The Tear Gas and the Glory
As I rushed the dictatorship’s goons, surrounded by a swarm of fellow protesters, I suddenly realized: this is exhilarating.
When I reached Avenida Francisco de Miranda, Capriles was already speaking. His voice —amplified by invisible speakers— seemed placed above us, directing the meeting to the Ombudsman’s Office. For this eighteen-year-old opera, this was new. He was telling us to take the fight not to some secluded spot in the city, but to one of the seats of government.
If you block your street, Diosdado will laugh as he stirs his scotch with his pinky. But if you march right to where he is, you challenge the infrastructure of power.
So, minutes after Capriles’s speech, María Corina, Pizarro, Ocariz and Capriles himself are walking right next to us. Watching them, people cheer and get hectic. They’re embraced by a halo of celebrity that still makes a deep impression on us. The vibe is very civil, similar to the one on September the 1st. People walk, sing, smile, take pictures. You forget what you’re doing, where you’re going, what’s about to happen. It feels normal.
As soon as we get to Libertador avenue, we meet the goons.
If you stand on a bench or climb on a fence, you can see the sea of people, and if you stay there for a while, you notice the tide never seems to ebb. Lots of folks, but this is a strictly civilian gathering; a lot of women, young and old. No kids or pets on my front, thanks Jesus, but quite a bit of older people, in all shapes and colors. This is not the type of crowd who will froth at the mouth and charge at the enemy, particularly one that’s better equipped for a fight.
As soon as we get to Libertador avenue, we meet the goons. I’d tell you it’s just like you see on TV, except TV hasn’t shown a single image of protest all week. So let’s adjust: It’s just like you see on the web. They go into formation, shields up, a human barrier in riot gear, little white tanks on each side and, even with all the distance in between, you can already feel that itch inside your throat.
This party began way before I arrived. A tear gas cannister leaves a trail of white smoke like the ink of a fleeing octopus, only that when it reaches the floor, the ink becomes a cloud. The stakes are raised and, even though the agents of dictatorship are standing right ahead, everyone keeps walking.
So you walk with them.
I won’t lie, some people do stay behind, but there’s no lack of front-liners. Voices are raised, paper masks are handed out, white faces begin to show up. The younger ones take off their shirts, turn them into hoods and pick up rocks, the classic tool of the Venezuelan protesters to defend themselves against repression.
That we were going to meet violence was a known fact. What we didn’t know was the shape of that violence, or its scale.
One of the most personal choices you can make in Venezuela is to go out and protest. It’s as personal as taking up a new career, marrying or having a kid. It shouldn’t be like that. It should just be a civil right, like any other, performed in peace and quiet, as it was before 2002, when we found chavismo could shoot at us and get away with it.
That we were going to meet violence was a known fact. What we didn’t know was the shape of that violence, or its scale. Tear gas? Will they fire plastic pellets at us (and if they do, would it be to the face)? Will they hit us with their batons or cut to the chase and open fire with their guns?
Other questions come to mind. If push comes to shove, where do I run to? Who’s walking beside me? What do I do if I get arrested?
You tell yourself that you’ll be sharp, eyes open, fully vigilant; and that’s how you’re going to avoid the cuffs. But I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what all the poor fucks arrested in eighteen years of chavismo thought, too.
Protesting in Venezuela means taking a step forward and putting your life on the line. A measured bet in some ways, but this country is nothing if not unpredictable. That’s why I don’t think you can force someone else to go out and fight. Life is precious; safeguarding it, to me, is not selfish at all.
My reasons, like yours, are purely mine. I don’t want to be a keyboard warrior, I don’t want to talk the talk and be afraid to walk the walk. I’m a punk-loving liberal and I want to live according to my ideals –and watching all other folks facing down the dictatorship through a screen felt wrong somehow.
Walking on Saturday, April 8, surrounded by a swarm of protesters, I could understand what has encouraged men, since the dawn of time, to volunteer for war. Sucks ass, it’s dangerous, but the cost of not doing it feels higher than the cost of risking it. We crossed “the line of departure”, a military term for the imaginary line beyond which a unit is committed to an attack.
Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
So when the actual soldiers engage us (why? we’re just walking), we all have the choice to turn around and go home. It’s the easiest thing to do —actually, staying home is easier—, but if you’re like me, the same drive that brought you here tells you that we’re not going back until we accomplish something. You don’t want to be that pussy who ran off as soon as the creeps came on. You’re not alone: shouts of “Resistance!” and “Keep advancing!” ring out all around and what you saw on the internet, the famous “we’re all through with fear” turns into an actual, physical thing that you can touch with your hand.
When a tear gas rifle is shot, it booms.
Protests in Venezuela reek of vinegar and shout with a woman’s voice. You hurry to the front (just not too much on the front, since you never forget that the thugs might shoot live ammo) and the scene gets frantic.
When a tear gas rifle is shot, it booms. If you’ve never heard an actual gunshot (this one is more deaf, dryer), you might confuse it with the real thing and that is scary —because it’s absolutely possible; the 2014 round of protest was quelled with gunfire. Panic and the sight of scared faces falling back is contagious, it reaches the self-preservation instinct nested deep in your guts. Just like we are testing the waters, so are the gorillas, aiming the canisters not to your vicinity, but right to the mass of protesters. People run.
Chlorobenzalmalononitrile, better known as “tear gas”, is accepted everywhere as a “less lethal” weapon for crowd control, the key word is “less”, because given the right circumstances (pregnant women, closed spaces, children, people with breathing problems), it will choke you.
Brave and tired as we are, we’re civilians. Nobody told those old ladies what to do when the going gets rough, we have no manual on how to fight trained forces. It is my very personal belief that standing your ground in the face of this lunacy is something that either you have, or you don’t.
Being totally honest, it’s also pretty exhilarating. This is what you would never admit to friends and family. You don’t want them to think you’re some sort of maniac anarchist. The truth is, everything seems clearer, you hear better, you want to fight the armored bastards and you feel like this is some sort of ballet where consequences don’t really apply. I don’t know why.
You have to remind yourself that you’re not made of steel, that this is the real deal.
I’ve read books on war, theories on the appeal of fighting and Pérez Reverte’s magnificent works on the Siege of Sarajevo. I obviously learned nothing. It’s hard to describe the empowerment you feel when you’re calling them “motherfuckers” right to their faces and they can hear you.
The police helicopter makes another round above us and the crowd greets it with middle fingers. You have to remind yourself that you’re not made of steel, that this is the real deal, but the younger ones, those kids crying “U-U-UCV!” not only walk to the front, they charge it.
People retreat and the course of action blurs. Some shout that we must head to the highway (where —though we didn’t know it at the time— another battle was raging.) Others just flee and some of them have completely red faces underneath the white tincture —either this is what old CS gas does to you, or that anti-acid you’re applying is no good.
A lot of people stay, they raise their hands, “Don’t flee! Resistance!”. And you see the type of things no other experience can show you, the volunteers in white helmets putting their gas-masks on and rescuing the wounded, shirtless men standing on clear patches fighting an invisible Maduro, and those who, in the middle of it all, sit on the floor to check on their phones.
It’s true that we need everyone who went and everyone who didn’t go, but we also need a new strategy, a course of action for the fierce repression that we’ll certainly meet. A clear goal. Because when you’re on the front line, you don’t see the bigger picture. You assume you’re winning because you keep moving forward. The carómetro becomes your compass.
“Men,” Marx wrote, “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” The asshole was right. Make no mistake, chavismo ate my generation. It took our dreams, our hopes for a normal life, and subjected it to crime, to sickness, to escalating humiliation and the loss of our basic dignity. It tainted the image we had of ourselves; it expelled us from our home land. We’re not fighting it “as we please”, we fight it because we must. A declaration of principle. We refuse to be intimidated, we refuse to just stand and watch. This is the spirit of the times we’ve been called on to live, a spirit that will mark the end of the nightmare.
But not unless we make it happen.
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