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Performing popular justice: from the disappeared to the outraged

What differentiates the escrache from merely a dangerous form of un-regulated retribution? Crucial to this question is the concept of containment.

Elliott Goat
19 December 2014
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Image: http://www.calandolapiedra.com/

An old man cowers in his home. Outside people are chanting, erecting banners, appropriating road signs and wearing masks. They are flooding his inbox, spreading his image, repeating his name, revealing his identity.

In their eyes he is a criminal.

The protesters are changing the visual fabric of the neighbourhood, transforming the space into a public courtroom, where the evidence and sentence of the crime is forever on display.

Posters carry the individuals’ name, address and telephone number as well as recent photographs so a campaign can be waged in the street, by mail, on the phone and online. Through direct action, (exclusion as preferable to expulsion) the neighbours of the barrio become the executors of the permanent sentence.

This is all part of escrache.

It represents a form of justice in the public sphere, the utilisation of public shame as a means to circumvent judicial failings through the praxis of performance.[1] Through manufacturing a form of social condemnation against the perpetrators of state and economic ‘genocide’, the performance of popular justice proposes the idea of counterpower as an immanent strategy of organization.

A slogan that can be heard over and over is ‘If there is no justice, there’s escrache.....

What first emerged in the late 1990s in Argentina as a tactic to address the problem of impunity (granting legal immunity to members of the junta) became the most effective strategy to tackle the impunity given to corporate and political actors responsible for – and perpetuating – the financial crisis.

In Spain its energies shifted from the Desaparecidos of the military regime to the Indignados and those affected by the country’s housing crisis. Tax amnesty’s for corporations, the ‘amnesty for convicted bankers and the appointment of former politicians to the board of directors reinforced the impunity and immunity enjoyed by elites with access to power’.[2]

This revolving door policy also reinforced a perception of incestuous complicity between state and corporate bodies. In Spain, as Eduardo Romanos has noted, the complete lack of contact between the street and those in institutional power – driven out of a necessity during the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy to keep ‘political institutions particularly sealed off from the demands of protest movements’ – has seen the escrache prove particularly effective – while as a tactic it has had little impact elsewhere in Europe.[3]

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Image: http://afectadosporlahipotecamadrid.net/

In March 2013 Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), lobbying for ‘regulation and retrospective payments for distressed mortgage holders’, began targeting deputies of Spain’s PP (Partido Popular) government who had objected to the proposed ILP.

In response, the PP Secretary General described the adoption of escraches in a wider campaign aimed at blocking evictions and occupying apartments as ‘pure Nazism... totalitarian and sectarian’, with the presumption of innocence – the bedrock of any democratic and accountable judiciary – supplanted and ignored by this ‘social stigma imposed upon individuals’.[4]

While public support for PAH escraches hit 89% last year, some argued that as a form of protest they ‘too easily and too often degenerate’. In the words of Michaela Mihai virtuous civic denunciations risk becoming a form of ‘civic homicide’.[5] By turning a target’s house (or neighbourhood) into a ‘prison’, what differentiated the escrache from merely a dangerous form of un-regulated retribution?

Crucial to this question is the concept of containment. Central to the success (and effectiveness) of the escrache is the establishment of a clear boundary – which the performance serves to highlight but which the action refuses to cross. ‘The performance makes the case for revenge and concretizes the struggle in a localised place but the escrache does not cross the boundary to inflict physical harm – it stops literally at the doorstep.’[6] By showing that they could but will not take revenge, the action becomes a statement about the identity of its agents.[7] The escrache attempts to split the association between popular justice as a form of revenge through invention and creation.

Without holding any real or actual power, escraches convoke a festival whose duration is not marked by the logic of ‘harassment’ nor by that of the TV newscast.[8]

With the PAH taking to online forums and flooding the email accounts of party deputies and CEO’s, the integration of ‘virtual escraches’ within the wider protest programme began to be seen in the context of ‘Ruin Life Tactics’ instigated by hacker collectives such as LulzSec or Anonymous.

Yet importantly, while online networks remain anti-hierarchical, housing and austerity collectives such as 15-M, PAH and its precursor V de Vivienda, though still organised around a grassroots horizontalism, maintained specific objectives which were ultimately realised by the tactics they employed. Drawn from a predominantly older age demographic, PAH sought, and were able, to actively close the historical gap between protesters and power-holders - ‘engaging with legal representatives of the government [within institutions at local level] as opposed to negating due process completely’.[9]

In June 2014 the President of Sareb, Spain’s ‘bad bank’, was targeted in Madrid, his house picketed with slogans such as ‘If Sareb is ours, then so are its properties!’ and a manifesto was read out containing banker’s salaries and calls to redistribute bonuses to help fund homeless shelters. However, as well as these traditional forms of escrache, PAH also sought to constructively engage with MP’s, inviting them to local assemblies to hear first-hand accounts of how the mortgage crisis was affecting the nation’s homeless.

