Date of Degree
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Anthropology | Geography | Social and Cultural Anthropology
This dissertation analyzes the role of space-claiming protests by primarily left grassroots social movements in Bolivia's current political transformation. Space claiming includes mass protests that physically control or symbolically claim urban space through occupations of plazas and roads, sit-ins, blockades, and other measures. As a theoretical construct, space claiming brings together tactics of collective action and meanings of public spaces, and looks at the consequences of their interaction. This dissertation is based on ethnographic engagement and oral interviews with protest participants and their state interlocutors during twelve months of fieldwork and archival research. By using detailed ethnographic evidence--of social life as experienced through the human body, the meanings attached to places, and social movement practices--it explains how grassroots movements exerted leverage upon the state through pivotal protest events.
This study shows that the political import of these protests arises from their interruption of commercially important flows and appropriation of meaning-laden spaces in cities like Cochabamba and Sucre. Social movements used spatial meanings, protest symbols and rhetoric to build an imagined community of interest and sovereignty, which claims the right to direct the political course of the state. The presence of indigenous bodies, symbols, and politics in these spaces challenged and inverted their longstanding exclusion from power.
The largest mobilizations exercised control over aspects of daily life that would otherwise be organized by the state. These interruptions of commerce and circulation, and the collective gatherings that directed them posed an alternate possibility of sovereignty. This put the existing order into question, forcing shifts in political life to resolve the temporary crises. At the same time, the practices of disruption were added to the routines of political practice, making future officeholders even less able to maneuver independently of the grassroots base. This dissertation explains why and how space-claiming protests work as political tools, and the ways that practices of cooperation, coordination, and decision making within protest have become models for Bolivia's political culture. In doing so, it contributes to the study of social protest in Latin America, the theory of social movement practice, and the geographic study of political protest.
Bjork-James, Carwil, "Claiming Space, Redefining Politics: Urban Protest and Grassroots Power in Bolivia" (2013). CUNY Academic Works.