So You Think You Want a Revolution...
Thu Dec 20, 2001 6:15 pm: I’m ashamed of what I did this afternoon. I’ve heard that when the Mexican Revolution began, a bunch of people in El Paso impulsively ran across the border and joined in. Several people have emailed and given support and good wishes, which is very kind, but I’m afraid it’s wasted on someone who puts himself at risk for no reason… which is exactly what I did this afternoon. Whether it was boredom, bravado, or just because it was too noisy and hot to take a nap in this old apartment, I went against everyone’s advice, and decided to walk around BA and find out what was happening. I was going to take the subway, pop up, and then escape back home if it was too dangerous. But, the subte was barricaded, so I ended up walking from Independencia up Entre Rios, to Congreso, then into the center of town past the Obelisco, and down Diagonal Saenz Pena to within one block of Plaza de Mayo. After that, I began running, became disoriented, and I ended up back on Av. de Mayo, which was a bad place to be. I then went west to Nueve de Julio thinking I was getting out of it, and it got worse. It is the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life. I thought for several hours before deciding to write this, but I did what I did... so here it is. I'll write about it in the present tense because it’s easier:
Everything seems normal on the street as I approach the Congress building at Hipolito Yrigoyen & Combate de los Pozos, but it changes fast. There is a police roadblock two blocks south of the Congreso, but I see a few other people are able to pass when the police aren’t looking, so I wait and I'm able to slip by also. People approaching me from the other direction look like they are crying. In my naiveté I think it’s because they are upset. Next I see something a little scary. Muscular men in civilian clothes are piling out of private cars along the curb where I walk, and they're putting on flack jackets, and taking shotguns and automatic rifles out of the trunks of their cars. They are obviously soldiers or police of some kind, and the fact that they are dressed in jeans and t-shirts somehow makes them even more intimidating. They ignore me as I walk by, and I walk right up to the corner across from the Congress.
The teargas is strong here and I realize why I thought people were crying. I turn right, which is upwind, to get away from the gas, and I head east along the south side of Plaza Congreso. I hang out here, but I’m in the open and very exposed, so I decide to move across into the plaza and sit on a bench facing the Congress a block away to see what happens. There are demonstrators in groups on the corners, and I am facing a very large contingent of riot police surrounding the building. Sidewalk tiles have been pulled up to make projectiles. Fires are burning in the streets, and they smell horrible—there is no wood here, just garbage and plastic garbage containers to burn. There are only a few benches in the park because people have put them in the street to use as barricades. I'm in a somewhat precarious spot, but I try to maintain a low profile and see what will happen, because there are a couple of other people sitting around in the plaza as well. There is the incongruous sight of some businessmen in suits and briefcases, and even a few families hurrying across the plaza with children. After a few minutes there are two explosions at the northeast corner of the building, and people begin to run along Rivadavia which borders the north side of the plaza, about 100 feet from me. Then, about five motorcycles, with two policemen in riot gear on each rush along Rivadavia past me chasing the people. The people scatter, and I think the cops riding shotgun on the back may be firing teargas or rubber bullets, but my head is down and I can’t see. I start to run south to get away, but I quickly change my mind when they stop chasing the people, and turn right, to pass behind me. I am now in the position of having a large army of riot police in front of me, and the motorcycle police behind me. I feel very cut off and exposed, but if I continue to run south, I’ll be running parallel to motorcycles, and then into them if they turn back to the Congress, (which is exactly what they do). So I casually return to my bench, and try to be invisible.
A few minutes later there are two very loud explosions at the southeast corner of the building, where I had just passed about 15 minutes before. All of the thousands of pigeons in the park take off together in a huge flock. There is some smoke from the explosions, so I decide it’s time to leave. I move north on Montevideo (the street signs are torn down, but I looked it up on the map after), and I pass a very large guy standing in the middle of the intersection. There is debris everywhere, and for some reason he is holding the wheel of a car. He glares at me furiously, like he wants to heave it at me. Then things settle a little as I approach Corrientes. There are lots of working people here, and I think they're trapped because there are no taxis, and the subte is down, but there are some buses that are packed, and some private cars stalled in traffic. I see people going down into the subway entrances and pleading with the people behind the metal doors to let them in. I have to be careful because the always-dangerous BA traffic is even worse because everyone is so worked up.
I walk east on Corrientes to the Obelisco at the center of town. There are now more demonstrators than office workers trying escape. I cross Nueve de Julio and look down Diagonal Saenz Pena, towards the Casa Rosada. It is a sight I’ll never forget. The street disappears into dirty ugly gray smoke about three blocks down, and it is filled with people moving towards me like a retreating army. There are banners, and I remember seeing one from the Socialists, and a huge red Communist one. The subway stop at Suipacha by Confiteria Ideal has so much smoke and gas that I can hardly breathe, but I continue on anyway. I'm heading towards the Plaza de Mayo, and the Casa Rosada, the center of their government, but everyone else is walking past me in the opposite direction. I'm able to go three more blocks, but I'm coughing a lot. Now there are only hard-core demonstrators or desperate poor people. I don’t know who they are, but there are no middle class office-workers, just hard looking people, many without shirts. It’s hot and muggy, and most have shirts wrapped around their faces and over their heads. I see a shirtless guy with his face covered attacking the Banco Rio bank at Esmeralda, which has iron shutters. First he breaks the plastic sign over the sidewalk with a long board, setting off the alarms. As I move across the street to pass and avoid him, he picks up chunks of concrete, and begins throwing, breaking out the windows on the upper floors. As I walk I pass groups of people, and then there are places where there is no one. I’m completely alone on the wide debris strewn street- by myself, in the middle of one of the busiest, most densely populated places in the world on a weekday afternoon. It makes me nervous, and I keep thinking I need to turn back- but also it seems like history is being made, so I keep going, wanting to see what's happening in the Plaza de Mayo.
