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A Form of Popular Justice: The Escrache

By Cristina Rosillo López, Universidad Pablo de Olavide

“It was done aloud and with a kind of song to be heard from afar, which caused a scandal, because it was considered that there was a good reason for it”.

The “escrache” (a noisy protest against politicians held outside their homes) has become one of the current buzzwords. Its legality or not, the modalities of its organization and expression have become subjects of public debate. Famous in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, escraches have also become recurrent in Brazil in recent years. However, the origin of this practice is not found only in South America. The sentence that opens this post was written over 1800 years ago by a Roman grammarian named Pompeius Festus. Similar practices took place in Rome during the Republic, especially between the 5th and 1st centuries BCE.

These customs fall into the category of popular justice, which encompassed broader modalities, including lynching and stoning. Without reaching this point, the occentatio, flagitatio, or persecutory ritual shouting occurred especially when justice could not be obtained in any other way. Encouraged by the injured person, neighbours would gather and harass the person who had committed the unpunished offense.

The ritual shouting had a clear structure: it had to mention a name (so that the community could identify who was being attacked) and also had to be done out loud, causing a scandal. Generally, serious insults were exchanged, which were usually answered by the opposite party. The poet Catullus (1st century CE) used this practice when he tried to recover some of his poems from a prostitute, who refused to hand them over: “Foolish bitch, return my writing tablets, return, fetid bitch, the writing tablets” (Catullus, Carm. 42).

This practice could be used in a variety of circumstances. If an opponent refused to appear in court, he could be pursued by the person who had accused him, who regularly shouted insults at his door. Likewise, a creditor who could not collect would start shouting at the debtor's door: “Give me my interest, pay me my interest!”, as appears in Plautus’ play Mostellaria or The Haunted House (Mos. 3.1, trans. T. Riley). Finally, in the 1st century BCE, opponents of certain Roman politicians organized such shouting in front of their homes to express their disagreement with their political ideas.

Entrance to an aristocratic house (fresco from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, Pompeii).

The ritual shouting usually took place in front of the home of the person who had committed the offense. And it is not by chance that the same happens with escraches in the 21st century: the house is not only the place of people's private lives, but also a symbol of themselves, a refuge from external aggressions that are now denied to them. Furthermore, both in ancient Rome and today, shouting point out to neighbours that the person who lives there is a threat to the community and must be identified by those around him or her as such. However, shouting also took place in the street or in the city centre.

Sometimes, the Romans even accumulated coals in front of the house's door, with the intention of symbolizing its fire. In some cases, only the door was burned. Only on rare occasions, such as during the violent political struggles of the 50s BCE, were the homes of several important politicians burned down. Even after Caesar's assassination, part of the people ran to the houses of his assassins, intending to set them on fire, but the reaction of the servants made them give up.

The shouting and harassment by neighbours in front of houses can remind debt collection companies, like the cobrador del frac (the frock-coated debt collector) in Spain today, which is dedicated to getting defaulters to pay their debts through public embarrassment. However, this is not the case. The cobrador del frac is a business dedicated to debt recovering.Both the Roman occentatio and the current escrache can be understood as a “safety valve”. Throughout history, in moments when justice could not or would not solve certain problems that afflicted people, popular justice resorted to this type of action to try to resolve the situation.

However, literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that these situations could be conceived not as a safety valve, but as a means by which power provided a controlled space in which the oppressed could express their frustrations and then return to their own homes and their daily lives. Analogies to the current situation are obvious.

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