A lesson from Chile: mass mobilisations can shift policy

Protesters at Plaza Dignidad, Santiago, Chile

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, proposing a range of changes to enforcement and sentencing in England and Wales, passed its second reading in the House of Commons by 359 votes to 263 on 16 March.

Trying to stifle protest?

The bill would make it illegal to inflict “serious annoyance”, with up to 10 years’ jail in theory. Police will be able to tell one-person protests to stop shouting and impose noise limits along with start and finish times on gatherings. Measures also include imposing a sentence of up to 10 years’ jail for people who vandalise statues – up from three months. It creates new offences of blocking roads and talking through a loudspeaker outside Parliament. It’s a crude attempt to criminalise protest in the UK. But instead of stifling protest, the bill seems to have had the opposite effect, with grassroots groups galvanising to reject the law.

Chilean resistance

The UK is not the only country seeking to modify its laws to outlaw protest. Chile, one of the UK’s largest trading partners in Latin America, hit the headlines in 2019-20 when mass anti-neoliberal protests took place. An ad-hoc coalition of social movements came together to demand the removal of the constitution drawn up by Margaret Thatcher’s pet dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Chilean oligarch president Sebastián Piñera responded to these demands by deploying heavily armed security forces on the streets of the capital, Santiago. From October of 2019 to late 2020, thousands of people ended up in hospital, with hundreds of filings regarding murder, torture, or sexual abuse at the hands of Chile’s police force. Authorities killed almost 30 people in the context of protests.

In a further move to stifle dissent, Piñera added several clauses to Chile’s draconian anti-terror legislation, similar to those being proposed in the new bill in the UK. But despite fierce police brutality and a permanent state of emergency, undeterred protesters continued to hit the streets to push for social change. And this resistance had an impact.

A lesson for the UK: ‘Expand demands beyond parliamentary politics’

UK documentary-maker Nick MacWilliam travelled to Chile to investigate the mass mobilisations and grassroots movements during the 2019 uprising, for his debut documentary Santiago Rising.

MacWilliam told Phoenix Media Co-op:

This is something being implemented at a time when it has occurred to people the need to expand their political demands beyond formal parliamentary politics. In Chile, the protest movement exists outside the parliamentary system, and this presents both a strength and a challenge. A strength in the sense that, with a horizontal movement, it’s difficult for moderate or diluting forces to co-opt the movement, as we’ve seen, in a formal top-down system depending on the figure on the top it’s either a position of possibility or restriction.

In Chile, that realisation took place a long time ago, as such social movements have grown strong and have faced intense repression due to the strength they have. This is a signal to Britain that protest movements are working. Street protest does have strength. If anything, the new bill should ignite people’s desire to take to the streets. We cannot just allow the state to impose these draconian policies upon us.

The result of these mass mobilisations has been to force the Chilean government to scrap the old constitution in place of a new one written by democratically elected candidates, a feat thought impossible until now.

Power in the streets

In the UK, the power of mass mobilisation has already yielded results. Despite Scotland Yard refusing to cooperate with organisers planning a vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common, protesters turned up in large numbers to remember her and demand changes in legislation to protect women. The Metropolitan Police arrested peaceful protesters, and the House of Commons vote days later sparked mass mobilisations across the country against the bill. By disobeying the law, protesters managed to delay the bill slightly. This was a small but significant win, as campaign group Sisters Uncut explained.

This weekend, protesters in Bristol took to the streets, providing us with a glimpse of what could snowball further into a mass movement. No doubt conservative sectors will be baying for tough measures to halt civil disobedience and press for the bill to go ahead. But as the campaign gains momentum across social networks and reawakens activism, it may not be a bad idea to follow the example of recent Latin American protest movements and continue to mobilise to claw back hard-won rights and freedoms from a corrupt, draconian Conservative government hellbent on weakening or destroying all potential opposition. There’s power in the streets.

Main article image via Daniel Espinoza Guzman@daeg90