The Escrache is an Intervention on Collective Ethics
Diego Benegas

The escrache is a particular political demonstration that emerged in Argentina in the turn of the century by the organization H.I.J.O.S. The members of H.I.J.O.S. started the escraches as a way of showing to the community the presence of unpunished criminals of the dictatorship (1976-1983). Since then, many other collectives and individuals have used it as a way of public demonstration. I analyze the escraches of H.I.J.O.S. based on a series of interviews to members of the organization, some published material, and declarations. The escraches have been characterized as public shaming, and have been linked with other kinds of public ritual. I argue that they constitute an original form of collective action that builds community and intervenes in the social process of construction of ethics. Aiming to build social condemnation, the escrache interpellates the neighbors as ethical subjects. The spread of the escraches as forms of public action might be pointing to the tension between collective and individual responsibility as a key aspect of the social crisis in 21st century.


A kind of collective action


Form The escrache is a form of collective action that appears in Argentina at the end of the 20th century. The word comes from lunfardo, slang from Buenos Aires city, and means to uncover in public (ref). The escrache as a specific kind of political action started by the organization H.I.J.O.S., initially composed by children of persons disappeared by the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983). After H.I.J.O.S., many other organizations and individuals have used this kind of political action and the genre has spread across social groups in different contexts and struggles. This paper looks at the escrache as the members of H.I.J.O.S. conceive it in order to analyze its characteristics and the mechanisms of its action.
Scholars have associated escraches with different kinds of collective action. Susana Kaiser signals its resemblances with the marking of the houses of lepers in medieval times in Europe (2002, 500). Analyzing the escraches as a communication strategy, Kaiser reflects on the effects of the escraches in bringing back issues of the past and challenging "impunity and political amnesia" (ibid). Her analysis of opinions of non participants bring to the discussion several aspects of which two are most related to our question on how the escraches accomplish their objectives. Kaiser signals that the escraches have "brought back the past into the public sphere" (511), installing a discussion that is not easy to disregard by the media. The second aspect is that escraches have been successful at informing people. The author mention a fact that will be crucial in our discussion, she affirms, "HIJOS [sic], thus, has forced people to publicly define their positions" (ibid). She asks questions about it, but does not develop all the consequences of this statement. I will come back to this aspect in the discussion of interpellation.
Other author that has studied escraches is Diana Taylor (2002). She defines the escraches as "acts of public shaming" and affirms that they constitute a "form of guerrilla performance" (Taylor 2002, 151). Exploring the way memory of traumatic events gets transmitted through performance, Taylor traces the genealogies of style between the activism of the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, the activism of the generation of the 1970s, and the style of political demonstration that H.I.J.O.S. exhibit in the escraches.
The author traces the different genealogies in the activism of H.I.J.O.S., the resemblances with the strategies of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers of disappeared, and how it also resembles the persecution and "public relations war". She differentiates the actions of human rights organizations from the state terrorism campaign based on the fact that human rights movements target "individuals responsible for gross crimes against humanity" (163) and that their actions do not engage in violence, for their activism claims "for institutional justice, not private vengeance" (ibid).
These differences are paramount and must never been forgotten. Yet the escraches differ from the strategies of state terrorism in one more aspect, a crucial one. Escraches aim to produce a different subjectivity, opposed to the one produced by state terrorism. The escrache builds community intervening in the social process of construction of ethics.

Building up an escrache


The members of H.I.J.O.S. describe different kinds of escrache. There are different kinds of them, and every regional group has a different way of realize them. Some groups rely more in the use of the street demonstration and some on poster campaigns. Moreover, this form of collective action has evolved over the time and has changed according to the social and political evolution of the country. However, we can point to certain characteristics that are shared throughout the organization and that give this form of action its cohesiveness. I describe here some of the characteristics that are present in many of the descriptions that the members of the organization provide of them.
The first task to do for an escrache is gathering information about the person to be targeted. This includes information about his action during the dictatorship, his involvement in state terrorism, the crimes for which he was tried and information about the trial. H.I.J.O.S. relies usually in the archives of Madres de Plaza de Mayo for this data collection. It is important to say that the majority of the persons that are targeted by H.I.J.O.S.'s escraches have been tried and sentenced. Therefore, the information about the judicial trials is, theoretically, public, and even if it is not of easy access, it can be gathered from the courts. However, in some states, there is no so much information available, either because there were no trials, or (and) because the information was (conveniently) lost. In those cases, the task of gathering information can be both the principal and the most difficult one.