Partly in response to the campaign of escraches against elected officials, a new Public Security Bill, first drafted in December 2013, sought to limit the right to peaceful assembly or spontaneous protest – banning any gathering within 300m of MPs homes. According to Human Rights Watch, the bill, amended in November 2014 and shortly to pass into law, imposes fines for those who show a ‘lack of respect’ for police officers, organize unregistered demonstrations and ‘allows authorities to bypass the courts to punish protesters without the guarantee of a trial’.

Despite this, escraches continue but necessarily adapt to avoid strict provisions in the law. They represent ‘an unformulated definition of justice’ that ‘evolves with the moment of the event and somehow becomes a metonymy for the process in toto’.[10] The process of making justice aesthetically, therefore, changes for each performance.

Far from being spontaneous instances of mob rule, the time preceding an escrache involves a period of intense discussion and debate within the local community as to the very meaning of the act. This form of pedagogical exchange is an attempt to heal the historical trauma of the past. It makes the past present in order to change it retroactively.[11]

One popular slogan often sung at escraches and housing occupations declares, “It’s not a crisis... it’s a scam”! Escraches literally expose the popular narrative propagated by the state or corporations; that impunity for perpetrators of genocide was ‘necessary’ for peace just as financial amnesty for corporations is ‘necessary’ for economic recovery.

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Image: http://blog.art21.org/2011/03/16/5-­‐questions-­‐with-­‐colectivo-­‐situaciones/The act of exclusion becomes the visual manifestation of popular justice as escraches evolve into forums of community building and healing.[12] Incorporating music, theatre, and puppetry, justice-fun-fairs take place outside courthouses and are transmitted to local PAH assemblies. Where the target is particularly well-known, participants adopt the persona of the ‘criminal’. By wearing look-a-like masks the crowd is able to vent their frustration at a visual manifestation of the target as a form of catharsis. The goal of the temporary action of the escraches is to become an on-going and active community performance.

Culture becomes ‘a strategy of containment for irritating change’- material for ‘fetish-making observer voyeurs’.[13]

The escrache reveals information in a ritualized public action. Collaboration between human rights groups, artistic collectives and anti-austerity/housing groups seek to create forms of justice through lived experience ‘in which individuals and groups can explore forms of subjectivity potentially autonomous to the seeking of state power’.[14] This represents a performance art practice which serves politics through commitments to the ‘local, particular and relational’.[15]

For Katja Seidel, escraches documented and performed by PAH represent, ‘a pragmatic case of the local ‘vernacularisation’ and diffusion of justice practices in a global Culture of Justice. The escrache is not an end in itself but a strategy to demand justice.’[16]

The process of creating alternative judicial structures and community accountability is ultimately, therefore, as important as the outcome. As one escrache participant put it:

We are creating a community in the desert; in the desert of the big city where looking someone in the eye is difficult. Security used to be in the bank and insecurity was in the streets. Now insecurity is in the bank. The robber who used to be outside the bank is now in it. And security is in the street, with our neighbours.[17]

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Benegas, Diego. ‘If there’s no Justice…’ Trauma and Identity in Post-Dictatorship Argentina. Performance Research: A Journal of Performing Arts, Vol.16, Issue 1, 2011


[1] Cross, Michael in Conversation with Brian Whitener, Genocide in the Neighbourhood II http://disinhibitor.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/genocide-in-neighborhood.html

[2] Romanos, Eduardo. Evictions, Petitions & Escraches: Contentious Housing in Austerity Spain. 2013

[3] Romanos, 2013

[4] Romanos 2013

[5] Mihai, Michaela, Denouncing Historical “Misfortunes”: From Passive Injustice to Reflective Spectatorship

[6] Benegas, , Diego, ‘If There’s Justice…’ Trauma and Identity in Post-Dictatorship Argentina. Performance Research: a Journal of Performing Art, Vol. 16, issue 1, 2011 p.24

[7] Benegas, 2011 p.24

[8] Colectivo Situaciones. Situational Knowledges (the Escrache), 19th & 20th: Notes for a New Social Protagonism, Common Notions, New York, 2003 p.204

[9] Romanos 2013

[10] Whitener, Brian. Genocide in the Neighbourhood, Chainlinks, London, 2010  2010 p.86

[11] Begegas, 2011 p.28

[12] Benegas, 2011 p.22

[13] Sommer, Doris Cultural Agency in the Americas, Duke University Press, NC, 2005 p.13

[14] Donovan, Thom (trans Whitener, Brian) 5 Questions for Colectivo Situaciones  http://blog.art21.org/2011/03/16/5-questions-with-colectivo-situaciones/

[15] Donovan, 2011

[16] Seidel, Katja. Political Power Reconstructed, 2013

[17] Pablo, E. cited Day Gramsci is Dead, Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, Pluto Press, London,  2005 p. 34

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