20 July 2020
Three months of protests in Slovenia
Culture is a guardian of sleep of the middle class.
Graffiti on the wall of Ministry of Culture, May 2020.
On March 12, 2020, Slovenia went into a lockdown after declaring the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic. A day later, right-wing Prime Minister Janez Janša, took over the government. What followed were three months of repressive measures, often disguised as anti-pandemic laws, which made already existing contradictions within society even more visible and dire. Government policies were met with massive self-organized resistance, and the Slovenians’ mass protests on bicycles were one of the first attempts in the world to explore what it means to fight against social injustice on a massive scale, whilst maintaining social solidarity within a pandemic.
Cultural workers and creative actions played an important role in the still ongoing wave of unrest that has redefined the notion of collectivity in a time when the individualization of our lives has become mandatory. The following is a short summary of what has happened.
Prelude: from the uprising of 2012/2013 to the protests of 2020
The last time Janez Janša was in power, he was met with six months of uprisings in the winter and spring of 2012/2013, which eventually led to his resignation. This was the biggest continuous social and political unrest the country had seen since its fight for independence in 1991. It was marked by massive direct action, while the diverse movement itself was self-organized by various anti-capitalist and other initiatives, within which cultural workers played a visible role. The protests were also marked by anti-corruption and anti-austerity topics, as well as a general distrust in the political class.
In the years since, Slovenia was ruled by what can only be described as governments of extreme center. They introduced several laws that increased the authority of military and police to be used against the civil population, installed barbed wire on the southern border, and maintained extremely restrictive immigration policies. In many ways, those characteristics set the stage for more ideologically far right policies, immediately introduced by the new right-wing government.
Once the pandemic of COVID-19 hit Slovenia, most civil society actors and institutions, largely dependent on state funding, were met with the new reality – lockdown, lack of funding, an uncertain employment future; all mixed with restrictive, authoritarian governmental policies, and a new style of ruling largely marked by hate speech, character assassinations in the press, and the spread of fake news through government owned and controlled media. #stayathome was quickly adopted by the people as the only way to remain in solidarity, often forgetting it only applies to the financially stable and educated, middle class populace. Meanwhile, industrial production continued undisturbed, often in risky health conditions, while cities and states closed down support structures for the homeless, thus leaving a vulnerable part of the population in even more precarious situations.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, it was the self-organized social movements who offered a different vision of social solidarity, aimed at supporting those cut off from state-led welfare structures (such as the elderly, homeless, and the poor). They offered a vision of direct social care as an answer to state imposed quarantine, which accommodates only those who can afford it.
These attempts coincided with the need to address the question of political protests and building a collective experience of dissent in times of imposed individualization. State responses to the pandemic marked a return to the patriarchal society – limiting social interactions to the immediate family members, combined with the oppressive language of the “dangerous and dirty Other,” who spreads the virus. The only safe environment became the notion of home, while everything else posed a risk. This created a claustrophobic atmosphere, in which authoritarian measures, such as the attempt to use the military to monitor and control migration flows, were unable to be met with dissent on the streets. Anti-authoritarian, mostly anarchist social movements in the country, recognized this as the first attempt from the new government to establish authoritarian rule in Slovenia. This created the need to form a collective response which would still be able to protect people in struggle from the dangers of the pandemic, whilst offering a platform to express anger over the political measurements.
At beginning of April, roughly three weeks after the introduction of quarantine, an alliance of different anti-authoritarian, anarchist and autonomous initiatives created a decentralized call for sound demonstrations on balconies. Urging people to visibly mark and transform their home space into political territories (such as with banners, slogans etc), it was an attempt to break the cycle of re-patriarchalisation. To radicalize traditional patriarchic spaces in which we live, whilst creating a tool for neighborhoods to connect in a common, yet safe action.
Meanwhile, people were also finding creative ways of expression on the streets. While the state prohibited collective gatherings in public space (limited to only people you live with, even merely for recreation), people from all walks of life were discovering ways in which they could do solo political actions. Walls in the city center were densely covered by political graffiti, people were filming themselves jogging with political banners, and the square in the front of the parliament became plastered with black crosses, thus marking the 1.5 meter social distance that would still allow protesting, while people set up pictures of their feet in front of the parliament in a similar fashion.
On April 24, a week before May Day, the anti-authoritarian initiative that had at that point been doing sound demonstrations on balconies for almost a month, called for the first bicycle demonstration in the city center. Bicycles were chosen because they allowed social distancing as well as social solidarity against the virus for those who needed it, all while allowing the presence of a collective body in dissent. Several hundreds of people joined the call to protest authoritarian policies, militarization, and capitalism, creating one of the biggest protests in the world during the COVID-19 lockdown. This marked the beginning of numerous protests all over the world against authoritarian measurements of states, and against repression of dissent under the pretense of fighting the pandemic, while many parts of the world continued to fail in protecting the people against the spread of the virus.
The stage in Slovenia was now set for new things to come.
Creative direct action
The May Day demonstration on bikes attracted wide support, and self-organized protests gathered close to ten thousand people who completely blocked the city center and around major crossroads with bicycles, creating traffic chaos. Messages were anti-authoritarian, in solidarity with nature, and against militarization and capitalism.
