Grassroot solidarity during the October 2019 social uprising in Chile
By Carolina Rocha and Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews)
What started in late 2019 as a limited protest against rises in Chilean metro fares turned into a societal uprising met by levels of repression unseen since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship back in 1990. As human rights violations dominated these protests, we explored whether people in Chile were being mobilised into helping those at risk by learning that many were being targets of violence.
This story started decades ago. In 1973, a coup d’état finished with Salvador Allende’s government and initiated a 17-year-long dictatorship, headed by Augusto Pinochet. Hand in hand with a systematic violation of human rights, this regime led to the current neoliberal socioeconomic system in Chile. This system has promoted economic growth but has created extreme inequity and diminished the State’s protection, leading people to feel exhausted (Araujo, 2020).
This background may help to understand the incidents from October 2019. At the beginning of that month, an increase in the ticket fares for the Santiago metro provoked fare-dodging protests headed by secondary-school students. The response by the authority was use of the force by the police. This only motivated more massive demonstrations, which voicing a long-lasting feeling of general injustice, developed into a widespread social uprising all across the country.
Harsh repression became the norm in both pacific demonstrations and riots. In fact, on 18 October at midnight the country was put on a State of Emergency, which allowed a curfew to be enforced and the army to take control of the streets. Since then, thousands of human rights violations perpetrated by State officers (e.g. the police, the army, the navy, etc.) have been reported (Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos, 2020). On days of demonstrations, people were teargassed, shot, injured in the eyes and blinded by rubber bullets, detained, beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted. Some even died in police custody or as a result of “actions involving State agents” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2019, p. 10).
In this context, we started wondering whether solidarity acts to aid those at risk were occurring, and if so, what was motivating them. Thus, I, Carolina, came back to my home country to conduct interviews between November 2019 and February 2020, when demonstrations were still taking place. I conducted interviews with individuals who had been either involved in organisations delivering aid, participating in demonstrations, or not engaging in the protests at all.
Through these interviews, we identified different expressions of solidarity. Although they started shortly after the State of Emergency was declared, the novelty of the events prevented people from identifying clearly what to do for the first hours. This was especially true for those who grew up after the Pinochet dictatorship.
“Besides my own anguish of the moment, I felt the anguish that my parents were transmitting to me, who were remembering those times (…) It is a feeling of living something unreal, something you know it’s happening, but it’s this thing of uncertainty, of not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow nor what is going to happen in an hour” (32-year-old woman who was participating in the demonstrations).
Despite the initial perplexity, live images of brutal repression felt like a call for action to many. This was the case of those belonging to groups historically defined by solidarity values, such as individuals brought up in activists’ families, inhabitants of working-class neighbourhoods characterised by communal lifestyles, people who had volunteered in NGOs previously, health care practitioners and students, as well as lawyers and law students. For them, seeing images of violence and staying home was unbearable. So, they started coming up with projects to protect people. The interview excerpt below portrays these processes.
Answering the question ‘how did you come to identify that providing first aids was necessary in the first place?’: “I think at the beginning it happened because of two things. One, that harsh repression was seen and shown in social media, with rubber-bullet shootings, tear gas canisters on faces, pepper gas, and all that. But I don’t think that was the main thing. The main thing was seeing that from one moment to another the State of Emergency was declared (…) and we said, ‘as health students we have to be there’” (23-year-old medical student providing first aids in demonstrations).
In fact, health-care students and workers developed a highly salient form of solidarity. When finding out about the repression, many started gathering medical equipment spontaneously, and quickly found themselves healing thousands of injured protesters. As days went by, they developed formal organisations. The demonstrations venues started being surrounded by stable first-aid points led by teams called Health Brigades, Brigadas de Salud in Spanish. Some of their members were in charge of bringing the injured to their headquarters. Those with medical training took care of the wounds. Psychology students and professionals provided support to the injured and their companions, who sometimes arrived in state of shock. Others protected the brigades from the police with shields. While these actions took place, antecedents about people’s wounds were recorded to raise statistics about human rights violations and make records available for the victims in case they decided to press charges. This is connected to another form of solidarity that took place during the social uprising.
While health carers were coming up with their initiatives, law students and lawyers were setting up pro-bono legal aid organisations. These organisations had several aims: keeping track of those detained and the police stations they were taken to; checking whether detentions were lawful; monitoring the conditions people imprisoned were under; guaranteeing that cases were following a due process; and providing advice on how to take human rights violations to court.
In parallel, others were realising that keeping those involved in the demonstrations energised was necessary. Protests were long, people had to be prepared to run away from the police, and those delivering aid worked without breaks. Thus, some groups, especially women, started preparing huge pots of food to provide free meals at the main demonstrations. This practice is part of the long-standing social support repertoire in Chile and is called Olla Común, which means something like Community Cooking Pot. As the following interview excerpt shows, this action seeks to meet diverse needs.
Answering the question ‘What does this action mean for you in particular?’: “Affection, showing that with a simple meal, which is what I know how to do, erm, it is strength, it is affection, it is the desire to show them that we are all together, united, that they can receive support, sustenance” (39-year-old woman leading a community cooking pot).
In the face of solidarity acts, those involved in the demonstrations expressed that this social movement and the historical moment Chile was living were unique as to people’s fuelled eagerness to aid each other.
Answering a question about people’s reactions when witnessing repression: “Obviously people help, one does not just leave. I believe that if you ask me whether has there been a change between the Chile before 18 October and now, it has somewhat to do with empathy. People are more willing to help in certain situations than formerly” (30-year-old woman participating in the demonstrations)
Therefore, October 2019 confronted people in Chile with unique expressions of both brutality and solidarity. Repression made passivity for many a choice incompatible with the definition of who they are, and thus identities were the starting point for many solidarity acts. However, identities were also outcomes of these acts. For those involved in the demonstrations and those offering aid, the spread of solidarity turned prosocial values into defining features of the social movement and the society being drawn by it. As the photo below shows, solidarity and mutual support became desired and expected behaviours for them. Now, whether these dynamics remain in the long term is yet to be discovered.
About the Authors
Carolina Rocha is a PhD candidate at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience of the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the mobilisation of solidarity, namely, social influence processes that lead people to behave as active bystanders. She tweets at @Carocha_sm
Stephen Reicher is a Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience of the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the psychology of social groups.
About the ISPP & its Blog
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Araujo, K. (2020). Desmesuras, desencantos, irritaciones y desapegos. In K. Araujo (Ed.), Hilos Tensados. Para leer el Octubre chileno. Santiago: Editorial USACH.
Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (2020, October 16). Balance INDH: a un año de la crisis social. https://www.indh.cl/bb/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Balance-INDH-18-octubre-Prensa.pdf
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2019, December 13). Report of the Mission to Chile 30 October — 22 November 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CL/Report_Chile_2019_EN.pdf