In Praise of the Escrache

Escrache

I am going to translate several articles on the phenomenon of the escrache. The word has no English translation but it is the name for a collective action whereby public figures are singled out –in public- for their role in an injustice. In recent months they have achieved a very high profile in Spain as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, frequently translated in English as Mortgage Holders Platform; see excellent series of posts by the Provisional University here.) has targeted ruling politicians for their role in the thousands of violent evictions that have taken place in Spain since the burst of the property bubble. In recent weeks participants have been described by ruling caste sympathisers as in league with ETA, as fascists, and Nazis.

The first article was originally published in Madrilonia on 26th March. It is by Guillermo Zapata.

In praise of the Escrache

At a certain point in the Greek crisis an anecdote started doing the rounds about how Papandreou was unable to eat in restaurants with his wife because the rest of the customers would insult him. The mass media echoed this story by speaking of the ‘degradation’ of political life in Greece. However, on social networks, via e-mail, in conversation, the anecdote did the rounds like a myth that belonged to the underdogs, like a materialised desire, a shared disgust. Then (as now) the media didn’t know it, but we were already Greeks here in Spain.

On Saturday night I read a tweet from a Spanish scriptwriter who had gone to the cinema and at the start of the film they had shown the new Bankia advert. The people in the auditorium had applauded in laughter, shouted at and/or booed the advert. Anonymous people, who do not know each other, who in the darkness of an auditorium feel it legitimate to criticise a banking entity out loud. What is key is the moment in which it goes from being an individual sentiment to become a collective one, with so much meaning that in the darkness of a cinema, without knowing who you have beside you, you allow yourself to shout it out because it is common sense.

The question is: how has this legitimacy been constructed? Is it simply the practices of Bankia, its robbery and plunder of our lives that makes people shout out against it? The answer is no. Legitimacy and common sense are constructed by opening up a public space of conversation and meaning where once there was none. By shifting a limit.

On Wednesday last I took part in the escrache on the home of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón in Madrid and what impressed me most, besides the scrupulous care in the peaceful unfolding of the event, were two things: 

1. That people in the parks who saw us passing, and to whom we explained where we were going, joined up with us (I especially recall a couple with two young children who tagged along straight away).

2. That the residents of the area indicated to us which house it was. With a half-smile they said to us “Over there, there, it’s in that street”, “No, it’s not here, he passes this way but he lives further up”.

At this level, on the ground, the legitimacy of the escrache is absolute.

Let’s be clear about this. Escraches are not sustained simply through the absolutely criminal indifference of the government with regard to the problem of housing, but through thousands of stopped evictions, highly intense mobilisations, house occupations, occupations of bank offices, negotiation, dialogue, and openness. There are escraches and they have legitimacy because there is a movement that gives them meaning. The paranoid tales with regard to out of control actions are deliberate and ridiculous.

There is nothing more organised than an escrache. No-one is more conscious of the limits that are not crossed than the people who take part, precisely because they have reached a consensus about the limits they are going to cross. The limit that is crossed is that ‘the public and the private’ (‘lo público y lo privado’) are not separate spheres, but related ones. That is why one goes to the door of the house. That is why one does not go beyond the door. All these symbolic details constitute the legitimacy and the ethics of a practice. To compare it with any eviction reveals what is obvious: in an eviction the public-private limit is precisely what is violated right to the end and through force.

But there is something far, far more important in an escrache. Something that no politician can see because they are unable to look at themselves. An escrache is an action in which people who are affected organise themselves, make themselves visible and they feel comforted and accompanied by other people. Escraches are also the expression of an affection, of a group that takes care of itself and keeps itself company. They are a mechanism against individuality. That is, they are a mechanism against despair. They are our going up to Papandreou and throwing him out of the restaurant. But moreover they are sustained by an organised political space. They are not a cry, an act of persecution or a blow in the middle of the street that comes about through rage. On the contrary, they govern anger and turn it into potency. They are (one more) expression that the power of those at the bottom is constructed in common, and those at the top are a wretched accident on the path of this power, of this collective force. The escraches are the catharsis of an anguish in the best sense. They are mechanisms so that people who have been evicted are not victims, but subjects.

That is, they are democracy.

 

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