SANTIAGO – In the context of recent Chilean riots, Yellow Vests formed a group with the self-imposed mission of protecting public and private property from arson, looting, and vandalism. Yellow Vests, however, are increasingly becoming as violent as some of the destructive rioters they seek to thwart. Today, Yellow Vest John Cobin was the first to face preventive detention after he shot a protester during a peaceful demonstration in Reñaca.
An incident involving an American migrant with a yellow vest has added controversy to the Yellow Vest movement. After shooting a man in a peaceful protest in Reñaca, the “anti-violence” group is once again at the eye of the storm.
The Yellow Vests movement has evolved in the context of the protests rocking Chile. Initially, it primarily consisted of small groups of residents who had banded together to guard and protect their neighborhoods, most commonly in higher class sections in Santiago.
Others formed small brigades in public places, dedicated to cleaning the streets after protests and defending public spaces and private property against vandals and looters.
Yellow Vests, therefore, were often seen protecting and cleaning up their neighborhoods and commercial districts. There was also generally a tacit assumption that they sympathized with the protests but that they drew the line at vandalism and looting that affected their homes and their neighborhoods.
More recently, however, they have been accused of threatening the protesters themselves, chasing them away, and, in more extreme cases, physically attacking them.
As a result, despite their original good intentions, Yellow Vests have come to represent hate and complacency for many in the social movement. John Cobin only further exacerbated tensions between protesters and Yellow Vests when he jumped into the fray with a handgun.
— Carlos Aravena (@camconquistador) November 11, 2019
The John Cobin Case
On Oct. 10, residents in and around Reñaca organized a peaceful protest at the beach. The protest was called “Los Flaites para Reñaca”. The term “flaite” is Chilean slang for a person of low socio-economic background, usually depicted as vulgar and uneducated.
The march, which referred to this demographic, was to defy the implicit segregation of that part of Reñaca, a place known for its upper-class visitors and residents. By noon, the protest had gathered hundreds of people.
At 3 p.m., chaos ensued when John Cobin pulled over, got out of his car, and started shooting at protesters, causing a panic in the crowd.
As reported by BioBioChile, Cobin shot a man in the leg. Soon after, John Cobin was arrested and the victim was quickly taken to Gustavo Frickle Hospital.
According to El Dínamo, Cobin, originally an American citizen, and self-described “most neoliberal person in Chile,” has resided here since 1996 and was indeed part of the Yellow Vest movement and was wearing the characteristic garment during the incident.
Before Cobin was taken in and turned over to authorities, the Investigations Police (PDI) apparently allowed him to post a YouTube video explaining himself. In the video, he apparently sat at his computer, with a rifle in the background, telling his side of the story, and even taking a few questions before signing off. (Transcript under the video).
|Good afternoon, everybody, uh, John Cobin here, the voice, uh, lib-libertarian.
I’m just making a quick recording here and some people may be missing it, but I thought I’d quickly do this. I have, uh, the PDI police in my house here and they are arresting me for the evening. So people should understand what’s going on, I thought they’d allow me to make a quick call to my son and also to you. My son wasn’t available, so hopefully he’ll be able to see this later, too.
Uh, basically I just wanted to let you know what happened, that I was in fear for my life today when I went down to the gun range to shoot the gun I legally hold with a transporting license that I legally have in Chile, and when I was going into downtown Reñaca I swung by the beach, and, as I did so, my car was surrounded by a mob of people, and they started shaking the car when I drove through them carefully. I didn’t go fast or run anybody over, but I wasn’t gonna stay and let them do something to my truck, my pickup truck.
And when I did that they began banging it and attacking it, and so in order to defend myself, I rolled–you know I took, uh, took my gun out and loaded it. It was not loaded before. And I had to load it and prepare myself for, uh, being assaulted. And there were many of them at the beach.
I don’t remember all the circumstances exactly, but I had to–to actually fire two shots at first before they all started coming running around me after me and which I had to stop again and shoot twice again. I accidentally apparently hit somebody in the thigh, a man, I don’t know who that is.
