Powers and limits of demonstrations

Anti-War protest in Hollywood, February 2003.

By: Raúl Zibechi

In 2003, millions of people won the streets of many cities around the world to protest against the invasion of Iraq by the United States, fabricated with the false argument of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That same year, an article in The New York Times noted that global public opinion had become the second superpower ( https://nyti.ms/42uLZz0 ).

Two decades later, things have drastically changed; 3.5 million protesters in the streets of France, representing the two-thirds who oppose the pension reform, failed to prevent the government from ending up imposing it, bypassing public opinion and parliament.

In Peru, 1,327 protests took place between December 7, 2022 and February 20, 2023, between mobilizations, strikes and sit-ins, reports the Ombudsman’s Office ( https://bit.ly/3mWLFbK ) . There were also 145 blockade points, 15 police stations were damaged and five airports taken, in addition to an unknown number of smaller actions. Despite this gigantic collective energy, President Dina Boluarte is still in government, supported by the armed and police forces that killed more than 60 people.

In recent years there have been riots in Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia and Haiti, but neoliberalism continues to reign throughout the region, because the collective energy in the streets is channeled towards the polls.

The questions accumulate. Have the demonstration and protest already lost their transformative and destituent power? [1] The philosopher and psychoanalyst Miguel Benasayag recalls that in May 1968, in France, there were far fewer people on the streets than now, but power listened to the protest and attended to it in some way. Now the sky can come down, that there are no answers from above.

Protests in Peru over removal of Pedro Castillo from the presidency.

At least three things have changed in this time.

The first is that the nation-state has been “taken” by storm by the richest 1%, financial and speculative capital, to protect their interests. This is a long-term structural change, at least until we defeat capitalism.

The second is that this ultra-concentrated power learned to manipulate the movements with small concessions in the form of social policies and public opinion as a whole through the large monopolistic media.

The third is the one that I intend to develop briefly, since the previous two have been analyzed in various spaces. It is about how the State is neutralizing the destituent capacity of the street fight, through very powerful forms of repression, but at the same time novel and less strident than lead bullets.

One is the long-range acoustic device (LRAD), denounced by Eva Golinguer in 2009, which are “sirens capable of ‘torturing’ the human ear, with a range of over 500 meters” ( https://bit.ly/ 3Z6AhHA ). This is sonic warfare capable of dispersing demonstrations with flashbangs.

Venom is a weapon used by riot police in Colombia (as part of misnamed less lethal arsenals ), consisting of 30 tubes that launch simultaneous projectiles capable of disseminating large amounts of irritating chemicals over a wide area almost instantly ( https:/ /bit.ly/3JuZh5P ). The weapon has been denounced by human rights organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Rubber bullets deserve separate treatment, since they have caused thousands of mutilations and eye bursts, especially in Chile, in addition to other physical damage and dozens of deaths. Amnesty International and the Omega Foundation call for an international treaty banning the trade and use of rubber bullets ( https://bit.ly/3Tzcxe1 ).

A report by the special rapporteur for the promotion of human rights was presented at the United Nations, where its author Fionnuala Ní Aoláin denounces “the adoption of high-risk and highly intrusive technologies, such as biometric technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), surveillance with spyware or drones” ( https://bit.ly/3n84OYm ).

The range of repressive forms that go from shooting with rifles and the introduction of provocateurs to the use of biometric data, going through selective assassinations camouflaged as extrajudicial deaths or attributable to drug trafficking (which in some places we already name as “poly-narcos”), exponentially broaden the ability of states to neutralize protest.

We will continue to go to demonstrations and protest. I intend to warn that it is not enough to protest, that we need to rebalance our energies. We must dedicate ourselves day by day to building our new, different and autonomous worlds, because the system has found ways and means to neutralize the streets to avoid the removal of their governments.

[1] Destituent power outlines a force that, in its very constitution, deactivates the governmental machine.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, March 24, 2023, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/03/24/opinion/018a2pol and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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