By Nikola García
Emergent Conversation 15
This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power
Scene one: A burnt-out bus near Santa Lucia Hill. Since the morning, people gathered there and danced around it to the rhythms they beat on its burnt metal frame. Groups climb on top of the burnt-out structure and jump up and down. Meanwhile, groups climb inside the burnt bus and take turns posing for photos at the steering wheel, pretending to drive. Meanwhile, an elderly street musician sits in the back and plays his harp.
Scene two: The soldiers arrive in Plaza Baquedano, the central node of post-dictatorship Santiago. There tanks are flanked by the Carabineros (Chilean national police). Crowds of masked and unmasked protesters heckle and berate them, screaming that they don’t belong here. The riots spread all along the Alameda. Six buses are torched in the southernmost sector of the plaza. There is no lack of conspiracy theories, and a rumor spreads that the government intentionally parked those buses, baiting the crowds to burn them. But in this moment, does it matter who burnt them and why? What is relevant is that there are burnt buses in the middle of the city.
Scene three: A looted supermarket in Cerrillos. Essential items are taken. Crowds take televisions, varied products, including blankets, diapers, and home appliances. Some items are looted to add to the flaming barricades in the surrounding streets. Looted beer and liquor circulate through the crowd. The dancing, singing, and rejoicing is contagious.”
In October 2019, a high school student-led “mass evasion” protest against a public transit fare hike triggered riots throughout Santiago, leading to ongoing social unrest now referred to as Chile’s “Social Explosion” (Estallido Social). After the initial months of riotous protests throughout Santiago, citywide protests became concentrated in Plaza Baquedano, which protesters renamed Dignity Plaza (Plaza Dignidad) after the scenes described above continued at downtown Santiago’s transportation hub. In November 2021, protests in Dignity Plaza continued with regularity. Each Friday, thousands of people from the disparate corners of peri-urban Santiago start their weekends by converging onto Dignity Plaza to participate in festivities that blur the lines between peaceful protest and boisterous riot. Each time the protesters assemble in Dignity Plaza, so too do the Carabineros. Often through violent yet “less than lethal force,” hundreds of riot police seek to first contain and later disperse the crowds with armored police vehicles, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. In response to the ongoing street violence, residents surrounding Dignity Plaza coordinated to set up street medic stations in their neighborhoods where doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians provided first aid and emergency medical triage.
This essay draws on an online, interactive map to situate the heterogeneous activities observed in Dignity Plaza during fieldwork I conducted between October 2019-September 2021. I analyze Dignity Plaza’s composition to answer the question: what are the bonds that bridge the vast differences between protesters who come each Friday to Dignity Plaza and residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, whose daily lives have been disrupted by the police brutality, ongoing protests, and physical destruction of their lived environments? Two groups play a central role in each Friday’s protests: “the frontline” (La primera linea), a term which refers to both the area where clashes with the police occur and the groups of masked protesters who come materially combat the police; and the six neighborhood assemblies (asambleas territorialies) surrounding Dignity Plaza, through which neighbors coordinate with medical organizations to turn their streets into medic stations to aid protesters.
It is possible to understand the weekly convergences in Dignity Plaza as an act of prefigurative politics , the “political orientation based on the premise that the ends a social movement achieves are fundamentally shaped by the means it employs, and that movements should therefore do their best to choose means that embody or ‘prefigure’ the kind of society they want to bring about” (Leach 2013). Introduced by Karl Boggs (1977) and recently expanded on by scholars like David Graeber (2002), scholars have found this concept useful to distinguish between how Marxist-Leninist and anarchist political theory understand the role of state authority in their contrasting imaginaries of revolutionary processes. Examining the global protests after the 2008 economic crisis, including Occupy Wall Street (United States), May-15 (Spain), the 2008 Greek Riots, the Arab Spring, and the 2011 Chilean Student Movement, anthropologists argued that social movements adopt a prefigurative politics when participants conceptualize that the futurity of a revolutionary process is determined by the alignment of its’ participants means and ends (Risager 2016). In these contexts, street protests critique existing forms of governance and political economy while their participants attempt to extend “democracy beyond formal institutions into new spheres of life through a range of practices, including the collective seizure of public space, horizontal organization, and general assemblies” (Juris and Razsa 2012). Common goals, shared affinities, or aligned political strategies form the bonds between disparate social groups and diverse practices across time and space.