A particular piece of the gathering of information is to find the most current photograph possible of the targeted person. This is signaled always in the interviews. The current picture is the link between the information of the history, the trial, the past, and the everydayness of the life in the neighborhood. In the task of building bridges between the quotidian and the extraordinary, the picture puts a face to the information that, talking about concentrations camps, torture, disappearances, remains otherwise abstract and out of the world of the everyday.
The second task of the escrache is the preparation for the actual street demonstration. This process, called pre-escrache, consists in working in the neighborhood where the targeted criminal lives calling for popular participation. For this task, H.I.J.O.S. opens the participation to different social actors interested. In this way, artists, neighborhood associations, different kinds of organizations, groups, and also individuals take part. The "Mesa de Trabajo de Escraches" in Buenos Aires City is a collective organization of this kind. When they decide the place to work, they usually move the meeting place to that neighborhood and have their meetings, moving in this way, their base of operations. In this way they aim to involve the social actors of the neighborhood in their task.


Working in the neighborhood involves tasks of many different kinds. Some of them include working with the children of the neighborhood in the public parks, calling the old people of the neighborhood to talk about their memories, contacting the different organizations of the neighborhood to talk about their current issues. All this different activities involve working in the public space of the neighborhood and in different ways, reconstructing the collective memory of the area. With all this collective work, when the day of the escrache comes, a multitude of groups, organizations, and individuals are gathered in an action that becomes entangled with their lives in the most immediate way.
An important task is to publicize information: when, where, and why the escrache will be made. To this end, poster campaigns are broadly used. Some of the posters rely on the iconography of criminal persecution. The posters have the face of the targeted person, his name, address, and telephone number. They mention the history of the crimes of that person and the reasons for his freedom - the laws or presidential pardon that allowed him to be free. They also include the date, time, place of the demonstration.


The day signaled for the escrache, the members of H.I.J.O.S. together with all the people that want to join them gather in some place in the neighborhood and make a demonstration that usually goes from a central park in the neighborhood, transiting the streets and ending in the house of the targeted person. These demonstrations have a mixed climate that resembles somehow both parade and a political demonstration like a union strike. It is part of the tradition of public demonstrations in Argentina the use of drums. However, different drums and different kinds of rhythms mark a union demonstration from a carnival. Escraches rely more on this second aesthetics. They are noisy, colorful, and quite musical. It is common the presence of pigs-on-wheels and different giant dolls and effigies. The other element that is almost always present is the police safeguarding some perimeter of the house of the targeted person. This contributes to make sure the feeling is not that of the carnival. Many times the courts have declared escraches illegal and the police have been instructed to repress the people demonstrating at the least sign of violence or misconduct.


Perhaps this is the reason why H.I.J.O.S. makes so strict rules for the escraches. They instruct the participants with a series of rules and regulations that maintain the performance very well defined. The participants are not allowed to shout slurs other than specific ones, i.e., genocida (genocidal criminal), assassin, murderer, or torturer. They instruct the participants not to damage the property of the neighbors. The only place that is painted is the pavement of the public street, with one exception: red watercolor will be splashed to the front of the house of the targeted person. This is the mark of the escrache.


