Published May 30, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela – When Caracas woke up this morning, it had a bad hangover.
Plaza Brion — one of the central commercial squares in the city — was covered in garbage from the chaos of the day before when a massive student protest took over the square. Shops and restaurants were closed, with metal grates covering their storefronts and the municipal police station in the middle of the plaza was abandoned. People going to work and some young children going to school looked either straight ahead or at their feet.
We arrived at Plaza Brion a little before 8 a.m. to prepare for the day's live shots. Our fixer bought us empanadas and water as we set up cameras and computers and settled in to what the day before had been such a "clutch" location.
Of course, if there is anything certain that I have learned about live news, it's that nothing is certain. And as much as we producers would love to have a time, place and exact "TRT" (total running time) for absolutely everything, it isn't exactly student demonstration protocol. It suffices to say: Yesterday's live location just wasn't going to cut it today.
After a couple of live shots, we saw action further ahead of us at the entrance of the plaza and gathered our gear. It took our five-person crew plus two new Venezuelan friends to take all of our equipment to the next spot. But the pay-off was excellent, as we anchored ourselves in the center of the action.
High school and university students by the thousands began marching up the main avenue leading to the plaza, waving flags and banners, much in the same way they had the day before. Co-eds with the initials of their colleges written on their arms cheered and sang and chanted to bring back RCTV – the closed television station that sparked waves of protests all across Venezuela Sunday night.
At the entrance to Plaza Brion, the crowd was met my hundreds of more students coming from all directions, and soon one could see only faces stretching all the way to the horizon.
As I walked with a camera to capture the students around me, a leaf of white paper landed at my feet. Then another, and another, and then several more. I looked up and saw dozens of people leaning out the windows of the high-rise that overlooked the plaza tossing white paper down to the crowd below. After a few minutes, I noticed that several more buildings were following suit, and soon it looked like giant snowflakes were falling over the whole neighborhood. It was professors, nurses, doctors, businesspeople and others demonstrating their support for the students brave enough to speak out for freedom of expression — once a foregone conclusion, now an uncertainty.
For the rest of the day, our crew hustled to keep up with the action. In the next 8 hours we would move 6 times around Caracas, our drivers shaking their heads when we told them where we wanted to go. It is a reaction I get every time I cover a hurricane: Normal people ask "How can I get out of here?" while news crews ask "What's the fastest route to the center of the mayhem?"
By evening, we had made our way back to the main avenue where we had been earlier. When we were there before, there had been few police, and those that were there kept a quiet distance. However, 5:00 p.m. was the witching hour, after which time the students no longer had a legal right to be demonstrating in that street. State police in full riot gear were now joined by national troops and faced off with the students in the middle of the avenue. Only about 40 yards separated them.
Undeterred, the students held their positions. Mostly, they were peaceful, as they had promised they would be. However every once in a while, a few people in the crowd would throw rocks and small pipes at the police. This of course incited more violence as police hunkered down behind their riot shields and fired off multiple rounds of rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Still, the students came back and continued to chant. And then the dance between the two sides would begin again.
Towards the end of the evening, after our live shot camera and our back-up camera had both broke, we were setting up to do phoners (reports over the phone relying on video from our headquarters) when two co-eds, a young man and a young woman, broke the student line. They walked with arms up, in a posture of surrender, to one of the police officers and told him they did not want violence, and that they were trying simply to lead a peaceful demonstration. The officer seemed to listen calmly and explained that they were content to let them stand and demonstrate peacefully, but as soon as the students became violent, the police would have to respond in kind. It sounded like the kind of moral lesson that very young children learn: Don't hit first, but you may defend yourself by hitting back.
Earlier in the day, President Hugo Chavez called a "cadena," taking over the airwaves of all of Venezuela's television stations to give a speech. In this one he warned his critics that they should "tranquilize" themselves, because if they did not, he would do it for them.
It remains to be seen who will be the one to hit first.
Nora Zimmett is a FOX News producer.