Police Brutality in the United States: The View from Chile

After witnessing Chile’s 2019 social uprising, the protests and rioting in response to police brutality inside the United States feel like deja-vu all over again.

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On May 25th George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was killed by police officers. Police were responding to a call from a convenience store regarding a disagreement over a possibly counterfeit $20 bill. After confronting Floyd, hand-cuffing him behind his back, and forcing him facedown onto pavement, Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. Floyd clearly verbalized that he could not breathe. Three other officers either stood by or helped Chauvin forcebly restrain Floyd. George Floyd was pronounced dead by paramedics around 9:25 PM. Anger and frustration over George Floyd’s killing has spread across the United States in the form of peaceful protests, destructive rioting, and in some instances, looting of private businesses. In countless cases the police response to protests and connected violence have been similar to their response to George Floyd: aggressive, unjustified, and brutal.

In September of 2019 I moved to Santiago de Chile to teach English as a second langauge and hopefully conduct research on education inside Chile. In October of 2019 Chile erupted into mass protest, rioting and in some cases looting. The manifestaciones, as they are referred to as in Latin American media, amounted to a social uprising; an insurrection lead by people that have been pushed too hard, for too long. The protests in Chile are focused on a complex, but interconnected set of grievances: economic inequality, lack of services in health, education, and transportation, unfair pricing of common goods, privatization of public utilities, the land and civil rights of indigenous peoples, and police brutality. What began as a collection of fare-jumping protests against a planned metro ticket hike, quickly escalated, then spiraled out of control when the national police force, The Carabineros, began injuring students with the use of tear-gas, pellet guns, water-cannons, and blunt weapons — all hallmarks of the repressive dictatorship the people of Chile peacefully voted out of exsistant more than 30 years ago.

My research on the Chilean education system has never gotten off the ground, but my teaching experience has been the saving grace of my time here; a respite from the weeks and months of police brutality. I have seen police beat people with metal batons. I have witnessed a police officer racking a shotgun to scare away protesters. I have had tear gas canisters shot in my direction and felt the sting of the canister’s effects. I have watched a looted supermarket burn, only to learn hours later that a man died inside. If the man had been able to escape the market he would have very likely faced armed police officers prepared to complete what the fire did not. Three dozen Chileans have been killed, hundreds more have been permanently blinded by rubber bullets, and more than 10,000 have been injured in the months long ordeal.

The current massive outpouring of police violence in the United States is mirroring what occured and continues to occur in Chile. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the responding protests Police across the US are pushing, tear-gassing, beating, and shooting non-violent protesters. In August I will return to the US and I fear I will be returning to a country in the same grip of anger and violence as Chile — anger and violence not from protesters, but from a police force acting out of unfounded fear, learned aggression, and systematic bias against black, brown, and poor people.

I believe that unprovoked violence is not acceptable. Nor is the wanton destruction of public or private property. Allow me to stress the use of the words unprovoked and wanton in the previous two sentences. I do not have the experience, moral authority, or retorical tools to categorically justify the violence perpetrated by citizens during riots in Chile or the United States — but at the risk of revealing my naivety and abusing my privlege, I believe I can say why such violence and destruction occurs. Injury, perceived threats, deliberate mistreatment, and unanswered greivences begat public violence. When the poor, mistreated, and disenfranchised of a country feel they have been ignored, and they are not given a fair way to redress their grievances, violence follows. This is now happening in the US as it did Chile. Police killing black, brown, and poor people at a drastically higher rate than the rest of the population is an injury without a proper or fair redress. Wide scale anger, protests, and violence was a likely outcome of the heinous killing of George Floyd — as it was in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, as it was in Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King, as it was across the entire US after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior.

As frustrating and scary as the current situation is there are actions that public officials, citizens not already protesting, and leaders can do right now to stem the spread of violence — especially police violence. The US can learn something from the months of police brutality that occured in Chile. First and foremost, it must be understood that protests often become violent when police escalate tension and harm people. In order for protests to remain peaceful and for tensions to de-escalate police need to stand down, focus on protecting public property, and not engage protesters unless physically challenged. It seems incredibly silly to have to write, but it must be written: in order for protests to remain peaceful the police must stop hurting people. Police should be shown the damage they have caused, even if it means projecting video of police brutality at protests for police to see. Perpetrators should be forced to bear witness to the harm they have inflicted. The most powerful protest posters I saw during the unrest in Chile featured images of police brutality sanctioned under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and photos of the victims of that brutality. It is unlikely that police rigorously contemplated the stories behind the images, but it was a simple reminder that police tactics had changed little since the return to democracy.

To promote a peaceful resolution to tensions politicians should strike a tone of reconciliation and non-aggression. Leaders should highlight peaceful protests before condemning looting and violence, show understanding for public anger, and challenge police to do better. A somewhat surprising moment occurred in the early days of unrest in Chile when a military leader, now in charge of the national state of emergency, gently pushed back against a statement made by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. In a nationally televised speech the president claimed “We are at war.” A few days later when asked about the speech General Iturriaga said: “…yo soy un hombre feliz y la verdad es que no estoy en guerra con nadie” — “I am a happy man, and the truth is I am at war with no one.” That simple remark spoke volumes and even though public anger did not quickly subside, Iturriaga’s words convinced many people that the military leadership was not looking for a fight.

The state of emergency called during the uprising in Chile was the first time the military was allowed to patrol the streets since the end of the dictatorship. Allowing the military inside cities was a serious and dangerous escalation. President Piñera knew this, but he and his cabinet authorized the state of emergency anyway. Police brutality, now backed by the force of the military, dramatically increased. In response, on October 25th 2019, more than one million Chileans took to the streets in peaceful protests calling for Piñera’s resignation. Three days later the government lifted the state of emergency, eight cabinet members resigned, and the president proposed a national plebiscite to form a new federal constitution. To end the police violence currently gripping the United States all citizens must speak-up, especially when leaders such as the President of the United States and senators call for military involvement.

When people feel comfortable and safe, citizens should join peaceful protests. I encourage people meet and march with local church organizatons and non-partisan groups, especially groups that focus on the specific issues at hand in this moment: the unjust killing of George Floyd, systematic racism in policing, and legislation that allows for and reinforces police violence. The United States should learn from the lessons Chile has had to endure and continues to grapple with, lest we find ourselves in far greater trouble than what we have already created for ourselves.

Finally, a note to the many people that have not been physically harmed by police, i.e. wealthy white people not yet protesting: as an ally to black, brown, and disadvantaged people you should bear witness whenever possible, speak up only when and where it’s appropriate, and most importantly, always, always, always listen. Just because a police officer has not physically hurt you (yet), it does not mean you have not been harmed — an injury to one is an injury to all, no matter what the circumstances.

Be safe, stay strong, and say it: Black Lives Matter.

Exploring the political economy of Education Media and the good, bad & ugly of Education Policy. Currently living & researching in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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