The demonstration ends usually in front of the house of the targeted person, or as close as the police allow it. In this moment they read a manifest with all the information about the person, the reasons to be there, and this is usually linked to the political situation of the country at that moment. The chanting "we will always come back" is also present as a promise and opening.
Many times the members of H.I.J.O.S. state that the post-escrache, the period that follows the actual demonstration, is the most important. They affirm that is when the escrache produces its effect. Recollections of what happens when H.I.J.O.S., always with the promise of return, leaves the neighborhood, include stories of the neighbors making the targeted person pay for the cleaning of the common building, or the story about the neighbors photocopying and distributing on their own, H.I.J.O.S.'s pamphlets, or neighbors refusing to engage with that person in different ways. This is regarded as the most important moment for a variety of reasons, but principally because that is the moment when memory and justice is not a question of H.I.J.O.S. only, but of the people in the community on their own.

Understanding its mechanism


With this description, we can see that the aim of the escrache is not only to target the person that is hiding a crime, but also intervene in the community that hosts him. It is not important that the targeted person is at home, in actuality, they usually are not at home. In addition, there is not so much to say to that person and the confrontation face to face, regarded by some members of H.I.J.O.S. as an extremely powerful moment, is not per se the most effective aspect of the action.
However, the community that hosts him - the community in which this person is part - is a central actor and the most important addressee of the escrache. All the previous work in the neighborhood talks about a work that exceeds the actual expressive moment and points to a face of the escrache as a collective intervention in the community. See for example, the poster campaigns, the different workshops in the neighborhood, and even the important place that the histories of neighbors "on their own" continuing the escrache. The escrache aims the criminal, but its most important target is the community that hosts him, because it is the community that is allowing him, and certifying him too, as a respectable person, a good neighbor, and perhaps exemplary member of his community. This is the intervention the escrache makes on community ethics.


The work of the escrache points to change the relative positions of the members of the community. To analyze this we have to see how is the situation that allows the criminals to hide and the justice to pardon them. In this sense, the escrache is the action that expressed the diagnostic that H.I.J.O.S. realizes of the state of society in regards to ethics. There is a situation similar to uncertainty but more complex. A kind of split of the opinions and judgment that resembles what Diana Taylor describes as "percepticide" for the field of perception. The members of the neighborhood know who that person is, but at the same time, they do not. This is difficult to think in case of a singular person and we would need to start hypothesizing pathological states like Freud's Verdreigung. However it is simpler to think it at the level of the community. Some people know something, some others know something else, some know about the past of this person, some know about the laws, some have suspicions. But all of these partial knowledges are isolated and not working together. Repression does not cancel knowledge; it makes it un-operative by isolation from other pieces of information, opinion, and action, that would make it worth. In this way, the knowledge is already in the community, but paralyzed and with no consequence.


The escrache changes the positions of the neighbors by bringing together all these knowledges and making them real in the ritual action of putting all together in the public street. In this sense, the performance of the demonstration, that shows people that are willing to risk facing the police to enact what they believe is fair, acquires its maximum strength.
The members of the community find themselves with all these pieces of information, that now are all linked together and, moreover, regarded as true by the action in public. In this sense, what they before only suspected is now confirmed; and what they did not know before and could not ask, has been established as an issue for public discussion. In addition, the neighbors find themselves participating (whether part of the demonstration or from the balconies) in an action that expresses the existence of injustice. So they have the reasons, the permission, and the model for possible collective actions. The resource to claim ignorance of the facts is closed for the neighbors that now have to make a choice about what to do with that knowledge. If the spectacle of the disappearances inscribed knowledge to be regarded as non-existent, the spectacle of the escraches (re)inscribes knowledge but this time to be regarded as real.


Perhaps the most important of the stated goals of the escrache of H.I.J.O.S. is to promote social condemnation of the crimes of the dictatorship. In this way, the escrache interrogates the concept of justice and ethics. We can see justice in at least two ways. Justice is an area of social life over which the state establishes its action. In this sense justice pertains to the bureaucratic administration that makes of it its goal. The legal system, the congress, the law, the courts, the police, and prisons are part of this machinery of administrating justice over society. However, we can also see justice as a process of conflicts and consensus that happens continuously across the whole society. From this perspective, the state justice is but one part of the process, and even as it is an influential one, justice is not its monopoly.
The escrache intervenes in the process of production of social ethics. The escrache asks the neighbors to enact in public their opinion on an ethical issue. Thus, the escrache makes the neighbors participate in the process of production of collective ethics; if their opinions count for somebody, then they are part of the process.


