The sound is rhythmic, insistent – clang, clang, clang – seeming to come from every direction. Metallic and vibrant, it forces its way into our conference rooms. It is lively and infectious, although carrying a thrill of fear, of the unknown. I don’t know whether to dance or run.
Later, I will learn it is called cacerolazo – literally ‘stew pot’ in Spanish – referring to the way the noise is made, by banging on pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. It’s a form of protest that emerged in South America and I heard it for the first time in Santiago, Chile, during the Transformations2019 conference.
The protests began on the final day of the conference, seemingly in response to an increase in fares on the Santiago Metro system. What began as a wave of fare evasion turned into the destruction of Metro stations, with 17 burned and 81 damaged. Thousands took to the streets, destroying infrastructure, scrawling graffiti and installing burning barricades.
The Chilean government invoked Pinochet-era laws to announce a state of emergency, send in the military to restore order and establish curfews. This seemed to pour fuel on the fire. While the President rolled back the fare increases, the protests only grew over the days that followed. Streams of people banging their pots and pans rolled into Santiago’s plazas, undeterred by the military presence. The metallic clatter was constant – a uniquely participatory form of protest that anyone with a kitchen can join.
Sadly, there was looting, fires, deaths and violence. I saw frequent use of tear gas and water cannons. Buildings that were pristine when I arrived in Chile were quickly covered with protest messages. When I left Chile, the protests were ongoing.
The coincidence of our conference on transformation with the protests was just that – a coincidence. Yet, the protests led many who attended the conference to reflect on the nature of transformation in practice and the role of protest. Some of the best reflections have been collected by my friend Simon Divecha on his website. Here are some of my own thoughts.
There are cracks in ‘the system’
How did a seemingly small increase in public transport fares lead to the wave of protest unleashed in Chile? And why did the protests continue once the fare increase was revoked? Because, ultimately, these protests were about inequality. A fast-growing economy, a success story by the standards the world uses to judge these things, delivered wealth for the few but not for the many.
It’s a story that is repeating around the world. It was at the heart of the Occupy protests in 2011 and is an underlying contributor to ongoing protests in Lebanon, Hong Kong and many other places. The neo-liberal economic system is not delivering justice and well-being for all and its political defenders are seen to have lost touch with the people they are supposed to represent.
It has been clear for a long time that our economic system values profits over people and planet. Our key economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product, do not measure what is really important. They mask ecological destruction and inequality. Discontent with what the economic system is delivering is rising to the surface, evident not only in these protests, but in the rise of populist politics. The cracks in the economic system are appearing and it takes only a small trigger to unleash a wave of discontent.
We need to connect the dots
The above diagnosis means that the diverse protests emerging around the world are connected. Climate strikes by school children around the world, fare evasion in Chile, roadblocks in Lebanon and Extinction Rebellion disruptions in Brisbane are all part of the same phenomenon. Many people in many places have had enough of a system that destroys nature and perpetuates inequality.
As diverse, unconnected protests, their power to change the global system is limited. As different expressions of a single protest, perhaps they can gather more power. What is missing is a connecting narrative that draws attention to common ground rather than differences. Protesters in the streets of Santiago knew this – they stopped me to ask that we get the word out to others around the world, who could share in their struggle.
At the Transformations2019 conference, and in the work of the SDG Transformations Forum, one of the things we have been discussing is how to weave together transformation systems – systems that can deliver the transformation we need to move beyond a stale neo-liberal narrative about what it means to be human on this planet and bring forth a new story. Part of this challenge is to keep connecting the dots – to draw attention to common ground rather than difference.
Transformation is messy
The Chilean protests were also a timely reminder for conference participants that transformation is messy. It can be violent, uncertain, contradictory.
At the conference, we were perhaps guilty of theorising transformation as something pure and beautiful. The classic, cliched symbol of transformation is the butterfly – a symbol of beauty emerging from its chrysalis. Yet we forget that the butterfly emerges from the complete destruction of the caterpillar, broken down into its component parts inside the chrysalis and rebuilt. Transformation involves destruction as well as creation.
Once transformation gets underway, do we have any real control over where it goes? One of the ironies of the Santiago protests was that the first thing destroyed was the ability of the Metro to function. When people were so reliant on the Metro that a small rise in fares could send them out to the streets, destroying what they relied on seemed counterproductive. So it goes with transformation. It doesn’t have to be logical or linear.
We can be sure that powerful people and institutions will not give up their power easily, no matter how many people take to the streets. While transformation may never be tamed, we need to always be focused on both process and goal. We can’t afford to be blinded by the bright light of a better future to the struggles and losses that will happen along the way.
The protests in Santiago contained dark and light. The urge towards equality and the passion to protest for it is admirable, but the deaths and destruction were tragic. Yet there was something about that metallic, insistent clang echoing through the streets that filled me with hope. One sign expressed it as Chile desperto – ‘Chile woke up’. I hope the rattle of the cacerolazo echoes around the world until el mundo se despierta – the world wakes up.
This video captures the sound and images of the protests if you want a sense of what it was like on the streets.