Soon afterward, the first assembly in the autonomous cultural center of Metelkova followed, marking the beginning of three mutually supporting blocs – anti-capitalist, cultural, and environmental – that has since initiated action on the streets. Every week the routes of cyclists changed: from Ministry of Culture, to Ministry of Environment; from Parliament to public television; from the main hospital to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Protests were met with unprecedented policing – hundreds of people were either detained or had their information taken for breach of quarantine and are still in process of receiving penalties. Soon, the public discourse and protests themselves became geared toward an anti-police sentiment, addressing both repressions abroad (in front of US Embassy) and at home. It became clear that the battle here was larger than against the mere subduing of one particular protest, but rather, against a government trying to impose new limits of dissent in public spaces. Protesting against the fence around Parliament and against policing therefore became the symbolic point of struggle for free expression of dissent in public space.
Looking back at the protests in 2012/13, it is often discussed among activists that part of the demobilization was also caused by the culturalization of protests – considered here is the introduction of creative communication actions that often only served as a spectacle, but were not challenging the existing relations of power. This was one of the arguments about being careful in introducing exclusively creative actions within the movement this time around. One of the strongest moments from this wave of protests, was the coexistence and mutual support between different forms of action, from more militant direct action to more symbolic ones. When Prime Minister and government controlled media attacked the anti-capitalist bloc and antifa as terrorist, other blocs, namely cultural, publicly defended them. It became clear that mutual solidarity creates an environment in which protests are far less controllable. If only limited to militant direct action, they are bound to be subdued by repression, and if only limited to symbolic mass action they are limited to self-neutralization. Together, the combination of both approaches creates a more incisive social unrest and edginess.
Friday protests were full of creative actions. From climbing and pushing the fence around the Parliament, to displaying different placards of messages against the government and dropping banners of revolt from bridges. The Ministry of Culture was marked by a banner saying “We refuse to give up art for cultural mess”, that later became the slogan of the cultural bloc’s future protests. Almost all actions were met with heavy police repression, resulting in a spontaneous demonstration in front of the police station, until all protesters were released. Besides smaller and more socio-politically oriented assemblies in autonomous spaces (three so far), experiments with direct democracy also took place in a bigger setting as part of one of the Friday protests. During one of them in July, several thousand protesters gathered to discuss topics which included new alternative political models, health, street action, environment, and culture.
Outside of the Friday mass protests, smaller actions and forms of dissent continued through the following months. Environmental actions mostly took place in front of the Ministry of Environment, including sit-ins and protests, as well as the symbolic mass walking that occurred around the river Sava. Journalists protested the new media law, which was supported by other blocs. The Ministry of Culture saw five smaller protests of a few hundred people. These addressed the systemic problems within the current cultural model, which was leaving people in precarious and perilous situations. These were the first continuous large-scale protests in front of the Ministry in the history of independent Slovenia. Actions in front of the Ministry included plastering the outside of the building with all of unanswered memos of cultural organizations during the pandemic to improve the situation of the artists; lying on the street in silence for several minutes; sitting on the chairs in the streets; watching the Ministry’s lack of response at the police violence against artists during the Friday protests; dropping tools of artistic work in front of the building; and reading in front of the ministry, amplifying the dissent of voices. Nearby, the Museum of Contemporary Art also expressed solidarity with activists by showing artwork on the building’s exterior during the protest.
Other smaller actions continued throughout the city expressing concern for other pressing issues such as rape, women’s rights, migration, repression, militarization, and notably, antifascism (critically after Neo-Nazis appeared on the streets, though only drawing an extremely small crowd).
New terrain of struggle
The composition of these protests is extremely diverse, and often conflictual in ideas between themselves. Despite a glaring rejection of political parties on the streets, it is clear that both the opposition and the current governmental parties seek to gain something from the protests, whether it be legitimization for more repressive measurements or support for elections.
It would however, be wrong to assume that protests can be reduced to only desiring a change of current government, since a large part of the movement rejects current political and capitalist systems while actively seeking alternative political modes of horizontal self-organization and anti-authoritarianism, combined with a clear anti-fascist positioning against all forms of oppression.
The challenge now posing itself to the majority of protesters has become complex. It is clear that we no longer live in times when mobilization lasted for a short period to be followed by long periods of assumed social peace. As the historical compromise with the working class is coming to an end, it is becoming clearer that the states, especially led by right and/or far right political parties, are willing to use violent means of repression to maintain the illusion of the security of a welfare state. As a consequence of new forms of government, and experiences of this year’s mobilization, it is becoming evident that we are looking at new forms of social movements. In them, weeks, months or even years of ongoing social protest will be the enduring form of dissent on the streets.
Therefore, the question for the movement that remains is how to maintain the strength, attention and constant mobilization, while avoiding activist burnouts. Of how to create a common space in which a diversity of tactics is possible, and how to keep the struggle open for different forms of expression and topics to be addressed. But importantly, how to maintain unpredictability, within a constant reinvention of what political conflict means.