Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


From the Urban Margins to Large-Scale Protests

Simón Escoffier

In October 2019, unprecedented mobilizations in Chile took the world by surprise. An outburst of protests plunged the most stable democracy in Latin America into its most profound social and political crisis since the dictatorship in the 1980s. What began as student-led protests in a few metro stations against a fare increase in public transportation evolved into a large wave of peaceful demonstrations, violent riots, and lootings across the country. The past few decades have seen similar events of large-scale unrest erupting across the Global South in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Venezuela, Myanmar, Argentina, Tunisia, Iran, and Colombia.

Although these protests involved many organizations and citizens with different social backgrounds and demands, the organizational capabilities of the urban underprivileged proved essential in sustaining collective action in increasingly repressive environments. Underlying the urban poor’s impactful mobilization are decades of collective organizing in networks of smaller and informal organizations that operate in excluded urban areas, away from crucial resources and elite allies.

Cities are increasingly shaped by globalization and neoliberalism, turning them into profit-making spaces that expel the underprivileged to the margins of society. The dynamics of capital accumulation and discrimination create stigmatized spaces in the city, where the urban underprivileged are relegated. Whether or not they are physically located in the urban peripheries, these areas occupy the margins of political life in the city. They develop dislocated, excluded communities with high violence, criminality, and anomy. In some exceptional underprivileged neighborhoods, however, urban dwellers resist the neoliberal city by defending their communities and developing political activism. Drawing on the case of urban Santiago, Chile, this book investigates why and how some urban communities succumb to exclusion while others react by resurrecting collective action and challenging unequal citizenship regimes. It also shows how the endurance of collective action over time in those communities allows local actors to build the capabilities needed to eventually support large-scale protests that push democratizing processes forward.

The book features the compelling story of two underprivileged neighborhoods with almost identical development paths before Chile’s democratic transition. The two neighborhoods are located in similar urban settings and share demographic and economic conditions. They both emerged in 1970, during Allende’s government, through land invasion movements coordinated by similar political factions. Both areas were severely repressed during the dictatorship, and their dwellers participated in the same kinds of anti-dictatorial protests. Nevertheless, when Chile returned to democracy, these two neighborhoods embarked upon dramatically diverging paths. While one has sustained mobilization over the past 35 years, in the other neighborhood, local organizing became depoliticized and was deactivated. The comparison between these two communities explains how they have dealt differently with memory, identity, and leadership-building in post-transitional Chile.

In those areas most affected by violence, institutional neglect, and urban marginalization, mobilization provides people with a self-created avenue for political incorporation. Local organizers produce protected spaces of participation that dispense with elite and formally recognized norms of public impact. Therefore, residents in those neighborhoods can engage in collective action to become valid agents of community-building, an opportunity regularly precluded by institutions. The book develops the concept of mobilizational citizenship to examine this novel and self-produced form of political incorporation in the urban margins.

Fundamental to the development of mobilizational citizenship is people’s strategic use of memory. Through shared narratives, urban activists can describe their community as one that extends in time, thus allowing them to connect their collective endeavors in the present with the characters and struggles of the past. Activists involved in mobilizational citizenship also provide political socialization opportunities for younger and inexperienced participants. By learning local legitimacy codes, those participants acquire local leadership skills and become agents of community-building. As locally validated leaders quit their activism, new ones emerge to take their place, thus allowing the survival of community mobilization across time. This tactic, however, requires community leaders’ commitment to disseminate political capital, that is, the resources needed to build local power. Mobilizational citizenship becomes implausible when community leaders, instead, strive to monopolize political capital.

Large-scale protesting involves activating mobilization across many underprivileged neighborhoods. Mobilizational citizenship will only allow activists’ joint action when it has sustained collective action long enough for them to develop the necessary capabilities that make coalition-building more likely. These capabilities involve accessing resources and developing networks of trust with other civil society actors within and beyond the neighborhood. Creating “free spaces”, as Polletta (1999) described, is also essential. It means producing events or situations of participation and cultural exchange disconnected from authorities’ control, in which local activists can freely exchange their ideas. Cohesive identities and similar cultural traits also make coalition-building more likely.

In sum, as urban communities engage in mobilizational citizenship and sustain collective action over time, they become more likely to support evolving processes of mobilization and democratization.

Polletta, F. (1999). “Free Spaces” in Collective Action. Theory and Society, 28(1), 1–38. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006941408302

Mobilizing at the Urban Margins by Simón Escoffier

About The Author

Simón Escoffier

Simón Escoffier is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. His research focuses on social movements, citizenship, conserv...

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