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When Students Attack!

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Fuckin' A! This is so great to read:

Written by Justin Vogler
Wednesday, 21 June 2006
It was every adolescent revolutionary’s dream: schools throughout the country were occupied and the gates were barricaded.

Tens of thousands of uniformed pupils on the streets defied police brutality, support came in from across adult society and, to top it all, the education minister prevaricated hopelessly in the face of coherent, well articulated demands.

"Chile’s secondary school pupils have scored the highest marks in history," wrote the University of Chile historian, Sofia Correa, in a recent newspaper column. "Their organization, media management, awareness of civic duty and timing, have all been outstanding."

But this was about more than student proficiency. What started in April, as a gripe against school bus fares and university entrance exam fees, rapidly grew into a nationwide movement demanding quality education for all Chileans, irrespective of class, ability or spending power. Since Pinochet stood down sixteen years ago, no other mass movement has so successfully challenged the legitimacy of the neo-liberal state the General left behind him.

No one took much notice at the start of May when the Coordination Assembly of Secondary School Students was formed and students in several of Santiago’s public schools walked out of classes. Protests and walkouts are a rite of passage for public school students in Chile. The movements usually fizzle out.

But this time it was different; the protests spread. President Michelle Bachelet fanned the flames by not addressing education reform in her state of the nation speech and the next day, May 22, pupils seized the first all-girls school. Within three days, 22 schools were occupied, 14 more were on strike and a total of 70,000 students mobilized. Furthermore, the university students’ union and the main teachers’ union were openly backing the high school students’ movement.

Camera crews and reporters ventured into the occupied schools to find classrooms under student control for weeks, all in pristine condition with no signs of graffiti or vandalism. Everyone was searched for drugs, alcohol or weapons at the school gates and students from other schools turned away. Meals were served in communal kitchens, with cleaning duties shared. Decisions were made in meticulously democratic assemblies.

Tell me it can't be done again.

On May 26, pupils at Altamira de Peñololen School walked out, the first private students to take action. Within days, dozens of exclusive private schools were on strike or occupied. Playground fences were draped with banners reading "Private, but not Silent" and "Education is a Right, not a Privilege."

The Assembly was now meeting daily and had elected a negotiating team: German Westhoff and Julio "Gordo" Isamit, both 17, and identified with Chile’s rightwing parties, ensured the movement’s political neutrality. César Valenzuela, a 17-year-old member of the Young Socialist Party, instantly became a national heartthrob and the movement’s principle spokesperson. Maria Jesus Sanhueza, 16 and a militant young communist, was nick-named ‘little Gladys,’ after the historic Chilean communist leader, Gladys Marin. And Juan Carlos Herrera, a lanky 17-year-old whose rebellious discourse and large front teeth earned him the nickname of Comandante Conejo (Commander Rabbit). By the end of May they were household names.

The leftwing movement, Surda, offered the students advice on how to organize the Assembly but, according to one of their coordinators, Rodrigo Ruiz, neither they nor any other adult movement was behind the student uprising. "These kids have proven to be more creative than all of us," Ruiz told me. "They have taken things further than the Surda or any other political organization in Chile today."

The Assembly agreed that a meeting with the education minister, Martín Zilic, on Monday, May 29, would be the government’s last chance to avert a national schools strike, planned for the following day. Inexplicably, the minister didn’t turn up at the meeting and there was nothing left but to work cell-phones, blogs and chat rooms to get the word out across the country.

Are we paying attention, people?

The blanket strike on May 30 may be remembered more for the police violence than for the seven hours of heated discussion between Zilic and the negotiating team or for the closing down of almost all of Chile’s schools and universities. In addition to scores of wounded children, three journalists, two cameramen and even an undercover police officer ended up in hospital with truncheon wounds. Students responded to police violence by marching through clouds of tear gas in the centre of Santiago with their arms held high, as if surrendering.

Next day President Bachelet broke her silence. Flanked by Alejandro Guillier, the leader of the Chilean journalists union, Bachelet said: "I manifest my indignation at the excessive and unjustified violence inflicted on journalists, cameramen and students." She dismissed the head of Chile’s riot police, Osvaldo Jara.

President Bachelet finally made the Government’s first and only public offer. She pledged grants for university entrance exams, half a million free school meals, emergency funds to repair dilapidated buildings and free bus passes for the poorest 20% of municipal school pupils. Furthermore, she would send a reform of the Pinochet era constitutional law on education (the LOCE) to parliament, and would set up a Presidential Education Commission.

Beautiful! Remember, when you despair: youth has no memory. Technology is being used all over the world for lots of silly things, but also for great good as well. Kids understand the true potential of modern technology, and are using the free flow of information to change the world. Even if most American kids are ignorant, fat and lazy, they have counterparts around the world who are not. Just as MLK looked to India a generation previously, who can say there is not some young American blogger/cell phone user/hacker dreaming of Revolution at home, and looking south for inspiration and example.

Rock on, Chilean students!

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