It’s been just over a month since feminists in Chile rose up in a general feminist strike, marking International Women’s Day on March 8. This year, two million of us overflowed the great boulevard and adjoining streets of downtown Santiago. It was the largest demonstration in our country’s recent history.
That Sunday morning, there were so many of us that neither the media nor the government knew how to count us all. The police underreported our numbers, but we maintained that fuimos más (we were more).
Those of us who organized it took the decision not to ask government authorities for permission to march. We did this both to reclaim our constitutional right to protest and to reject the government’s legitimacy, which we take as directly responsible for the systematic violation of human rights during Chile’s October revolts.
We knew that this day would be historic, that its impact would be fundamental to maintaining the momentum of the massive protests that erupted in October last year. We knew that throughout the country and all at once we would raise our voices together against state terrorism, the precaritization of our lives, and the manifold forms of violence we experience on a daily basis.
After the Protests
Three weeks after the protests, with the streets now empty due to the pandemic, President Sebastián Piñera was photographed in Plaza de la Dignidad, one of the iconic sites of October’s unrest. Looking triumphant and presidential in this public square, the photograph sought to declare Piñera’s reclaimed presidential authority, to show that the government is returning to governing.
Indeed, despite having the lowest approval rating of any president since the dictatorship, Piñera has temporarily regained some legitimacy. However, the fact that he has required a global health crisis to curtail our protests does not alter the reality of Chile’s political crisis. It only shows the fragility of this administration’s restored “authority.”
Now that we can no longer be on the streets protesting, it’s difficult to evoke the intensity of the closeness we experienced on March 8. What happened to that energy? Where does that impulse, that confidence, and that desire for radical transformation go in the midst of a global pandemic? Where just weeks ago the proximity of our bodies in the streets declared our collective power, we now find ourselves fragmented and physically divided from one another.
For several weeks, the government refused to implement a quarantine policy that would flatten the rising curve of contagion. When it did finally act, it was only to place Santiago’s wealthier districts and a handful of other cities under partial quarantine. There were no economic or emergency provisions made for the working population, a large majority of whom were unable to stay home. For many in Chile, quarantine was a privilege, as have been social rights in general during these thirty years of neoliberal transition.
Although it may sometimes seem that this pandemic has confined so many of us to the walls of our homes, and put the world on pause, time has not stopped and our struggle continues beneath the surface. While those who govern us are momentarily enjoying their restored sense of authority, their rule will be challenged again. The revolt now takes place in our rage, our desires, our questions, and our networks, even if they have temporarily gone underground.
People in Chile are experiencing the pandemic in the context of the state of exception in which we’ve been living since the social revolt that erupted on October 18, as mass fare evasion on the part of high school students exploded into numerous overlapping protests against the accumulated misery of the last thirty years. The government’s answer to this massive, transversal uprising took only one form: police brutality and the systematic mass violation of human rights. These violations consisted of maiming (with over 450 documented ocular injuries), torture, sexual violence, political imprisonment, kidnappings, murders, and disappearances.
We are experiencing this pandemic in unique conditions. The uprising still resonates and refuses to be consigned to history; it still animates us. We know that the physical distance of quarantine cannot become political isolation and paralysis, especially when comrades remain political prisoners and when the authorities have again responded to this crisis by implementing militarized curfews in Chile’s cities.
Since we are not on pause and life and politics continue — albeit in strange ways right now — we have to ask ourselves how we will emerge from this crisis in such a way that does not reinforce authoritarianism, escalating patriarchal violence, and the intensifying racist violence.
It is with that in mind that we have tried to act during this crisis within a crisis. After the first week of the national health emergency, we proposed a Feminist Emergency Plan in response to our collective conditions and as a call for collective action. In partnership with other movements, we have raised huelgas por la vida — strikes for our lives. For those forced to continue working, strikes call for absenteeism or, if this is not possible, the interruption of the workday through protest. For those of us at home, we protest there: we hang banners from our windows, bang pots, and carry out coordinated actions throughout the day.
We have also constituted a Feminist Support Network to confront the escalation of patriarchal violence in the context of confinement. This network, composed of several feminist groups, is primarily oriented toward spreading information about grassroots initiatives, feminist collectives, and NGOs that provide support for women subject to domestic violence.
Another great task ahead of us is sustaining the assemblies that have multiplied in recent months as spaces of mobilization, political deliberation, and regeneration of the social fabric. In this context, we have turned to making the assemblies networks of care and mutual support. Our organizations have placed politics of care at the forefront of what we do: we know that it is as fundamental as other forms of labor that sustain life.
Experiencing this pandemic on the back of Chile’s revolt opens up new questions. How can we effectively confront these policies of death and deprivation? How can we elevate the well-being of the many above the profits of the few? How can we organize a response that is situated in the international power of the feminist strike? How can we put our own strength into action in these circumstances?
It is clear that there is no fixed answer to these questions. For us, it is a question of recognizing that, in this scenario of uncertainty, we can trust in the knowledge derived from our collective history and memory of struggle and our belief in what we have been building together.
The feminist strikes movement has been global in its ambitions; March 8 has seen strike waves across the world. In the context of the pandemic, we are once again faced with a historical moment that compels a collective response. As an internationalist force, the feminist movement must serve as both trench and fortification against the radical advance of neoliberalism’s assault. We must create a transformative alternative.
When Sebastián Piñera had his photo taken beside the Baquedano monument at Plaza de la Dignidad, the square was deserted: there were no black flags, no wenufoyes (Mapuche flags), no green bandanas symbolizing the campaign for abortion rights. Emboldened, the government has begun erasing the graffiti and symbols of October’s revolt. But despite the curfews, a few brave individuals have since returned to reinscribe their messages of protest. A few meters away from where Piñera was photographed, the ground of the plaza itself still bears the words that describe our protests in October and in March. In large painted letters, it reads: Históricas.