By FREDERICO QUILODRAN -- The Associated Press
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chilean police used water cannons and tear gas to break up a student march for free public education on Thursday, hours after protesters' talks with the government collapsed.
A huge deployment of riot police surrounded students in the Plaza Italia, Santiago's traditional gathering place, where student leader Camila Vallejo tried to lead the march while holding a sign saying "United and Stronger," only to be pummeled by water cannons and forced to retreat by tear gas.
Protesters hurled rocks at police and set blockades ablaze in the streets as officers on horseback chased students onto nearby campuses. Vallejo said officers shot tear gas into their student government offices in "a direct attack against our organization."
Students occupied the Alameda, one of Santiago's main avenues, by dancing in large numbers, but were blasted with water from police. Small groups managed to elude officers and approach the presidential palace before being beaten back by police.
The regional governor, Cecilia Perez, said 28 people were arrested by mid-afternoon, and that six officers and two civilians were injured. At least a half-dozen journalists also were arrested. She called this "lamentable" and said their arrests would be investigated.
Thursday's march was the 37th weekly protest since the movement against Chile's largely privatized education system in began in April, demanding more spending and higher taxes on the wealthy so that quality public education can be free for all.
With both sides accusing the other of intransigence, Chile's government has focused on criminalizing the protests, proposing tough new penalities including up to three years in prison for occupying schools and other public places.
Vallejo called the police crackdown unprecedented, even for a movement that for five months has seen initially peaceful mass marches dissolve into isolated but violent confrontations between hooded demonstrators and helmeted, baton-wielding police.
"We're sure that we represent the great majority of Chileans," Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said Thursday as he defended the government plan to penalize the peaceful occupation of schools and other places, and enable police to demand images taken by photographers and camera crews without a judicial warrant.
Reporters Without Borders, among other journalism groups, condemned the proposal as an attack on freedom of expression.
Polls show 89 percent of Chileans support the students' call for reform, and only 22 percent support President Sebastian Pinera's performance. The president finally agreed to let the students sit down with his education minister, Felipe Bulnes, to discuss their core complaint: that private institutions benefit from public funding while public institutions are starved for resources.
But Pinera, who has said that "nothing in life is free," ceded no ground, and the talks quickly broke down Wednesday night.
Bulnes said the protesters' proposal was regressive and would mean "that the poor subsidize the education of the richest."
"Neither do we want the poorest to finance the richest, but that the richest finance the poor and middle class. How? Through tax reform," Vallejo countered.
The government has proposed increasing scholarships for the poorest Chileans, but Vallejo said that won't solve this as long as taxpayer money flows unequally to profit-making institutions.
A demonstrator argues with riot police during student protest in Santiago, Chile, Thursday Oct. 6, 2011. Chilean police severely cracked down Thursday on thousands of students who tried to gather in an unauthorized march for education reform hours after talks with the government broke down. Thursday's march was the 37th weekly protest against President Sebastian Pinera's government since high school and university students began rebelling against Chile's largely privatized education system in April, a movement that swelled as teachers, parents, union members and center-left politicians joined their ranks. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)
Police uses a water canon against a demonstrator during a student demonstration in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)
Demonstrators challenge riot police officers outside the 'Universidad de Chile' in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
A demonstrator throws a stone to riot police during a demonstration in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
A riot police officer fires tear gas canisters at student demonstrators in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
A riot police officer walks past a burning barricade during a student demonstration in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)