Now the police are telling me I have to be in fear for my own life, that my family– that they found my house, and that there–the phone’s been ringing off the hook.
So we ask for your prayers and also, uh, any help you might have. I’ve been on the phone with Hermógenes Pérez de Arce, who’s my lawyer, as well as others and these lawyers can ha–hopefully give a hand to help in this situation, uh even—’cause I did not do anything wrong. I legally had the right to carry that–that gun with me. And I was in my car and they attacked me while I was in my car. I loaded the gun after that. I was in fear for my life, being attacked by a violent mob and so shooting four times apparently there was an innocent victim who was struck in the thigh, and that’s the main reason that I have to go to uh, the, the police station now.
So I don’t know how long they’re going to give me to talk on the line here, and I’m preferring to speak in English just because I’m not sure that everyone else in the room here understands that language, so I hope that some of you can make this report known to others in Spanish and that way people can be a–assured.
My truck, the side was banged in by them, they completely broke out the passenger side window. Again it was very dangerous, uh, very–very scary time for me. Thankfully, I had my gun to be able to defend myself and was able–by pulling out a second time and shooting–I was able to scare them off away before I could get back in the car fast enough and drive away and get out of harm’s way.
I’ve done all that. I just wanted to make sure you were all aware of that. And I hope you can spread the message to other people. I will leave this reportage here.
[Cobin then closed by asking viewers to get in touch with certain people “from the party” who knew how to make the recording “sound off again,” and then interacted with several viewers.]
Evidence is still being gathered, but the initial videos circulating on social media suggest Cobin and his truck did not face any danger until after he started shooting. Given the number of people themselves making videos in the available videos, it is expected that more videos will surface and become part of the evidence in the case.
AHORA VIÑA DEL MAR: "Chaleco amarillo" dispara contra la multitud en Reñaca. Hay un herido pic.twitter.com/RYUnltiSSa
— Sitio del Suceso (@sitiodelsuceso) November 10, 2019
Valparaíso Governor Jorge Martínez condemned Cobin’s actions: “In the name of the government and the police, we absolutely reject any form of violence, no matter its source,” he told El Dínamo.
Cobin was sentenced to preventive detention pending further investigation and trial.
The Order, the Violence, and the Controversy
After the initial riots and looting the weekend of Oct. 18, protesters asked others not to lose focus of the “real” social and political violence they are fighting against, or compare it to “mere material destruction,” especially when it can end with Yellow Vests attacking protesters.
On Oct. 21, Emol gathered several opinions from different protesters, who call the Yellow Vest movement a sign of collective paranoia. “Now they want to put the people against people. … Yellow Vests, do not be fooled, no one is looting houses. … After the earthquake in Concepción, it was the same, but no one broke into anyone’s house. Everyone thought citizens would attack, they thought the same. Don’t fall for the people versus people [discourse], please!”, they implored.
While protesters and Yellow Vests have for the most part coexisted peacefully and sympathized with one another, patience on both sides begins to ebb as protests continue and lead to violent offshoots like vandalism and looting, and there is fear on both sides that one will inadvertently stoke the aggression of the other.
Even before last weekend’s incident involving John Cobin, civilians using firearms for protection was already being circulated last week, after Providencia’s Mayor, Evelyn Matthei, referred to such measures while wearing a yellow vest herself and directing traffic.
Barrio Poniente Merchant Union president Alejandro Akid spoke once about the issue, too. “[W]e will have to [do things] we don’t want to do, like arm ourselves,” he told El Dínamo. Armarket armory owner Oscar Gatica Vega’s is on the front lines in terms of sales and he agrees. “[W]e are selling 30% more guns,” he added.
Camila Huecho is a journalism student at Universidad de La Frontera in Temuco, currently interning at Chile Today. As a freelance illustrator and Fellow at the Melton Foundation, she works to bring information and cultures together through communications and art.