Chile’s national police force, the Carabineros de Chile, have filed a legal suit against the feminist artistic collective Las Tesis for allegedly inciting violence against the police. In doing so, the Carabineros have lain bare the mechanisms by which the violence of Chile’s patriarchal rapist state is entrenched and institutionalized, conjuring an insidious through-line connecting the censorship and violence of the country’s civic-military dictatorship (1973-1990) to the struggles against police brutality in Chile—and much of the world—today.
The Carabineros’s suit is the juridical extension of the repressive police brutality that has met the massive social movement convulsing Chile since October of 2019. The movement, which coalesced as Chile Despertó (Chile Awoke), was initiated by secondary school students who, in response to a four percent metro-fare hike, coordinated a fare evasion campaign that quickly escalated into a wave of protests and civil disobedience. In response to this escalation, Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, declared a state of emergency on October 18th and subsequently issued a curfew in Santiago—government actions that had not been taken since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Trucks with water cannons and tear gas rolled through the streets, conjuring the chilling memories of the 1973 military coup. On October 20th, Piñera rescinded the fare hike.
But the protests did not stop. Though the civil unrest and mass demonstrations were incited by the fare increase, they were fueled by a deep and long-standing dissatisfaction with the profound inequalities fostered by Chilean neoliberalism: one of the chief failures of the country’s democratic transition. Though Piñera had intended the curfew to quell the uprising, it spurred it forward, prompting protests around the country and transforming the unrest in Santiago into a national movement. As the protests grew in size and multiplied around the country, activists have made sweeping demands including transformations of the education, healthcare, and pension systems, an increase in wages, gender parity in government, an end to sexual violence, the resignation of Piñera, and a new constitution to replace the hitherto intractable one imposed by the dictatorship in 1980.
The Carabineros have met this movement with gross human rights violations, including torture, sexual abuse, homicide, and excessive use of tear gas and force. In one of the most chilling patterns of human rights violation, the police have maimed and/or blinded hundreds of protestors by shooting them directly in the eyes with rubber bullets. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN have condemned the human rights violations of the Carabineros and other state organizations.
In this context of civil unrest and police repression, Las Tesis rose to prominence with their viral performance, Un Violador en tu camino (A Rapist in your path). The collective’s name references their project: giving performative life to feminist theory, thus allowing it to reach a wider audience. A Rapist in your path ominously to a slogan of the Carabineros during the 80s and 90s: “un amigo en tu camino” (a friend in your path). Based on the feminist theory of Rita Segato, the work was first performed by hundreds of women in the streets of Valparaíso and subsequently Santiago. The women wore black blindfolds and green bandannas: the blindfolds to call attention to the protesters shot in the eyes with rubber bullets; the green bandannas in solidarity with the transnational ni una menos movement combatting violence against women. The women chant a text denouncing patriarchal violence, accompanying their words with simple, yet powerful choreographic gestures, some—such as a repeated squat—evoking the degrading physical positions the Carabineros frequently made women detained during protests perform. The chanted text deftly connected gender violence with the systemic state violence of the patriarchal state:
And it’s not my fault, not where I was, not how I was dressed
The rapist was you.
The rapist is you.
It’s the cops.
It’s the judges.
It’s the system.
It’s the president.
The oppressive state is a macho rapist.
The oppressive state is a macho rapist.
The rapist is you.
Despite the seriousness of the performance’s damning denunciations, its energy was liberatory and empowering and the text and movements are catchy and easily replicated—which it soon was. Videos of the performance circulated virally, and the performance was subsequently staged as part of feminist actions denouncing systemic violence around the world. Las Tesis has thus become an international symbol of the Chilean resistance, and their performance infused the social movement with a kind of intersectional coherence and energy.
As the protests continued through the end of 2019 and into 2020, the movement gained ground, eventually winning a vote to overturn and rewrite the constitution. As of this writing, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to the protests driving the movement and allowed the government to regain its previously tenuous control, delaying the constitutional vote and imposing new curfews and police-enforced lockdowns in the name of public health.
Under the confines of lockdown Las Tesis has continued to mobilize performance to protest. In May of 2020, they collaborated with the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot to release the video, a Manifesto Against Police Violence. The Manifesto contains Las Tesis’s song, 1312 (a numerical reference to ACAB, the acronym for “all cops are bastards,” which has been graffitied throughout Santiago since October), which builds upon their call for a radical reorientation of Chilean society, expresses solidarity with health care workers, and condemns the brutality of the police.
In their suit, the Carabineros allege that the phrase “fire to the police” included in the song directly incites violence against the police. A letter supporting Las Tesis, written by faculty at the University of Valparaíso—and signed by over 1000 artists and academics—points out that this allegation obfuscates the real and excessive violence perpetrated by the police, indicates a willful ignorance about the role of art and artistic expression, and contradicts the freedom of speech. The suit thus constitutes a state-level gaslighting, a “she was asking for it” logic cloaked in institutional-legitimacy drag. That the Carabineros perceive a serious threat in the words and artistic actions that constitute Las Tesis’s performative mode of critique reveals—as has also been apparent in the police response to recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and in the police response to the very presence of Black lives in public spaces—the toxic fragility of the patriarchal state and the violence upon which its power has been built and must perpetuate in order to exist.
Since the fall of the civic-military dictatorship, freedom of speech and artistic expression have been among the most contested democratic rights in Chile, particularly as they relate to the institutionalization of violent power. In 2000, a group of college students faced a legal and political onslaught from current and former military officers for their performance of a play which depicted a 19th century Chilean military hero, Arturo Prat Chacón, in an unflattering light. In 2019, the singer Mon Laferte was also sued by the Carabineros, for speculating that they played a role in the fires set at several metro stations during the protests. In the case of the suit against Las Tesis, the very allegation made by the Carabineros is irrelevant to their pursuit of the case: though Las Tesis immediately removed the phrase from the song, the police have not dropped the suit. The Carabineros’ actions render apparent the claims of Un violador en tu camino: that brutal force is bolstered and institutionalized by the state apparatus. The Carabineros have thus proven the thesis.
1) While there have been efforts to reform the text—the current version bears more than 20 emendations—wholesale reform has been blocked by the right, who claim (on account of the reforms) that it is not Pinochet’s text. Importantly, however,, none of the reforms touch the subsidiary role of the state (article 19), which has formed the basis of Chile’s neoliberal model. https://www.americaeconomia.com/politica-sociedad/politica/cuales-son-los-articulos-e-interpretaciones-mas-polemicas-de-la ↑
6) Las Tesis facilitated this international re-performance by putting the music online to be downloaded and encouraging other groups of women to perform the song, record it, and share online. Al Jazeera reports that as of December 2019, the song had been performed in over 200 cities. Notably in Istanbul a number of women performing the text were detained by the police. In solidarity, female members of parliament—who are protected by parliamentary immunity, subsequently performed the song in the national legislature. ↑