Quarantine Letter #6: Empty Plazas


Dear Friends,   

I’ve been inspired by letters circulated recently by Ill Will Editions, which have offered a helpful window for thinking through the current global pandemic. Reading them, it struck me that several have circled around something like a disjunction or asymmetry between two distinct yet overlapping lines of thought: on one hand, there is the understandable fear that the forms of social control presently implemented will be sustained beyond the pandemic (not unlike they were after 9-11), a concern that directs our attention to state power; on the other hand, there is the disruptive force of the virus itself, like a  non-human agency conducting itself across us, and operating beneath and beyond the waves of governmental and economic measures by means of which the elites in the political class scramble to maintain an increasingly tenuous veneer control and authority. Orion addressed the latter in his letter when he described the virus as a power that has “constructed its own temporality, which immobilizes everything,” a power “capable of extending beyond what the insurrections proved incapable of doing, and actually shutting down the economy.” Two types of agency, two asymmetrical lines of force—how are we to parse their peculiar overlap in this moment, those of us who have never been friends of their ‘normal time’? 

I write to you now from Chile, a place that has been in a state of unrest since October of last year. As it happens, the pandemic’s arrival within the context of an unfolding insurrection provides a moment to  reflect on the modalities of crisis politics and control in the current moment.

Our situation might appear quite the same as anywhere else these days: the Chilean government followed the example of governments around the globe, declaring a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In point of fact, this most recent state of exception is the third that the government has declared in the past decade, since it follows not only the uprising this past October, but also the catastrophic earthquake of 2010. In each of these cases, the maintenance of public order was handed over to the military, which did not hesitate to implement nightly curfews and military checkpoints  restricting and surveying movement. 

Have we shifted from one form of upheaval to another? If so, the relevant distinction would not be between normal and exceptional states, between the rule of law and emergency measures, but rather, in this shift, who is in control over the territory, and how are we inhabiting it? Under what conditions can this question no longer be answered? If it is possible to assess continuity and divergence in our present moment in Chile, one can do so only by looking at the experience of, and contestation over, collectively inhabited territory.  I’d like to share with you a few examples of such experiences, through several portraits of everyday life that capture the myriad of ways people and institutions have responded to the COVID pandemic amidst contestations over territory. 

Variable Enforcement 

On March 15th, 2019, in a televised, national press conference, the Chilean Board of Medicine (colegio de médicos) criticized the current Ministry of Health for improperly implementing its protocols. Since the government was failing to control the outbreak that started in Santiago, they asked everyone in the city to begin a full 14-day quarantine: no work, no school, no leaving the house. Many in the city followed this quarantine—bars and nightclubs owners closed their businesses in the name of social responsibility, and mall employees staged walk-outs and went on strike until the city closed the shopping malls.

It wasn’t until March 20th that the Chilean government finally implemented quarantine measures in Santiago, including full quarantine in territories with high rates of COVID-19, such as the rich neighborhoods of Santiago and the city’s downtown. Those who live inside the quarantine zone must now fill out a form on the police department’s website and download a “temporary pass” before leaving their house. On the form, we must select an option from the list of permitted reasons to travel from our homes, and declare where we are going. We can request a 4 hour pass 2 times a week for basic necessities, a 12-hour pass to go to a doctor’s appointment, and a 30-minute pass to walk their dog. Essential workers can request a salvoconducto, a permit to travel during military curfew or cross military checkpoint. At the beginning of the quarantine, police stations had lines around the block, with people waiting to apply for a salvoconducto.

Along the border of Santiago’s quarantine zones, only a dozen or so military checkpoints exist. We quickly realized we could walk past the handful of guards stationed there. Furthermore, city buses appear to be affected by these quarantine measures. In effect, those who opt to remain at home in the quarantine zone often do so because they are complying with the medical board’s recommendation, rather than the official quarantine measures.