Then it gets even worse. A guy appears out of the smoke with a bowling ball sized chunk of concrete. He runs towards some glass windows in front of me, and smashes it against the strong glass. Incredibly, it bounces off- and I run into the street to avoid it. The smoke is terrible, and I hold my T-shirt up over my face. I’ve had enough, I’m less than a block from Plaza de Mayo, but I can go no further. The smoke is thick, and the only people are crazed looking guys with tattoos, either standing in groups, or smashing at the front of the buildings, their faces wrapped. Chunks of concrete are bouncing off the upper floors of the buildings as they aim for unprotected windows up high. I’m afraid I’m going to get hit as they ricochet around the street. The whole time I feel absolutely no fear from these people. I feel close to them, and they seem like brothers in a strange way. They are very angry, but not at me. There is a helicopter circling overhead (which is unusual, because you normally don't see them in BA). I turn south, wanting to get away. This moves me toward Ave. de Mayo again, but it is a mistake because I see more rocks flying there (I think I was on Maipu). The street here is narrower, and everything is torn up. There are barricades at each corner with fires smoldering. There are no vehicles of any kind, but then I see a truck pulled up on the sidewalk. I stupidly think the men must be working on something as I elbow my way through them- but after I pass I realize they are looters who have been able to break into the front of one of the buildings. But how will they ever be able to get the truck out of these streets after they load it?
Now I'm in a place that is virtually deserted, and it feels very claustrophobic. There's no place to run, and it is still very difficult to breath. I start to panic a little, and on one narrow street a frightened woman runs past me (I think she has just escaped from one of the besieged buildings), and then a larger group runs by, looking back over their shoulders. A man runs into me, says "disculpe", and says something about "rompian todo" (“they break everything”). I look back. I can’t see anything, but suddenly I begin to run, turning corners, and becoming disoriented. Finally, I see Avenida 9 de Julio to the west and jog toward it because it’s open space, and it’s away from the Casa Rosada, where I think the worst is. I intersect it somewhere around Rivadavia, south of the Obelisco. The scene looks like some sort of medieval battlefield, with bands of people roaming and running on the far side of the avenue, and I seem to be almost alone on the east side. I think there are also groups of mounted police, and armored vehicles. They say Nueve de Julio is the widest avenue in the world, and I don’t want to cross that wide-open space alone- but suddenly I really want to get home, and there's no way I can go back into those narrow smoke filled streets to the east.
So I take a deep breath, and walk quickly across to the other side. I don’t like being out in the open exposed, and it seems to take forever, but I make it. Then, just as I arrive at what I feel is the safety of the crowd on the other side, there is a popping, hissing sound. The police must be very close, because a smoking missile goes up from a side street, and arcs overhead. Everyone tries to run north along the west side of 9 de Julio (Lima Cerrito), but people are tripping and falling. The thing lands very close and explodes, and we are in gas. There is burning deep into my lungs, and I can’t see. My face feels like it’s on fire, like a very bad sunburn. There is water squirting from a broken pipe on the grass of the wide avenue, and a those of us hit by the missile run to it and fall on our knees, taking turns splashing water into our eyes and faces. I am scrambling around with about ten or fifteen people. Our skin is on fire, and we are on our hands and knees, trying to get at the water. I can see legs running past us. When I can I splash water all over my head and face, but the gas is still very strong. A bunch of us begin to run again, struggling to the north, hardly able to see. I think police are moving somewhere, because the crowd is moving, but I can’t see them. I finally turn west onto a side street, and it is more or less over. I’m not the only one who’s had enough, because a lot of the people with me are young shirtless people, coughing and crying from the gas, and moving away to what appears to be a safer area—the streets to the west, away from Av. Julio and Casa Rosada. I walk the several miles back home shaken, giving the Congreso area a wide berth. I look down the toward the Congress building as I cross Av. Mayo, however, and I see a lot of smoke. It’s still not safe, but it’s much better than what I was in. I pass several large groups of police, but I don’t look at them.
I guess part of the reason I went out is to report what I saw, but now I feel very foolish about it. I’ve always made fun of Geraldo Rivera, but at least he gets paid to do what he does. When I got home, Renee was leaving for the airport. Malena was going to take her, but we decided to hire a car because it was too dangerous. Ricardo Vidort came by to check on us. He told me he was unable to get home in the taxi last night, and had to stay at a friend’s house. He said he would accompany her to the airport to protect her. After she left, Malena fell apart and couldn't stop crying. She hasn't been sleeping well for several weeks because of all this, and Renee was like her sister. She talks tough, but now that she feels her country falling apart it’s too much. I walked down the block to pick up the laundry, and told the man where I had been. He says, "You have seen a revolution."
How do I feel? Stupid for what I did, but very glad to be safe at home. I love Buenos Aires and the people down here. I feel very, very close to all of them. There has not been one mean thing said or done to me since I got here. They have only accepted us, and taken care of us. An Argentine read some of these reports and emailed to say they were ashamed about what I am seeing down here. My answer is that these are terrible problems you're dealing with. I can’t begin to understand them, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. I have been told that quite a few people died today. I don’t know if it’s true, but my heart is with Argentina. I don’t think there will be any more tango on this trip.