Chile's protest 'front line' -- heroes or vandals?

Armed with clubs and shields, the "frontline" youth of Chile's two-month-long protest movement are seen as heroes by some -- and vandals by others.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against President Sebastian Pinera's government in Santiago, on December 10

Since the civil unrest broke out on October 18, Chile has become increasingly polarized in its view of those leading the demonstrations against President Sebastian Pinera's government.

For some, the protest movement has been the downfall of a country that was often described as a regional bastion of stability and prosperity but is now suffering from chaos inflicted by hooded anarchists and looters.

For others, the mass demonstrations are a festival of rebirth.

"We're going to stay here until there are real solutions to the issues that have been raised since the beginning and which have made the government go crazy," Matias, a masked 27-year-old, told AFP from behind a metal shield.


He said he was neither an anarchist nor a thief, and not reckless or poor.

Rather, he represents the protests' middle-class university student contingent -- united by the same frustrations and resentment as their more violent peers.

"The fact that we're on the frontline allows for peaceful demonstrations because otherwise (the police) would be there" using tear gas to disperse protesters, said Matias, who is saddled with debt after quitting veterinary studies in his fourth year.

He mixes baking soda in a bottle of water to wash his eyes against the effects of tear gas.

After nearly two months of civil unrest and clashes, 95 percent of people in the country reject the theft and looting, according to pollster Cadem.


But surveys show that 70 to 85 percent of people support the movement.

The youthful protest "front line" has situated itself two blocks from Plaza Italia, the historical epicenter of Chilean demonstrations, which is also the demographic border between the wealthy uptown and poor downtown.

It was where a million people from all walks of life stood together to demand an end to social and economic inequality on October 25.

Youths broke off pieces of sidewalks, smashed bus shelters for metal and carried glass bottles, all to be used as projectiles to throw at security forces.


Some saw their defiance as courageous, while others thought it cowardly.

"This situation has left all us Chileans perplexed," Matias Fernandez, a sociologist and academic at Santiago's Catholic University told AFP.

Attacks by masked protesters on police have a particular resonance in Chile, where leftist groups clashed with military dictator Augusto Pinochet's security forces from 1973 to 1990, a period that has helped "romanticize" violent resistance of tyranny in the country.

"However, the violence the country has seen since October 18 is unprecedented in democracy," said Fernandez.


At the start of the protests, rioters used broken road signs, doors and pieces of chairs looted from restaurants as weapons, but the "front line" has since improved on the equipment its members use.

In particular, they now wear goggles to protect against the rubber pellets fired by police, which have caused 350 serious eye injuries.

Andres Ramirez, a 52-year-old Uber driver, told AFP "there are people taking advantage of the hoodies to commit their misdemeanors."

Yet he still supports the street movement and blames "criminals" for theft and destruction.

"They're not the citizens who want the country to change for the better," he said.


The violence is incomprehensible to many, particularly since it was sparked by a modest hike in metro fares in a democracy often lauded as the richest in South America.

According to Fernandez, this is "a generation of youngsters who didn't grow up under the dictatorship" and democracy is something they take for granted.

These "children of democracy don't feel that this system full of flaws and injustice that they live in is something they should give thanks for.

"For youngsters, having regular elections is an unquestionable fact, like having air to breathe."


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