Discursively, the imaginary of El Pueblo Chileno (the Chilean People) has been the unifying bond among participants in the Chilean social explosion, best summarized by the slogan Chile Despertó (Chile woke up) (Tinta Limón 2021). When understood as a type of prefigurative politics, the social explosion took its shape because the Chilean people, sharing disillusionment with the 1990’s transition to democracy, became unified in their opposition to the neoliberal economic system enshrined in Chile’s 1981 Pinochet-era constitution. Chileans began to re-envision their country’s political foundations to promote an array of social and political goals such as decreasing economic inequality, guaranteeing access to natural resources, ensuring environmental protections, increasing governmental accountability, and guaranteeing Indigenous sovereignty over disputed lands and resources. The Estallido Social set in motion a historic political process in which elected delegates will write a new Chilean constitution that may provide institutional expression to the demands articulated in the protests. Meanwhile, Dignity Plaza endures as a symbol of this historic political process.
While Dignity Plaza endures as a symbol a united Pueblo Chileno, the relationships among its participants are formed through concrete everyday experiences that do not map onto this imaginary. Independent of the seemingly stable political and social identities used to describe the Chilean social explosion, the relationships and tensions among la primera linea and residents are shaped by the material effects of the ongoing, weekly protests in Dignity Plaza. In the months following the Estallido Social, hundreds of residents have moved out of the neighborhoods surrounding Dignity Plaza. One third of the apartments in buildings surrounding Dignity Plaza remain vacant as the traces of Friday protests accumulate in the physical environment and transform daily life. The historic architecture surrounding the plaza stands as a stark reminder of its continued prestige as Santiago’s historically affluent district. Where once would be a city block of businesses with glass windows and doors, there now exists a street flanked by steel walls. These walls have become public canvasses for protesters and street artists alike, who cover them with graffiti and art. Local businesses remain closed, and their shuttered facades serve as palimpsests for graffiti, murals, and artwork. Building owners periodically paint over the graffiti, creating a new canvas for artists to decorate during the next protest.
Due to uncertainty about whether disruptive protesters or police play a greater role in overturning their daily lives, neighbors established the street medic stations out of a simultaneous care for Dignity Plaza protesters and care for their neighbors, independent of their political and social identities. Despite these disruptions to daily life, elderly residents unsympathetic the protests nonetheless support their street’s medic station. Younger residents, who volunteer each week at the street medic station and express unwavering support for the protests, have helped the street medic stations endure and expand. Despite the residents’ contributions to Dignity Plaza, they continue to have underlying anxieties that their neighborhood will never return to its pre-uprising normalcy. As a result, many neighbors began to participate in the street medic station to keep the protests from spilling into their street. However, their initial participation led to new relationships with frontline protesters as they unintentionally found themselves adopting new roles in Dignity Plaza.
Latin American scholars have turned to the framework of destituent power to examine the material practices and experiential energy of the Chilean social explosion, a seemingly spontaneous yet massive event that disrupted urban space and its codes (see Agamben 2014). This body of scholarship focuses on how mass participation in an event suspends the rule of law, and how the broader community experiences situations in which it becomes impossible to follow the law. Alongside this scholarship, situated relationships in Dignity Plaza can be further understood through drawing on Colectivo Situaciones’ compositional analysis of the 2001 Argentine insurrection (Colectivo Situaciones and Fontana 2002). Composition, they argue, “does not refer to agreements established at a discursive level but to the multidimensional flows of affect and desire [which] the relationship puts in motion.” Outside of articulated programs and political strategies, Situaciones argue that studying a social movement requires an attention to the social processes in which participants build relationships through explicit and diffuse networks. Rather than focusing on the subjects produced discursively in these encounters, Situaciones stress an analytic attention to the processes and situations that shape subjects in relation to one another, perhaps in ways not articulated once these processes end.
