Feminism and Chile’s social explosion

In October, a protest against an increase in metro fares by high schoolers in Santiago, Chile, escalated into a nationwide uprising that was sustained until public health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic hit pause on most street protests.

“Nobody in Chile, and I think its really important to say this, anticipated what happened on October 18th, nobody imagined what was coming,” said Javiera Manzi, from the 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee. 

That night, the government of Sebastián Piñera had declared a state of emergency, which means the military could be used to quash demonstrations. Support for protests swelled as Chileans recalled the military dictatorship that existed until 1990, from which democratic governments had distanced themselves saying: never again (although Pinochet still headed the army until 1998, and some members of ensuing governments supported the dictatorship).

March 8, 2020 in Santiago, Chile. Photo: Coordinadora Feminista 8M.

Protesters at many mass actions organized in an effort to allow those attending protests to determine their level of interaction with the police. The first line, faces covered, held shields and stave off the cops, behind them stood folks with lasers, then those ready to help with teargas and behind them, street medics. Large crowds, including, musicians and artists, created a combative and sometimes festive atmosphere. 

Graffiti filled the walls and the plazas: “No more debt.” “No more poverty pensions.” “No more market education.” “No more violence.” “Against impunity.” “No more femicides.” 

As protests blazed around the country, demonstrators began to destroy the symbols of colonial domination. In the coastal city of La Serena, a statue of Spanish conquistador Francisco Aguierre was destroyed and replaced with a bust of an Indigenous Diaguita woman. In Concepción, a statue of the genocidal Spanish general Pedro de Valdivia fell under the strain of demonstrators’ ropes in broad daylight. In Collipulli, the bust of criollo landowner Cornelio Saavedra was pulled down by a jubilant crowd.

The October demos built on the social energy of huge student demonstrations in 2006 and 2011, as well as massive protests against pension reforms, million-plus turnouts on International Women’s Day earlier that year, and mobilizations by Mapuche communities and their supporters against land theft and police killings.

The 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee was involved in the October uprising from the get-go. Their first demand was an end to the state of emergency. They also helped convene a general strike on Monday, October 21 as part of Unidad Social, a network of social organizations. As a way to sustain the protests, feminists in Santiago pushed for the establishment of neighbourhood assemblies. 

“Assemblies were organized in order to create spaces for political decision making, for discussion, and also for encounter, for networks of care, networks which also help to sustain life in a context of exceptionality,” said Manzi. Urban Chile does not have a tradition of assemblies, but over the period of the uprising, they became central nodes of coordination, support and organization.

Manzi said 400 people attended the first assembly held in her neighborhood, located near downtown Santiago. Initially, assemblies in her neighborhood were held every day, then three times a week, as a way to promote regular meetings between protests. 

In Santiago, people “got together to discuss what was happening, we organized the march that was held every Friday, because in Chile, in some way, these months of revolt have had some milestones, and one of them is that every Friday is a day of marches and mobilization,” she said. In the assemblies, folks organized to provide childcare so that mothers and fathers could go out and march.

Slogans pointed to how the protests weren’t about a 30 peso increase in metro fares, but against 30 years of neoliberalism, or 300 years of colonization. At issue is the organization of daily life: against precarity, against violence, and toward dignity. For Manzi and other feminists, these radical demands were an affirmation of what they had been organizing around for years. Women’s organizing in Chile had, in the years prior to the uprising, been gathering steam. Chilean women have marched on March 8th for years, but until recently, activities were much smaller. 

The 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee was formed in advance of the women’s strike on International Women’s Day in 2018. 

That December, 1,000 women attended the first Plurinational gathering of women in struggle was held in Santiago, organized by the 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee. 

“We had some conflicts there because we didn’t like how they were approaching some issues that for us are sensitive issues, like migration, racism, and so on,” said Paola Palacios, an organizer with Negrocentricxs, an organization of Black and Afro-Chilean women. “All of the intersections have a road to get to them, and at times it hasn’t been easy.” 

From the December 2018 gathering came the call for the 2019 women’s strike on March 8th, which brought over one million people out into the streets of Santiago.

According to Palacios, it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that Black and Afro-Chilean women’s participation in the feminist movement became more hands on.