Meanwhile, the official quarantine measures have not been extended to the combative poblaciónes, home to the greatest number of participants in the October 2019 Chilean uprising.  These neighborhoods at the periphery of the city were formed by massive squatter movements in the 1950s and 60s, when residents collaborated to build houses, defend each other from eviction, and negotiate with the government for city infrastructure, schools, and clinics. If you’ve seen videos of riots during the March 29th Day of Combative Youth (Dia del Joven Combatiente), the footage is more than likely from these neighborhoods. 

Back in October, the rebellious tendencies of the poblaciones were no longer confined to those specific areas but proliferated all over, as people circulated in the downtown, metro, supermarkets, pharmacies, and shopping malls. The attacks weren’t against the police and metro—the two obvious symbols of state power—but also targeted the formal economy itself. 

This year, despite the military curfews and fear of the pandemic, the poblaciónes celebrated the day of combative youth by taking the streets and confronting the police. Unlike in central Santiago, public space continues to be open in the poblaciónes. Although there are fewer protests and social life has diminished, the pandemic has not yet fully interrupted life in these areas. Initially, protestors who congregated in Plaza de la Dignidad feared that the government would use its official quarantine measures as an attempt to regain social control after months of Chile’s social uprising. In the end, no heavy effort was made to enforce quarantine measures in those spaces where they would anyway be contested: the boundaries of the quarantine zones and the rebellious territories of the poblaciónes

Control of Public Space

With the new norms of quarantine and social distance, the pandemic has interrupted the shared experiences of protests in the streets and neighborhood events in the plazas. Since October, upheaval has structured our everyday life where we live, rendering our neighborhood projects both possible and necessary. Neighbors formed assemblies in response to the upheaval of the massive street demonstrations. Through assemblies, we hoped to meet each other, and sustain the forces in the streets and life in the neighborhood. People used assemblies to organize and publicize new neighborhood events such as community kitchens, flea markets, children’s theater, and open-air concerts. Meeting in parks, our assemblies would be constantly interrupted by the life of the neighborhood: street dogs greeting us and playing in the middle of the circle, people asking for cigarettes, sitting with us and ranting, and old insurgents saying we should stop talking and start lighting barricades. 

The pandemic has radically interrupted this everyday life. Now, the neighborhood assembly is online. Assemblies, mutual aid, and online workshops are coordinated and announced in their corresponding Whatsapp groups. Uninvited neighbors can no longer drop in spontaneously. My capacity to write in a café was enabled by the possibility that I would be interrupted by an old friend walking in with someone new to meet, or that protesters would spill into the café from Plaza Dignidad to evade the spray of the guanaco (the police’s water cannon tank), interruptions that conferred sense of structure and situated meaning on my work. Could it be that all activity becomes meaningful only when conducted in the public? In any case, we were wrong to have ever looked upon the possibility of interruption as a nuisance or distraction. In fact, the more entangled they were with the lives of others who inhabit our world, the more meaningful our activities became. The quarantine signifies the interruption of this shared sensibility and with it, made all the other interruptions that followed from it impossible as well.

Who Imposes Restriction of Movement?

And yet, things are still happening in Chile: in other regions, residents have continued participating in the uprising by blockading the industries that destroy their territories. In Patagonia, for instance, several towns have been engaged in a decades-long conflict with the players in the salmon industry. By dumping antibiotics, feed, and waste, salmon farms have decimated the waterways on which local fishermen rely, while industrial freight trucks ravage the narrow country roads that connect towns to one another.

When things kicked off back in October, the breadth and depth of the upheaval became apparent to us only after learning that, while Santiago was burning, rural communities were also erecting barricades on country roads and interrupting Chile’s major industries. These same towns blockaded the roads that brought workers and supplies to the Salmon farms. In those days, to get a reading of the situation within one’s city, it sufficed to walk down the street, and yet it was comparatively difficult to gather news of the protests elsewhere in the country. Despite this difficulty, “Free Chiloe” (Chiloe Libre) graffiti proliferated on buildings throughout Santiago. 