The Interactive Map of Dignity Plaza
An interactive map illustrates the material relationships and concrete experiences that link these disparate groups and heterogenous activities as part of Dignity Plaza’s broader composition. La primera linea and the residents of Dignity Plaza are positioned in vastly different ways. Most participants in la primera linea come to Dignity Plaza from Santiago’s periphery communities to join the frontlines and, at great risk to their personal safety, push the police out of the Plaza so that thousands can gather to protest. Many residents have decided to stay in their homes surrounding Dignity Plaza because they see an opportunity to participate in a historic moment, but at great cost to their personal safety and daily lives. However, a vast majority are unable to choose whether to continue living in Dignity Plaza due to myriad factors outside their control. As a result, visually and spatially examining the composition of Dignity Plaza reveals unarticulated processes in which participants find themselves contradicting and in turn reforging their political subjectivities.
The May layers represent Dignity Plaza at key moments in time: the protests start around 5 pm, when protesters arrive in the plaza and push out the police that previously prevented crowds from disrupting traffic. By 6 pm, peaceful protests begin in the plaza’s center. At the plaza’s periphery, la primera linea forms to prevent the police from dispersing the crowd. After the peak of attendance at 7 pm, people begin to leave the plaza. Starting around 10 pm, the police begin to disperse protesters, resulting in clashes between masked front liners in la primera linea and police while the crowds spill through the adjacent streets.
Dignity Plaza at 7 PM: This map shows the plaza at its most populated point, when most protesters have arrived. Through mapping the activities in the plaza, this map situates the places where different organizations and individuals arriving at Dignity Plaza can plan to carry out their specific intervention in the protest. The Barricades map layer symbolically demarcates the protest area and in practice delineates the lines of conflict between the crowd and the police. As a result of this dual function, barricades vary in size and material. Often, they are little more than trash bags pulled from the surrounding neighborhoods and lit on fire. When built to intentionally impede the police, groups of protesters work together to pull larger objects from the immediate area and stack them together. When the police disperse Dignity Plaza, the protesters leaving the plaza create impromptu barricades by throwing anything into the street to slow the police. Protesters keep in mind the barricades’ impermanence: once a barricade is built, others will need to disassemble it to let through passing emergency vehicles, and after the protest the police will clear the streets of the barricades’ materials.
The Frontline at 6 PM and 10 PM: These two map layers show the frontline at the beginning and end of a protest in Dignity Plaza. Behind the frontline is a space of various supporting roles, divided into the second line of slingshots and lasers, the third line of tear gas catchers, and the fourth line of street medics. In several streets, neighbors have coordinated with volunteer medic organizations to set up medic stations to provide first aid to protesters and triage for more serious emergency medical services. The smallest medical stations only have nurses who provide basic first aid, and neighbors volunteer outside the stations providing basic treatment for tear gas exposure. The larger SOS/Rescue team stations have an emergency rescue dispatcher who coordinates with teams bringing in the gravely injured from the protests and calls ambulances from the local hospital.
The risk of police violence changes over the course of the protest and both participants and passing bystanders calculate which areas are unsafe at a given point in time. The 6 PM map layer shows the perceived risk of bodily injury in the beginning of the protests of Dignity Plaza when the police have left the plaza and the frontline forms to prevent the police from re-entering. shows the perceived risk of bodily injury when protesters have begun to leave, and police begin their advance into Dignity Plaza to disperse the crowd while the front liners attempt to slow their advance.
Masked protesters have long comprised a section within downtown Santiago marches. As marches advance through Santiago, masked protesters topple streetlights to build barricades, spray painting graffiti, and looting stores. Atypical of protests in downtown Santiago, masked protesters’ activities now delineate the borders of Dignity Plaza’s protest rather than comprising a section of a march. As protesters now gather in Dignity Plaza instead of marching through downtown Santiago, it is unclear who are peaceful protesters and who are disruptive protesters. Despite the clashes with police constituting a normalized component of Dignity Plaza’s festivities, the practice of masking one’s face reveals that protesters understand the norms that structure the plaza remain ambiguous. Although la primera linea participants are heralded as defenders of the peaceful protesters in Dignity Plaza, it is also possible that unsympathetic observers may denounce these youth’s activities to the police, their parents, their employers, or schools. As a result, participants go to great lengths to obscure their identity before engaging in this and other disruptive activities because it is embedded in an ambiguous context where the consequences of their actions remain unknown.
