by Emmet Hollingshead
If you want to see a protest done right, go to El Bolsón. Here in the mountains of Argentine Patagonia the streets are filled with drum circles, chanting, flags and signs supporting any leftist political cause you can think of, dancing, marching, and wild outfits. The community comes alive in protest, and while it is frustrations which bring them to the streets, there is an unmistakable happiness which flows from their own political self-creation. The vivacity with which the less than 20,000 residents of El Bolson approach the protest is truly an astounding thing to witness.
On Feb. 11, the march was about a new development on Perito Moreno, a mountain to the north. The people fear that the new development, made out to be a destination for rich tourists, will care little about the waste it produces and contaminate the region’s water supply. This could be a serious health problem in the town, as everyone in El Bolson gets their water directly from the mountain rivers using systems of hoses which each rural resident more or less builds themselves, and there is no filtration system. The land was sold by the government under less than transparent conditions, and with little public support.
The protest continues after the march. A small group of about 20 people will camp out on a small patch of brown grass near El Bolsón’s center, purportedly until their list of demands are met. This makeshift hippy convent, much like the initial march, is not a place of mourning and frustration but a place of community and strength. They gather as a social desire rather than a social necessity. Such an audacious undertaking speaks to the level of commitment that El Bolson’s residents have to their political causes.
They understand that politics should be a space for broad civic participation, and that government has real-world effects beyond the capital’s own political games.
A common phrase among Argentines in that they have three national sports: soccer, waiting in line, and politics. Beginning a conversation with a question like “Who did you vote for in the last election?” isn’t an invasion of privacy, it’s small talk on the level of asking what soccer club you support. Citizens see politics as an inherently grassroots activity. While leaders have a role in inspiring and guiding politics, the real driving force is a type of healthy populism deeply embedded in the Argentine national identity. Politics — and therefore protest — are part of Argentina as much as the mountains are.
The march on International Women’s Day in Buenos Aires went from the Congress building to Casa Rosada. The biggest and loudest groups were unions, but among them were political parties and activist groups each waving their own colors, symbols, and demands. Going simply as an individual protester put me in the minority, as did not having a sign. Most of the groups had a section of drummers, and they all had songs that they knew by heart and sang in the street. The group from the Communist party had long sticks that they held up around themselves to form a less-crowded area within the sea of people. They carried signs that said (in Spanish) “Capitalism is the problem”. Even though this march is for International Women’s Day, intersectionality is so deeply rooted into the protest culture that there isn’t a discussion around it; it’s a collective ideology. Of course they protest capitalism along with the patriarchy; how could it ever be any other way?
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In Buenos Aires, it’s rare to go a full day without seeing a protest or a march of some kind. In a city and a culture which many from the United States find to be overly relaxed and chaotic, the level of organization within politically active groups is striking. One day while walking home from class I saw a group of 30 taxis block Avenida Corrientes to fight for their continued right to use bus lanes. The drivers were all standing around the cars, drinking Coke, Fanta, and mate. Many of them carried large flags of Argentina and passed out fliers explaining their position. People from the street stopped to talk to them. Not all are in agreement, but in Argentina political arguments are the norm. It’s expected that different people don’t see eye to eye on the issues, and arguments between strangers is simply a part of the process.
Argentina’s level of political involvement and the people’s willingness to take to the streets to defend their rights are a product of a history too complex to fully delineate in one article. But in talking to people around the city, it becomes clear that a significant part of this protest culture is rooted in the country’s tumultuous political history. The fact that throughout the 20th century so many of Argentina’s leaders came to power outside of the established political process seems to have embedded in the national consciousness a recognition that political power along with organizing smarts can be a potent force. “Memory, Truth, and Justice” has become the slogan for looking back upon the military dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s when 30,000 political dissidents were “disappeared”. It is difficult to imagine a nation going through such a traumatic event and not coming out the other side as one of the most politically vigilant and politically involved national communities in the world.
As a citizen of the U.S., I can’t help but reflect back on my own country’s political culture.
This cycle, almost half (45%) of United States citizens of voting age did not vote. We protest sporadically at best, with the Women’s Day Marches of Jan 21 being the largest day of protest in our nation’s history and clocking in at 4 million people, or just over 1% of the population. In that vein, I have four broad suggestions for how protest culture in the United States can broaden its base, demand more from fellow citizens, and allow more voices to be heard:
- Intersectionality – the extent to which different activist groups show up to support each other in Argentina is a fundamental reason that the protest culture is so vibrant. Unions from widely different sectors will march in solidarity with one another. At any given protest, no matter the official cause, you are almost guaranteed to see signs about women’s rights. It is not possible to protest in Argentina without supporting economic rights, women’s rights, civil rights, memory of the dictatorship, LGBTQ rights and more all together.
- The true left – Argentine politics are less likely to be split along cultural lines as they are in the US, and more along economic lines. We might phrase this as “economic identity” if it’s ever going to get play in mainstream US politics, but what we’re really talking about is class consciousness. Without the old political scars of the Cold War, Argentine politics is free to critically examine the struggle between capital and labor and to point out where the free market fails.
- Incentives to vote – Every citizen between the ages of 18 and 70 in Argentina must vote, or pay a small fine, and voting eligibility starts at 16. This means that politics is legally ingrained into people’s lives. It is not possible to be apolitical in Argentina, and that impossibility only increases when you move from the legal political sphere to the social political sphere. Voting is also a national holiday, so no one will skip voting because they have to work.
- Drums and songs – When protests toe the line with dance parties, who wouldn’t want to go? But broader than drums and songs specifically is the idea that protest and voting don’t have to be chores. They can be community-building activities that are a genuinely enjoyable way to spend an afternoon with friends.
Under the Trump Presidency, the US has seen a resurgence of protest and organized activism. I hope that that trend continues, and I further hope that we can grow it from protest in reaction to right-wing government into protest as a more integral part of our political culture. Political involvement in the US is unacceptably low, especially for a country which elevates democratic values to quasi-religious heights. To fix this problem requires reformation of things like voting rights, Congressional district lines, and the two-party system. It also requires something beyond that. It requires a cultural shift which may be aided by policy-related legal actions, but is a fundamentally social phenomenon. For suggestions, look to Argentina.
Emmet Hollingshead is a International Studies and Political Science major from Macalester College. He is on the soccer team, a founding member of Macalester Quakers, and is studying abroad in Buenos Aires in Spring 2017.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.