When the COVID outbreak began to spread outside Santiago, residents on the Patagonian island of Chiloe blocked ferries carrying salmon industry workers. Eventually, the government restricted transportation to the Island to prevent the spread of Coronavirus; yet, when a ferry arrived bringing additional police forces to enforce the quarantine, Chiloe residents attempted to block that ferry, too. 

A Determinate Ambiguity

In his recent reflection on Agamben and the legacy of the Chilean state of exception, Gerard Munoz offers some insight into why the state’s emergency measures ultimately failed to take any effective hold during the October uprising:

The Chilean debate is in a better position to arrive at a mature understanding of the state of exception, not as an abstract formula, but as something latent within democracies. The dispensation of Western politics into security and exceptionality is not a conceptual horizon of what politics could be; it is what the ontology of the political represents once the internal limits of liberal principles crumble to pieces (and with it, any separation between consumers and citizens, state and market, jurisprudence and real subsumption).

In order to function, the deployment of a state of emergency relies on the liberal distinction between market and state, citizen and delinquent. The Chilean government appealed to the “security of the state”, but the uprising had already disproven the liberal principles of the post dictatorship Chile, and to such an extent that a reversal of course had for a time become strictly unthinkable

In the months following the social explosion, we could not have conceived any event that could bring any swift conclusion to the life of the streets. There was no amount of heavy-handed police repression that could have convinced us of a self-evident need for law and order; no over-hyped constitutional assembly or impending financial crisis could convince us that there was a real, external force that would interrupt the social explosion.  

And yet, here we are: the pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to the uprising in ways we had thought to be impossible. From the first week of the COVID outbreak, Plaza de la Dignidad has been quiet. There has been no lootings, even despite the lack of supplies. Conflicts with the police remain confined to the poblaciones

To what does it owe this power? The pandemic interrupted the uprising because to many , it appeared as an external force. If it possesses a power that no governmental ordinance can rival, this is because its presence tends to shatter the various separations on which the administration of this world depends because it doesn’t recognize the gap between state and market, consumer and citizen, jurisprudence and subsumption. As a result, we no longer know if we are taking care of ourselves in resistance to the state, despite the state, or in subordination to the state. As the pandemic moves through this world, it interrupts the positive contact with which this world is based.  In the absence of such contact, we are left with scrambled claims of obedience and contestation, resistance and self-assertion. 

This is not the place to recall the extent to which the fictive ideals of liberal democracy depended on the growth of a fracture between interior and exterior realms of experience: public reason and private obedience, faith and confession, moral conscience and political right, etc. Where once there appeared a world, full and filthy with attachments, heresies, and allegiances, only a subject—a _self-possessed and autonomous citizen—_would be left to remain. Was this not the project of modern economic governance? 

Not only has the experience of space been re-liberalizing, but also the forms of care have followed suit. As the insurrection recedes, and with it, the bustling and rich horizon of shared attention and concern, the forms of care that now replace it already bear the stain within them of that absence to the world that defined the modern liberal subject. While we, like everyone with a conscience, are moved to care for others more vulnerable than us in this moment, we must not confuse the notions of care wrapped up within practices social distancing with the practices we developed together before the pandemic, and which are only possible by fully inhabiting a shared territory. We are told this crisis threatens the vulnerable, the infirm, the elderly; that, in taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of others; that our role, as participants in a ‘shared world’, is to reduce the spread through social distancing and isolation. Yet, to be deprived of social life and the use of public space, is to be deprived of those very experiences that confer meaning on concepts such as care, support, and community action. After all, to experience a common world is to participate in the activities that make it not merely possible, but real; only through combination and encounter can our singular capacities reveal to us all that outstrips them, all that can only belong to anyone, to everyone. In quarantine, we risk being denied the conditions that make possible an awareness that we inhabit a shared world.

-Emilio, Santiago de Chile

April 24th, 2020