The Shuttered Buildings map layer marks where businesses once were, many sidewalks have been reduced to gravel after protesters gradually chiseled away the concrete for fashioning projectiles to throw at riot police. The parks adjacent to the plaza have been reduced to patches of dirt after thousands of feet have trampled the grass and flowerbeds. Smoldering trash fires dot surrounding neighborhoods after crowds of protesters disperse from the plaza and leave barricades in their wake. Tear gas begins to enter apartment buildings after the wind disperses it from the plaza and carries the chemical weapon’s aerosol a kilometer or more away from where it was launched. The dust kicked up from running protesters eventually settles onto the plaza’s roundabout and adjacent streets, mixing with nerve agent particulates previously suspended in smoke billowing from tear gas cannisters. In the following days, wind and vehicles resuspend the noxious mixture of dust and nerve agents that coats downtown Santiago’s streets.
After a Friday protest a few weeks after the social unrest began, neighbors on the WhatsApp group decided to hold an assembly the next day to discuss if they should set up a medic station on their street. Amidst the protests, racialized, classed, and gendered tensions re-emerged between the long-term, predominately affluent residents and the university-educated, and young professionals moving into the sector which has become Santiago’s official art and cultural district and unofficial LGBT neighborhood. Although most of the Chilean elite flocked to the luxurious ex-urbs east of Santiago in the 1970s and 80s, many upper-class senior citizens have remained in their downtown apartments. These elderly, affluent neighbors now navigate living with their recently arrived neighbors from Santiago’s periphery or other regions of Chile. Individually, residents sympathetic to the protests would stand outside their building and offer people water in front of their buildings and often let protesters into their apartments to use their bathrooms. Affluent, elderly neighbors complained of the frequent visitors and strangers entering the buildings. Although most have been unsympathetic to the protests, many began to protest the police use of force which dramatically impacted their quality of life. Passing each other in the street during the week, neighbors began to get to know each other through recounting their personal experiences in protests and the clashes they observed on the street. As a result of these daily conversations, neighbors began a WhatsApp group and invited others to join.
These neighborhood WhatsApp groups became the forum where neighbors proposed forming neighborhood assemblies and coordinating with street medic teams. In the neighborhood where I conducted fieldwork, a neighbor wrote in the WhatsApp group that a nurse approached him during the protest, representing a street medic team formed by his nurses’ union. The nurse asked the neighbor if their medic team could set up a station on the street during the Friday protests. This would entail blocking off the cul-de-sac several hours before the protest to set up a large field clinic, and string rope across the street to hang partitions which would allow nurses to treat multiple people in privacy. In the back of the cul-de-sac would be a rescue team dispatch station, where a 20-foot radio antenna would be installed each Friday to communicate with the rescue teams in the protest. If the street’s residents approved the initiative, the nurse also asked in what ways individuals could support the station.
The first meeting of the neighborhood assembly was called so neighbors could determine whether to approve the medic station on their one-way street. Roughly 30 residents gathered in the middle of the street and brought out tables and chairs from their apartments to form a circle. Several young parents were in the meeting, with their children sitting on their laps or kicking a soccer ball back and forth in the street. Hardly any of the participants were the elderly, long-term residents of the neighborhood. Rather, most were professionals between 30 and 50 years old that had moved to the neighborhood from Santiago’s periphery. Many of the residents gave their enthusiastic support for the initiative and offered to contribute. Several residents, including a couple living in my building who worked in advertising, proposed to let the street medics store equipment in our apartments in-between protests. In the following months, neighbors would receive texts from the nurses in the street medic team asking permission to drop off medical supplies, protective gear, and other equipment and return on Friday, when they began setting up the medic station. In contrast, other neighbors gave support because they saw the medic station as keeping their street safe by restricting street access during protests.
