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An Uphill Battle: The Chilean Protests in Summary

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On Oct. 18, widespread protests broke out in Santiago, Chile, over a fare hike of 30 pesos on the metro which raised  the cost of a ticket to about $1.17 USD. When students who took the metro to school began jumping the turnstiles en masse, the local police were helpless against them all. These student protests quickly grew into the months-long protest of huge swaths of the Chilean population that continues to this day, with no clear end in sight.

The issues sparking the protests in Chile are deep-seated. Chile is known as the “birthplace of neoliberalism,” and the seeds of discontent have been growing for decades. However, the extent of the protests was surprising to some.

“Nowadays even my right-winged family is protesting,” a Chilean who goes by Vero said. “Which is honestly a rare sight… when I say right-wing I mean my family used to be Pinochet supporters.”

Every day since October, Chilean protestors have taken to the streets across the nation to show they refuse to back down. The President, Sebastián Piñera, responded by ushering in the military and an early curfew. What began as fare hikes and marches has escalated to mass injury and a slowly creeping death toll.

By Oct. 20, the Chilean government’s official estimates put the death toll at 7. This directly contradicted the countless videos appearing on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook that showed military police, carabineros, shooting civilians. Here’s one such example. And another.

As the death toll  rises and calls for Piñera’s impeachment continue, it begs the question: when does a protest become a revolution?

“I think it happened on Friday, 18th October… when everyone joined in, people started talking with each other,” a protest medic called Franni said. “We realized that our problems went much further than 30 pesos on public transportation fares. At that point, when people started to organize, that’s when it became a revolution.”

Piñera vs. the Internet

The Internet has been a driving force for the Chilean revolution since the protests began. The first marches in Santiago were organized online, allowing discussion past the established curfew. Online communication allows medics to be notified quickly when there’s a patient to attend to—a dire necessity when hospitals are overrun by those with police-inflicted injuries.

Social media has also allowed independent journalists to fact check topics circulating online, whether from Piñera or the protestors themselves. Trusted accounts like fastcheckcl on Instagram respond to trending topics by stating whether they’re true or false, and providing evidence to support it. Accounts like these are often seen as a threat to the Piñera government, as it tries to maintain the appearance of control over the Chilean “rioters.”

Piñera’s narrative is that a simple fare hike led the rowdy public to violence and near anarchy. He and those in his government frequently refer to the protests as “violent” or “riots,” and emphasize “looting” without addressing the underlying issues his people are fighting for. The government has also tried to deny the extent of the injuries from carabineros, which is another reason the internet has been such a boon for protestors.

Protestors can film and immediately publish any encounter with police, any arrest, or any march, which has allowed the protests to take on an entirely different tone to those that may have occurred just twenty years ago. Because of social media, accountability is key. Encounters with police are immediately recorded and uploaded to Twitter or Instagram, where people across the globe download the footage to shared folders on platforms such as Google Drive. These videos directly contradict Piñera’s narrative, as they often show peaceful protestors being shot by carabinero rubber bullets.

“If it wasn’t for social media, the government and the cops might have gotten away with far worse,” Franni stated.

One of the most significant effects of the Internet on the Chilean protests is the exchange of information between the multiple protests occurring globally. Beginning with Hong Kong on March 15, 2019 has seen a sharp uptick in large-scale, sustained protests across the globe. As a result, protestors who use innovative methods to advance their cause are able to spread these tactics to protestors thousands of miles away.

In Hong Kong, protestors discovered that if a traffic cone is placed over a tear gas canister before pouring water mixed with baking soda over the canister, the tear gas is neutralized. Umbrellas could be used to block facial recognition. Laser pointers could break security cameras, force drones to land, and blind carabineros trying to aim at fellow protestors. (An example of lasers taking down a drone.)

Eyes of the Revolution

Violence against protestors by agents of the state runs rampant in Chile. In attempting to suppress what he sees as “a war with a powerful and uncompromising enemy,” Piñera has further villainized himself by allowing the military to have full reign, with few repercussions. As of Nov. 25, the protests had reached an official death toll of 23.

A factor allowing the death toll to remain that low is the use of rubber bullets by carabineros. While this leads to fewer deaths than metal bullets, the violence is indisputable.

Rubber bullets such as these are intended to be shot at the ground, ricocheting towards the target, in order to sting but not severely injure. Carabineros frequently aim directly at protestors.

Even more concerning is the frequency at which protestors are hospitalized due to rubber bullets being shot into their eyes. Blindness or semi-blindness as a result of these tactics  is becoming more common, if the bullet doesn’t enter the victim’s brain and kill them. Patients arrive at hospitals at rates of 12 a day, far exceeding the normal rate of admission for serious injury.

Further adding to the struggle is a limited supply of medical necessities. Medical administrators have refused treatment to protestors, forcing medical professionals willing to treat protestors to do so in secret, with precious little equipment.

Eye injuries are delicate and require intensive care to heal. The few hospitals and makeshift wards that do treat protestors often lack the necessary materials to do so. Many people believe the carabineros are targeting their eyes specifically because of an eye injury’s permanence and difficulty to heal; injured protestors will always be marked.

On to the Future

As the protests march along, it becomes pertinent to ask where this is going. A concrete demand is the resignation of President Piñera. Further demands include the lessening of neoliberal practices such as intense privatization and high taxes on the poor.

Other common demands are a revitalized social security system, equal access to high quality education, policies to fight climate change, independence for indigenous Mapuches, and many more appeals.

The Chilean protestors are not unsure of what their goal is. As it stands now, the situation necessitates a plan forward. Recently, the Chilean government voted not to impeach President Piñera, further alienating the millions of people protesting across the nation.

“[We need] a new constitution, built by the people, to assure that everyone in this country will live with dignity from birth to death,” Franni stated.

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