Will and two friends witness police brutality, government authoritarianism and anarchy during protests in Santiago, Chile in late 2019. Will contemplates the future of the United States, empathy and compassion, and the importance of institutions in the wake of a summer of protesting and the assault on the United States Capitol Building. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- If you have any questions, I wrote more about why I released this episode - both at this time and in this form - over here.
- A few days after I released this episode, I sat down with Jeppe (who is featured in this episode) on Instagram live to compare notes from our time in Santiago. You can watch that conversation here.
- The pictures in this article from Reuters were posted several days after I left and cover the time I was there. The twelfth picture is an accurate image of the type of tank that sprayed down the street I was on.
- I linked to all sorts of resources about the unrest, inequality and police brutality in Chile below. I've realized that not so many folks actually know the state Chile was in late in 2019 (and, really, continues to be in). If you're curious, a starter kit is included in the "relevant articles" section below.
- Recording and releasing this episode - especially at the time I did - was a pretty heavy experience. This episode had been partially completed for a few months, but it was kind of a shell of what it needed to be. And that was fine! It wasn't due out for like 18 weeks. The events at the U.S. Capitol Building made it clear to me that this episode told the story that I have in my heart about my relationship to growing unrest, active decay and culture rot in the United States, and that story needed to be told now. I spent the last week deep in reliving and rehashing my experience in Santiago. When I wasn't doing that, I was finding George Floyd bodycam audio and searching for sound effects of people screaming (for the opening scene). At one point, I was so deep down the rabbit hole that I was watching videos from New York City on the morning of September 11th. That got... really dark. I'm glad it's over.
- I said it all over this episode, but we are, once again, out of chronological order. Next week, we'll be back in Colombia and we'll pick up where we left off.
Things I wrote that you should read
Relevant articles and posts by smart people
- Chile protests: What prompted the unrest? by Charis McGowan (2019)
- Chile protests: Concerns grow over human rights abuses by Katy Watson (2019)
- How a $0.04 metro fare price hike sparked massive unrest in Chile by Mark Johanson (2019)
- Chile protests turn violent on anniversary from BBC (2020)
I hear with my little ear
- An ambulance siren in Manhattan
- A screaming woman
- Gentle street hum in Santiago
- Honking horn
- Another honking horn
- An armored military vehicle accelerating in Saravena, Colombia
- A car performing a burnout
- More squeaky tires
- Early morning in rural Kansas
[Theme Music - marker]
Hey everyone, Will Conway here.
I don't normally do this, but I want to say two quick things before we get started today.
Firstly, the events of the last week made me realize that I'm sitting on a story I just have to tell, and I have to tell it at this moment in time. For just this one episode, we're advancing to Santiago, Chile.
All that will make sense in about thirty seconds, so hang tight.
Secondly, this episode comes with a trigger warning. The material we cover is heavy, so know that going in.
Alright, let's get started.
[Theme Music - marker]
[Sounds of a protest: chanting, sirens, street noise]
“No no no, wait!”
[Sounds of tear gas and a woman screaming. Ears ringing and a throbbing heartbeat].
"I can’t see! I can’t see!"
I’m in the middle of a street, blinking and swearing, confused and hacking up a lung.
Through the blur, there’s a silhouette of a protestor being dragged away by police officers.
I’m blind and lame in the middle of the street. Car horns are honking and my friends are yelling from the sidewalk but I can’t figure out where they are.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
Empathy for other humans - deep, deep compassion for your fellow person - it sounds amazing in theory. But in the details, we start to get a little queasy.
Text POD to (332) 877-9540.
Alright, let’s go.
[Theme Music Ends]
Under ordinary circumstances, this street would be beautiful. Old row houses with endearing little courtyards and staircases. Trees scattered on the sidewalk every here and there. And me, right here at an outdoor table at a restaurant, across from my new travel partners, Jeppe and Atalanti, and two others.
Those two others are actually protestors: local Chileans with facemasks hooked over one ear, sipping a beer with us. We’re about six blocks from the heart of the protest, and this street is peaceful. It’s mostly protestors, but they all have their masks around their necks, and they’re taking a break from the intensity of Plaza Italia. But still, the street looks like a city in chaos. Graffiti is scrawled on every open surface. Resiste and ACAB - All Cops Are Bastards - scrawled all over the place.
I want to remind you here that it’s not 2020. No, it’s December of 2019 in Santiago, Chile. Right now, your main takeaway might be, “Ah, lucky bastard, at a restaurant? That sounds amazing.” But it’s difficult to describe how unfamiliar this scene is at that time - how foreign and alien it feels before the pages turn to 2020.