The escrache assumes the presence of social networks in the community. It is at the interior of the neighborhood that the ethical judgments will be produced. Ethical judgments - the substance of the social process of production of ethics - happen in every social interaction in the everydayness. Jokes, gossip, rumor, stories, urban legends are occasions where ethical judgments are enacted, negotiated, imposed, or consensuated. The escrache inscribe an ethical question about the politics of the state on justice regarding to traumatic events, which inhabit the space of the extraordinary, into the everydayness of the discussions in the neighborhood.
Bringing the judicial politics of the state to the arena of the everyday, the escrache interpellates the neighbors as ethical and political subjects. The escrache addresses the neighbors, the ones that actively participate in the demonstrations, workshops, or assemblies, but also the ones that look at the events through their windows. Producing an event in the streets of the neighborhood, the escrache installs issues for discussion in the quotidian spaces. The grocery store, the sidewalk, the park, will be resignified as they start being political spaces, that is, spaces where the big politics of the state - always mediated - and the traumatic event of the concentration camps - always elsewhere. Then, the escrache is an event that happens in the quotidian space of the neighborhood and installs issues of politics and justice for discussion in the neighborhood. In this sense, the escrache produces a scene of the politics and asks the neighbors their ethical position.


Bringing the politics to the immediacy, and at the same time, canceling the resource to ignorance of the happenings, the escrache situates the neighbors as the addressees of a question about ethics. When you know that there are other members of your community of everyday interaction that know that you are informed of something, you are put in a situation where your behavior - whatever this might be - will be regarded as your opinion statement, a manifesto. Without the resource to "not know", or the other of conceiving violence "elsewhere," your behavior constitute your ethical opinion, hence, the neighbors become ethical legislators, producing themselves as ethical and political subjects.

Conclusion


Even though the escrache has been characterized only as public shaming, it constitutes a particular kind of political demonstration. H.I.J.O.S. started the escraches in the 1990s as a way of showing to the community the presence of unpunished criminals of the dictatorship. Despite the fact that today, many collectives and individuals use it as a way of public demonstration, in what has been called the "generalization of the escrache," I analyzed this form of collective action in the activism of H.I.J.O.S. The escraches constitute an original form of collective action that builds community and intervenes in the social process of construction of ethics. Conceiving the neighborhood as a political space, the escrache interpellates the neighbors as ethical subjects.


The spread of the escraches as forms of public action might be pointing to a key aspect of the social crisis in 21st century. The fact that as a way of social protest, the escrache has been so widely used points to a deep source of the contemporary Argentine crisis. The tension between collective and individual responsibility seems to be in the heart of the public discussions about the kind of society we are building.


Works Cited

Kaiser, Susana. 2002. "Escraches: demonstrations, communication and political memory in post-dictatorial Argentina." Media, Culture & Society 24: 499-516.

Taylor, Diana. 2002. "'You are Here': The DNA of Performance." The Drama Review 46, no. 1: 149-169. Also in The Archive and the Repertoire, 2004.

Vezzetti, Hugo. 1998. "Activismos de la memoria: el 'escrache'", Punto de Vista 62, 1-7.

de Certeau, Walking in the city (and the other article where he talks about the neighborhood

"La Identidad no se Impone… Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo…" [poster] Córdoba: HIJOS Archives.

H.I.J.O.S. 2002. "Texto a ser leido en el escrache a Luis Donocik alias "Polaco Chico"" available at http://www.escrache.org/discursodonocik.htm, last acceced April 8th, 2003.

H.I.J.O.S. "Escrache: 9 hipótesis para la discusión." In H.I.J.O.S. Magazine, year 6, number 10, autumn 2001, 35-37. Buenos Aires, Argentina.