It’d been an epic back and forth between protesters and the security forces that day. From a distance, the sight was almost graceful: a symphony of tear gas canisters being volleyed every which way, the long, curly tails of their fumes spiraling elegantly against El Ávila’s silent gaze.
For going on six hours, the warm mid-day Caracas sun, bands of macaws and a gentle western breeze were accomplices to this choreography: with every round of tear gas, the men in green advanced, the mass of demonstrators retreated, and minutes later it would reverse, ebbing and flowing in a slow-motion dance of repression along the highway.
From up close, the scene was a lot less pleasant. When you’re enveloped in a cloud of tear gas, you’re reduced to your most basic functions: grunting, coughing, gagging, heaving, spewing bodily secretions on all fours into a white fog of acrid sting. You desperately want to gasp for a breath of air while needing to violently vomit phlegm and choking on your own spit as a result. Your throat is stunned and your eyes are on fire and tears burn little scorching paths of pain along your sweaty cheeks.
The secret to getting over the obnoxious tear gas spell is to just calm the fuck down. Which is easier said than done. The more you fight it, the worse it gets.
So that’s where I was, on April 6, 2017: crouching by the Rio Guaire, waiting out the fourth goddamned tear-gas episode I’d been incapacitated by that day.
When it finally cleared, I looked up from the asphalt and squinted, only to find out I was all alone. I’d been left behind by the mass of retreating protesters, who were now a muddle of colorful specks in the distance, separated from me by a vast expanse of highway and tear gas. Still half-dazed, I began to woozily strategize just how I would find my way back to the march. But before I could do much at all, I was engulfed by the repressors, who’d been steadily advancing behind me in formation while I composed myself.
…With every round of tear gas, the men in green advanced, the mass of demonstrators retreated, and minutes later it would reverse…
I figured joining their vanguard was the least bad of all my options, since the other two involved either jumping into the Guaire or braving flying rocks with no helmet on. After all, their job is, technically, to protect me. So I weaved myself alongside the infantry, until I was flanked by tanks and water cannons, prancing right next to soldiers in full riot gear, who were too concentrated on walking and shooting at protesters in the distance to notice they had one right in their midst.
As long as I was there, I tried to ask a couple of the guys why they were trying to harm us. They would immediately avert their eyes. I don’t think they’re quite used to interacting with their victims. It wasn’t very long until the Major in charge screamed at me to leave, to which I replied that I couldn’t, since I really had nowhere to go. He ordered his men to apprehend me and take me away.
That’s when photojournalist Horacio Siciliano took the picture at the top of this post, and in doing so, saved me from God knows what. The Major was so bothered by the thought of his repression being documented that he abruptly ordered his men to let me go, and then asked me, in a not-so-very-nice-way, to scamper off.
I’ve never met Horacio, nor do I know what he looks like without his tear gas mask and helmet. We didn’t even interact that day. It was a tiny moment, but one that brought home to me the power of a journalist. Of journalism. The knowledge that you are being watched changes the way power behaves. Nobody has to tell me about it, I lived it. If it hadn’t been for Horacio, I might still be in some godforsaken dungeon today.
So on this Día del Periodista, I salute Horacio, and all the other journalists who keep us safe – or, well, safer – just by showing up. It’s easy to lose sight of your power. But after that day on the highway, I never will.