Caught in the middle of a Potosi street protest the author finds what justice means in Bolivia.
My foray into South America was all too brief. A little over a month. During this short amount of my time I had covered a lot of ground. Bus lagged and sun burnt, I found myself in Potosi, Bolivia. A beautiful old colonial town that seemed to me to be tailor made for a few days of relaxing, reading, and practicing my Spanish. After having a fresh orange juice and spending my afternoon reading in the hostel I decided to try and get some photos of the beautiful buildings in the waning sunlight. A relaxing stroll and dinner seemed to be the perfect evening.
I decided to start in the main square of town which was about two blocks downhill from my hostel. As I was wandering I came across a demonstration in the main square of town. Several thousand people people were crowded in front of the police station. There was the usual chatter and commotion that accompanies any large group of people. In front of the police station was a line of officers in riot gear and shields. The air of anticipation started to crumble with the occasional rock being hurled from the crowd, directed at the police barricade. The crowd started to grow more restless, the rocks became more frequent.
Eventually a brave police officer got up and spoke to the crowd. I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was saying but he would make gestures with his hand, clinching his fists in what I thought was a call to unity. The crowd would cheer, he got down and a little while later it would start up again. People growing more restless, rocks being thrown, the police officer returning.
Eventually the crowd got rowdier. I was fortunate enough to meet a French volunteer on the outskirts who was able to tell me what was being said and what the crowd was yelling. Several chants began echoing up from the center of Potosi.
“We want death!!!!!!!!!!”
The French man explained the origins of the protest.
Apparently a young girl had been missing for a month and her dead body was discovered either that day or the day before. People felt that information about her death and disappearance was being withheld or there was some unjust police involvement.
Several more attempts at reconciliation were made as a police officer would stand up in front of the masses offering pleas for a resolution. His pleading appeared to be met with deaf ears. More rocks, more bottles, and even a blanket!
After what seemed like several hours a big police SUV drove between the line of policeman and the crowd. The windows were shattered by rocks. One lucky rock shattered a lamp on its post, the crowd cheered wildly.
The police officer again stood on top of the car (a really brave soul) but the crowd would not be placated. On the corner of where the police department stood the traffic lights were still working….the protesters had blocked the road and the streets were filled with cars and buses that long ago had lost their occupants. The whole time the
traffic lights had been going from red to yellow to green giving its various shades and hue to the crowd, a sense of animated anarchy. Another well placed rock hit a helmeted police man on the head….they responded with one round of tear gas straight into the gut of the crowd. The crowd was unflappable, more rocks, bottles, and chanting.
Then things took a more severe turn. It started with my casual noticing that people with small children were quickly walking away from the demonstration. A couple of minutes after this realization were three loud POP! POP! POP!
Tear gas canisters. The crowd dispersed wildly. I was terrified of being trampled as people were running around me. POP POP POP. A canister landed no more than a meter from my feet. The smoke exploded right into my face.
Panicked, I ran north towards the back of the square as my eyes began to burn. Still afraid of being trampled I could hear thousands of footsteps next to me. All I could think about was not falling over. The burning wasn’t very intense which made me think that I had missed the worst of it. But once I made it to the top of the plaza it really hit hard. I could barely see and I was doubled over, feeling like I was about to vomit.
By this time the majority of the crowd had left and a few people came up to me and directed me towards a small kiosk, they said smoking a cigarette would lessen the burn in my throat. They paid for my smoke and started giving each other hugs. We milled about for a minute as the explosions started again. Like something out of Mad Max the police officers were riding around on motorbikes with tear gas guns shooting down the alleyways. Another one went off quite near me and I jumped into a tourist restaurant where some American guy was eating a hamburger. He seemed oblivious to what was going on outside. I was finding it hard to calm down and I noticed my arms were shaking violently.
I realized I couldn’t sleep in a hamburger joint overnight. After a few minutes I crept back to my hostel..I found it locked. I was feeling really disoriented and again started to panic. My fists banged the door loudly.
Suddenly the door flew open the owner literally pulled me inside. His wife offered me some sort of white powder to put under my eyes. To my surprise his whole family had the powder. We all sat around huffing and dry heaving. We talked in broken English and Spanish. His name was Miguel, and he had two daughters, one was 3 and the other was 5. It stunned me that he had taken them to the protest.
The girls didn’t cry or complain. It seemed a world away from so many of the children I knew back in the west.
“Justice,” Miguel told me was the reason he took his family.
I admired their values tremendously.
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