Anyway, one of the Chilean protestors is telling us about the protests here. I’m fascinated but, honestly, I’m a little skeptical.
The police are repeatedly violating United Nations sanctions, she tells us. We’ve been seeing these massive tanks with water cannons perched on the top. She tells us that they’re not just spraying water into crowds of protesters anymore. No, it’s some combination of acid and water, she says, and the acid is causing brutal, intense lesions on the arms and legs of people she’s met. She says she’s seen boils the size of golf balls on people’s wrists. The police laughed as it happened, she says.
To be completely honest with you, my sheltered U.S. brain is having a hard time believing her. And, had I left Chile in that exact second, I might not have believed her at all.
But the second protestor pulls out her phone. Shows us pictures of a man with boils on his arms, bloody and bubbling and pussy and red. The man in the picture is her friend, she says. And all the while, I’m glancing over her shoulder, looking down at both ends of the block, one where protestors are pulling garbage bags and rolling tires into the middle of the street, and the other where police officers are setting up in formation.
[Sounds of faraway protestors]
To be honest, had I left Chile in that exact moment, I’m pretty sure I would have carried on believing that the man in those pictures was only a partial victim; that he was in some way responsible for his plight. That he got too close to the action or let his emotions get the best of him or, I don’t know, just pissed off the wrong guy or something.
But that’s just not the way it happened.
[Tires screech. Tank accelerates.]
Three protestors dive for cover as a tank rounds the corner, stomping their flimsy garbage bag barricade. It accelerates down the street and its water cannons take aim at the sidewalk, where dozens of protestors are now sprinting down the sidewalk and screaming. The very same sidewalk where I’m sitting, talking to interesting people and sipping a pale ale.
The restaurant owner behind us flings open the door and screams “aqui, aqui, aqui” and we all run for cover inside, joined by maybe thirty protestors.
The tank passes, still spraying down the street, and some of the people from the restaurant run back outside and scream profanities and flip the bird as it rounds the corner. We file back outside, our old table - and our beer - smells not quite the beer is supposed to smell. There’s a faint odor of something, though what I don’t know.
In the following four days, I watched homes burn to the ground. I watched police wrestle old ladies on street corners. And, on two separate occasions, my eyed burned with tear gas, though we’ll get to that.
For months, I lived with the memory of those bizarre four days. I left Chile learning a lesson that, at the time, felt complete and whole. It basically went like this: bad things can happen to good people when the system is broken and when the institution falls apart.
But my lesson was still weighted with this ignorant skepticism, this belief that, “well this just can’t happen in the United States.” Our institutions are resilient, I believed. The beauty of the American experience is that those authoritarian tendencies are thoroughly muzzled by the American Experiment, a project so well conjured that collapse into the truly, permanently byzantine is nearly impossible.
[Police body cam audio of George Floyd screaming in agony; compiled news reports of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed]
I went to a handful of the protests that followed, and I did so with a belief that the American Experiment is not yet broken - in fact that these protests themselves are evidence that the experiment is alive and well. That we were merely witnessing the next chapter in improvement in the experience of underserved American minorities, and that these protests were the logical next (and hopefully late-stage) chapter in the saga that began with America’s founding sin.
I can’t identify why, precisely, that videos of a 75-year-old man assaulted by police in Buffalo and that other video of an older Navy veteran beaten with a baton and pepper-sprayed triggered something in me more profound than the video of George Floyd.
Perhaps it is, in part, because these videos show the plight of older white men - men of the variety I have known all my life; men who look like my father, and whose experience feels more similar and more relatable to the experience I know. Maybe there’s some deeply seeded racism there. Or maybe just some benign understanding of people more similar to me. Or maybe it’s something else altogether: maybe it’s because these scenes are captured as full stories in one shot, with clear introductions, rising action and climaxes, all inside thirty seconds. This is an internal dialogue I must continue to have with myself - an internal conversation about my ability to hold empathy for others with different skin colors and backgrounds. But I’m not so sure that’s the reason I felt that way.
I feel a hand grab my bicep and I think it’s the cop. But then something is sprayed in my eyes - some solution and it’s immediately relieving. I can kind of see again and I realize I’m on the sidewalk now. There’s a blurry woman before me, thin and dark-skinned and short with a big smile. She has a facemask and goggles around her neck and a cardboard sign under her arm. She’s blotting my eyes with cloth and I can see.
“Todo bien?” she asks.
And I give a thumbs up and say “todo bien,” and she’s off.