 For the last seven years Chilean women had marched for free, legal and safe abortion on July 25, which is also the International Day for Afro-descendent Women. “For us it was quite tense that that’s the day that the abortion march takes place in Chile, when there is already a day for legal and safe abortions, on September 28th,” said Palacios in a Zoom interview from Santiago.

Last year for the first time, Negrocentricxs participated in the organization of the July 25th march, which was renamed the “Anti-racist march for the right to choose.”

“Black women were at the front of the march with our banner, and we got a lot of visibility, it was the first time there was a lot of media attention on us, and that people began to talk about Afro-feminisms or Black feminisms,” said Palacios.

As elsewhere, in Chilean feminists have used art and performance to interrupt traditional organizing forms. In September, Black feminists built an anti-racism maze to raise awareness about racist violence against Black and Indigenous people in Chile.

 And the insurrection was in full swing when a feminist collective called Las Tesis debuted “A rapist in your path” in November in the city of Valparaíso. The performance, a condemnation of rape culture and state violence, spread to more than 200 cities around the world by December.

In January of this year, the second Plurinational gathering of women in struggle was held in Santiago. Negrocentricxs and other groups had become key organizers, over 3,000 women attended. The organizing for March 8th 2020 began just after this gathering, drawing on the energy of the social revolt but also on an increasingly diverse base of organizers.

The press and media work for March 8th in Santiago this year started a week before the action. Francisca Fernandez Droguett, who is part of the 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee in Santiago, recalls a meeting that lasted long into the night of March 7th, during which logistics and security plans for the next day’s protest were made. 

This year’s March 8th protest was especially nerve wracking for organizers in Santiago because for the first time, they had not solicited permission from municipal authorities for the gathering.

By 8am the next morning, all of the women who are part of the 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee spokescouncil met to prepare and record the final statement. At 11, women began meeting at different points near the city center: the counter-hegemonic bloc, which included transfolks, folks with disabilities and Black women, met at the Gabriela Mistral Museum; the feminist memory collective at the National Archive; and the environmental committee at the shore of the Mapocho River in downtown Santiago. 

At noon, women were meant to march on the Plaza de la Dignidad, an epicenter of protests renamed by demonstrators, but it was body-to-body in the streets. “It was so massive, it was impossible to move,” said Fernandez Droguett in a Zoom interview from her home in Santiago. “Many women never managed to march at all.”

During the march, trans men were singled by anti-trans feminists who shouted insults and slurs at them. The anti-hegemonic bloc closed ranks around them to protect them from violent passers-by. “We have a lot of work to do in these spaces, especially with regards to violent transphobia inside the feminist movement,” said Palacios.

Organizers estimate marchers numbered two million that day in Santiago alone, with hundreds of thousands more in the streets around the country. The next day, over 100,000 gathered again for another women’s march in Santiago, organized this time along more traditional lines by women active in trade union organizations.

Days after the marches, the first school in Santiago closed after a teacher tested positive for COVID-19. Within a week, the March 8th Feminist Coordinating Committee released an emergency plan in response to the pandemic. In it, they called for collective care of those most vulnerable, the organization of childcare, a feminist response to domestic violence, and more.

Over the past months, as cases of COVID-19 have risen, sporadic demonstrations and conflicts with police have erupted around Santiago as residents protest a lack of health measures, food and money to make it though.

The medical brigades that formed during protests are today working to help small businesses stay safe, food sovereignty activists are working on ensuring regular food supply to folks who can’t go out, pushing for the rights of migrants to be able to return to their home countries in the context of border closures, and helping ensure community meals are available.

Today activists and feminists in Chile are not in the Plaza de la Dignidad, they’re organizing locally in their territories and neighborhoods. “For example, the feminist care network is now organizing by neighborhood, with home visits, with phone trees, and community meals,” said Fernandez Droguett. 

This is the sixth report in Toward Freedom’s América Feminista series. 

Author Bio:

Dawn Marie Paley is author of Drug War Capitalism and editor of Toward Freedom. Her new book Guerra Neoliberal: desaparición y búsqueda en el norte de México was just published by Libertad Bajo Palabra.