While the street medic station was the primary topic for discussion, this topic became a platform to deliberate how they could exert control over their street to minimize the protests’ impact on their daily lives. Jaime, a young resident who worked in a nearby art gallery, recounted a conflict that occurred during the protest a week prior between an elderly resident and a younger neighbor on the street. Returning from the frontline during the protest, the young neighbor ran into his cul-de-sac and ducked behind a car to change clothes. After seeing him change clothes and stand outside her building, the elderly resident accused him of trying to break into the vehicle and demanded that he leave her street. In response, the younger resident said she had no right to say what others can do on a public street, especially since they were neighbors. Regardless, the elderly resident refused to believe that he lived next door and accused him of attempting to break into the car. Jaime concluded this story by stating, “While I am less worried about delinquents, I am more worried about sapos (undercover police officers) spying on what happens on our street, especially if we have a public initiative that supports the protests” (Fieldnotes, October 2019). Jaime argued that the neighborhood initiative must consider other residents’ potential safety concerns, reminding the other assembly participants that not all neighbors know each other, not everyone was in the WhatsApp group, and not everyone was invited to the assembly.
He proposed that between then and the protest the following Friday, the neighbors create a list of neighbors and street medic volunteers. Giving this list to the neighbors volunteering at the medic station, would allow those volunteers to ensure that only those on the list could pass through the blue ropes marking off their street. Maintaining control of who could enter during protests, Jaime argued, would assuage elderly residents’ anxieties by keeping strangers and potentially violent encounters off their street. Over the following months, many of the neighborhood assemblies implemented similar protocols in their street medic stations. One neighborhood assembly even constructed a wooden barricade on wheels which they pulled to the front of their cul-de-sac to close their street off during protests. Neighborhood volunteers discovered over the following months that in addition to keeping out masked protesters, their role entailed preventing riot police from evicting and harassing the medic station.
A dramatic example of this occurred during my fieldwork after the rescue team brought a gravely injured protesters into the medic station on stretchers. His injuries required hospitalization, so street medics attended to him while waiting for an ambulance. Before the ambulance arrived, three police vans carrying 21 riot police arrived and parked in front of the street. The police sergeant approached the volunteers at the front of the medic station and demanded to enter the street and detain the protesters. He claimed that their drone taking aerial photos of the medic station had evidence that the injured protester was a suspect from an earlier clash in la primera linea and still had a backpack full of Molotov cocktails inside the medic station. The nurses and doctors in the station refused to release the person, affirming that since he is now their patient he cannot be arrested until he is taken to the hospital and later discharged. “You are not allowed to come in here,” one of the doctors said, “You are free to go and wait at the posta central (central public hospital) if you want to arrest our patient” (Field notes, January 2020). The police countered that the entire street medic station was illegal, even more so because it illegal blocked access to a public street.
After the police threatened to enter by force, the neighbors volunteering at the medic station were joined by other neighbors seeing the commotion from their windows. Together, they linked arms to block the police from entering the street. After a 15-minute stand-off, the ambulance arrived behind the opposing lines of riot police and neighbors. With neither side physically engaging the other, neighbors blocked the police so the injured protesters could be carried into the ambulance. Linked arm in arm, the neighbors expanded their human wall to form a corridor between the ambulance and the medic station, blocking the police’s attempts to grab the injured protesters. This confrontation abruptly concluded after the protesters was taken to the hospital and riot police were called back to support the police lines along Dignity Plaza.
While la primera linea carves out public space for thousands to protest, neighbors bracket off their street for the medic station with concern and care towards the neighbors with whom they share this space. The deliberation in the neighborhood assembly, and the actions taken during the standoff with the police, reveal that neighbors envision the street as a shared, communal area whose rules are decided by those who live on it, independent of their political differences. While the assembly’s deliberation concluded that street should be restricted from protesters, it was through this confrontation with police that neighbors decided to bar entry to police as well. This confrontation was not a result of a predetermined strategy, but instead a shared action rooted multiple, intersecting desires particular to those with an immediate relationship to the street: the desire to keep neighbors, doctors, and volunteers safe from police violence and tear gas; to ensure the street medic station can continue to operate in the future; and to ensure the safety of the injured, anonymous protesters who were someone’s neighbors, friends, or former classmates. Confronted with the immediacy of the situation, neighbors of disparate political identities made the split second decision to join the confrontation. Neighbors who were resentful of violent elements among the protesters nonetheless came to the street to physically block the police from arresting an injured protesters accused of having Molotov cocktails.