Jeppe and Atalanti and I walked back to our hostel in an earth-shattering silence. We just wanted to go out for lunch. On the walk back, we passed a house that’s on fire. Smoke billowing from the windows and shattered glass all over the front lawn.
No, I think those videos triggered something profound in me because they looked remarkably similar to the scenes I saw in Santiago. Innocent, civically-minded people being absolutely brutalized by police in riot gear as smoke and flames billowed behind them.
Scenes that I thought were impossible to transport from the streets of South America to the United States. Scenes I thought I would recite in bars to my disbelieving friends for years and years, never believing that they could experience anything remotely similar themselves, let alone within six months.
All this brings us to my final lesson, many months removed from the first two. It’s that humanity, truly, is the same everywhere: with the noblest of intentions but with all the same proclivities for violence and authoritarianism. But people like that stranger - the one who saw me struggling in the street blind and deaf and pulled me to safety, only to disappear a moment later - those people exist everywhere, by the thousands.
The United States is the most diverse country in the world, bar none. Left to our own devices, our people are likely far more inclined to otherize, oppress and destroy.
No, what has long been special about the United States is the container within which we place those people: the institutions, the potencies, and the incorporation of changing values built into the system, such that the project is always and permanently one morphing, ever-changing and increasingly inclusive democracy.
To my liberal friends, remember that the idea that people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington can be chastised as terrible people several hundred years after their deaths is a success of the system they authored, not a failure. Self-awareness is a good thing, no doubt, but we liberal Americans have plenty of it. And self-awareness exists for the purpose of self-growth. Remember that.
We can have earnest conversations about the values of free speech and police authority and gun rights and the role of news media, and many others. And we should. We should constantly, repetitively, endlessly explore and reexamine the values we hold dear.
But in so doing, we must constantly remind ourselves that the system in which we operate is responsible for all the progress we have ever made and, truly, the destruction of the wrong system may very well lead to the permanent destruction of civilization, the rise of authoritarianism, and tanks rolling down the streets as a new norm, not a momentary outlier. We must never take for granted what is obvious to so many people in our world: that there is nothing special about us, but for the good fortune to be born into this particular conversation.
I don’t believe that events of the last week, or the events of the last year, or the events of the last four years need to be assumed as “the new normal.” But, if we continue to take for granted that peace and freedom will remain the norm and violence and tyranny are only temporary deviations, we will lose them altogether.
Alright, I don’t have a great pivot on this last flashback. Bear with me.
[Sounds of protest fade; sounds of birds chirping and cows mooing rises]
It’s September of 2012, and I’m standing outside a barn in rural Illinois. Cows are mooing and the sky is blue and dominant and extending endlessly in every direction. I’m about thirty minutes from the Mississippi River and, with it, the Iowa border. I’m wearing a light blue button down, slacks and dress shoes, and I have a stack of corrugated yard signs under my arm.
A man in overalls waves from a tractor and jogs over to me.
“Thanks for stopping by,” he says. I nod and hand him the yard signs.
“I haven’t seen you around,” he says. “You new to the campaign?”
And I explain that I am. That I worked on the primary for a Republican in Connecticut - a long-time congressman.
“Good guy, I say. “Tons of knowledge and experience,” still stuck in my on-message political training.
The man in the overalls scoffs.
“Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. We need to get everyone out. Fuck them all. Start over.”
I bite the inside of my lip and consider a response, but he beats me to it.
“Did you know,” he says, “That in the whole world, only one group of people has lost money in the last 40 years?”
And I say no I didn’t know that.
“It’s the 92nd percentile on the global stage,” he says, confident. “Working class white people. It’s just us,” he says.
“No one cares about us. It’s time to start over. Fuck ‘em all. I’m voting Tea Party.”
He grabs his signs and runs back to the barn, and I turn around and hop in my old Ford Expedition.
All these years, I’ve never quite been sure why I remembered that interaction, but last week, I saw a picture on Facebook. He and I apparently connected all those years ago. And he posted a picture of the Capitol building - my capitol building, and yours.
“Burn it all down,” he wrote.
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
If it’s not already obvious, that episode was supposed to come much later in the show. It was going to be like the 24th or 25th episode. Given the events in the U.S. last week, I just couldn’t hold onto it. It felt irresponsible.
For those of you who thought this show was going to be escapism, I apologize.
If, on the other hand, you felt like you got a lot out of that episode, I’d appreciate you sharing it.
I did the math recently. It turns out that if all of you guys share this episode right now with one person and they listen to it, I’ll double my listenership.
You can also text FRIEND to (332) 877-9540.
All right everyone. We’ll pick it back up in Colombia next week.
See you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]