’t allow any cars or busses to pass; they burn things, and they throw rocks at the police. The idea is to put continual pressure on the government to follow through with their promise.
And then two gringos go and join the crowd of amused spectators.