This essay began with the question: “What are the bonds that bridge the vast differences between the protesters who come each Friday to Dignity Plaza and the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, whose daily lives have been disrupted by the police brutality and physical destruction of their lived environments? Fundamental differences between protesters and residents shaped their contrasting relationships to Dignity Plaza and one another, and a primary difference was between those who came to the plaza on Fridays to protest and those who had concrete, personal connection to the streets they live on. The street medic station, organized with an affirmation that these fundamental differences exist in terms of their relationships to the urban environment, affirmed bonds between neighbors that stemmed from sharing everyday life on the street. New bonds did emerge between protesters and neighborhood residents in moments like the police confrontation at the medic station because it became impossible to determine in the moment whether neighbors are defending each other, supporting protesters, or refusing police’s attempts to re-assert control over Dignity Plaza. It is very likely that many neighbors may have initially supported or participated in the street medic station as a means of instituting territorial control over Dignity Plaza, springing from their consternation at the new normal in downtown Santiago ushered in by protesters. In an ironic twist, they have found themselves, intentionally or not, instituting these forms of control in ways that further restrict the police’s ability to impose order over public space. In doing so, the residents further routinize activities that suspend the legal codes that govern public space by employing tactics aligned with the broader composition of the Friday protests.
Nikola García is a cultural anthropology PhD Candidate at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Their research interests focus on whether cross-racial interdependencies provide the conditions through which participants can articulate, debate, and implement their visions of how to rectify historic inequalities and colonial legacies. Their dissertation project, “Emergent Citizenships: Mapuche (Indigenous) and Chilean (non-Indigenous) Politics and Belonging in the Peri-urban (Santiago, Chile)” examines how Mapuche and Chilean neighbors have cooperated since the 1960’s land occupation movements to develop organizations and manage shared resources. They utilize traditional ethnographic methods, archival methods, and visual ethnography and employ ArcGIS and online mapping to spatially represent the transformations in neighborhood projects. In doing so, their research tests the hypothesis that Mapuche and Chileans’ history of neighborhood co-management has led to the emergence of intercultural citizenship practices that enable residents to articulate broader visions of how social and political life should be organized in Chile that contrast to the national discourses of neoliberalism. As a 2021 Digital Editorial Fellow, they have curated Emergent Conversation 15, “Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power.”
 To map the risk of police violence, consideration is given to the different types of harm that result from the use of tear gas compared to the use of physical force, such as the advance of armored police vehicles and personnel into the protest, and the use of rubber bullets (perdigones), watercannons (guanacos), and trained animals. In this map, the differentiation between high, medium, and low risk of injury is determined by the following: 1. The concentration of tear gas and the length of time people are exposed to tear gas in an area. 2. The frequency in which police use of physical force in an area compared to rest of the protest. 3. The personal safety gear that protesters use in an area, and the different gear that interview participants view as necessary to enter an area of a protest.
 See Comando Nacional por el NO (1988), “El Comando por el NO protesta del modo más enérgico por los hechos acaecidos en la noche de ayer” (The coordinating committee for the ‘No more Pinochet campaign’ publicly condemns the violent actions that occurred last night). The full dissertation chapter includes both the original public statement and an English translation.
 By political differences, I am referring to both neighborhood residents’ contrasting political party affiliations and their ideas regarding political action. Most of the older residents are affiliated with the center-left coalition of parties called “La Nueva Mayoria” (the new majority) which governed Chile in the decades following the Pinochet Dictatorship. While several of the younger residents were affiliated with La Nueva Mayoria, most were affiliated with the coalition of new left leaning political parties that formed after the 2011 university student movement, “Frente Amplio” (The Broad Front). Their differences regarding political action concerned their contrasting understandings of how street protests relate to political change. From the generation of the 1988 referendum that saw the end of the Pinochet Dictatorship and the transition to democracy, most of the older residents were inclined to believe that street protests should stay within the confines of freedom of speech and assembly so they could lead to political changes at the institutional level. In contrast, many of the younger residents have less trust that political institutions will restructure themselves based on their experiences of protests during the post-dictatorship democratic era failing to achieve their political goals. Lastly, intergenerational family histories of political activity plays a major role in the political differences of both protesters and local residents. Families from peri-urban Santiago whose relatives were involved in ultra-leftist politics and were disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship are more likely to view violent street protests as legitimate in contrast to those from families whose relatives suffered political repression for activities that are now protected as civil rights (Risør 2018).
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