Reflections on Our Caribbean Punk Rock Protest Chamos

Enough tut-tutting the youngsters on the street taking big risks for ‘La Resistencia.’ The truth is, without their energy and commitment, we have no movement.

Photo credit: Leo Álvarez (@oelzer)

“Do not go gently into that good night
rage, rage against the dying of the light”
Dylan Thomas

I walked down the Francisco de Miranda avenue last Thursday; everything was shut down, not a single car on the street and small groups of people walked here and there. Most were young, dressed as the protest dictates, and three of them stood out, their attire carefully crafted, a combination of creativity and irreverence. One wore a version of a black tuxedo and a white shirt, ragged tennis shoes, a white garden glove on one hand and a huge papier maché African war mask. He had the look of rebellious defiance, a celebration of youth and vigour. A Caribbean punk fighter and performance artist.

These months have been an intense expression of youth subculture. I see them greet each other with joy as they gather around the plaza in a mix of passion, camaraderie, urgency and recklessness. They play with the authority and their lives in a vibe between war and a rock festival.

Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, in his book Blueprint for Revolution, points out that a key to the movement that toppled Milosevic was that “activism doesn’t have to be boring; in fact, it was probably more effective in the form of a cool punk show than as a stodgy demonstration… Our little demonstrations were the hottest parties in town; if you weren’t there, you might as well have kissed your social life goodbye.”

Videos of youngsters calling themselves La Resistencia have appeared on social media, defying both the government and the opposition. It’s controversial stuff. Some have fought to transcend bureaucratic and political channels, others worry about anarchy, as different anonymous actors perform the protest as they see fit. There’s no agenda or centralized direction, and this invites confusion. As the groups decide on the go what the protest of the next day will be, people wonder if what they’re doing is reasonable, if it serves a strategic purpose, or it’s all self-expression for the angry. People have been trapped in their own homes, shops have been vandalized and yes, lynchings have occurred.

Our little demonstrations were the hottest parties in town; if you weren’t there, you might as well have kissed your social life goodbye.

When you ask them what they believe they’re achieving by fighting the National Guard with rocks, the chamos answer along the lines of “we want to show them that yo no me la voy a calar.” They are not going to take it.

You may bully me, you may beat me, you may intimidate me or jail me, or kill my friends. But I will not bow my head.”

They have a right to be enraged and they are a force to be reckoned with. The problem is that a political protest is not a temper tantrum. The derecho a pataleo may not be a human right, but it’s a Venezuelan one, the only we have left. Also, youth is a strength, but it lacks foresight. Adulthood ought to be a counterbalance, the site of deliberation and strategy. In the midst of the struggle, furious youngsters confuse cunning with cowardice. One can understand youthful rage, but are these expressions effective in the long run?

Many political analysts and strategists, like Colette Capriles are outraged by chaotic independent protests, defying agreed-upon actions and timeframes. Many of these actions are clearly self-defeating, often dumb. The club of middle-aged doñas, mixed with over-exercised bodybuilders and rioting teenagers chanting about liberty while closing down the street people use to get to a hospital is one of the most unlovely sides of La Resistencia. They put at risk the cause they are fighting for.

Still, I believe this wild array of shield-carrying, rock-throwing, scarf-wearing punk teens, disoriented with rage, have something important to say. They fear that political leaders will back down, capitulate, negotiate away this wave of protests. They seem to be demanding us all to not go gently into the night. Obnoxious and simplistic, they nurture the spirit that will be needed to resist the new levels of authoritarianism we may soon be facing. The opposition needs to channel this energy into something new if adult leaders are really to be leaders, and to demonstrate the capacity to listen as well as transform.