The battle of 'The System Kills Us' against Valeri Simeonov

11 minutes to read
Article
Aleksandra Lazarova
10/04/2019

'The System Kills Us',  a networked social movement in Bulgaria, was born after a series of offensive verbal attacks and aggressive actions from the former Vice Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Valeri Simeonov. He offended Bulgarian mothers of disabled children publicly. This latest scandal was the peak of his "career" of being involved in scandals. Through digital media women worked together and protested for 26 days. Their fight against Simeonov resulted in his resignation. This article offers a reconstruction of how "The Sytem Kills Us" became so powerful.

From a community of mothers to a networked social movement 

The community of mothers of children with disabilities formed an online movement in 2015. After being put at a disadvantage for years, they managed to mobilize and organize eight protests in three years, which became popularly known as “the protests of the mothers”. Eight is a small number in general, but not so small for Bulgaria.

Being neglected with their “personal” problems for years and years, the mothers realized that their personal problems are actually a problem of the state. This is why they started tent protests, camping in front of the National Assembly in the capital city Sofia on June 1, 2015. People from other cities joined the protests and the movement grew to a national level.

People in all cities would protest and wear T-shirts with the slogan "The System Kills Us". The tent protest continued for seven months and resulted in two new laws – a Law of People with Disabilities (providing financial support) and a Law of Personal Help (providing a personal assistant). A Law of Social Services (planning and financing high quality social services) is hopefully forthcoming. By virtue of its actions and the accepted laws, the community of mothers raised recognition of their problem among the whole population.

In early October 2018, a day in the life of a woman taking care of her sick son was displayed on TV (Figure 2). This was after the recent news about the movement trying to get inside the Parliament and fight for their rights. The women were blocked from entering because they did not have the proper dress code.

The mother on the TV show was a representative for the whole group. She explained how their life goes every day – she only works night shifts, so that she could take care of her son, because he cannot move or eat without her. By showing this horrific daily life style of the mother and her child, mass media raised even more awareness about the issue and helped the community to grow bigger and stronger.

Figure 2: The woman and her child in a TV show

The State however does nothing to help – no professional help, no financial help, no transport, nothing.Realizing that no one except they themselves would take any action and that therefore they would be doomed, the women started fighting together. It was this performance of the women activist group that triggered Simeonov's derogatory remarks and gave birth to the social networked movement called 'The System Kills Us'.

Valeri Simeonov

Valeri Simeonov was Vice Prime Minister of Bulgaria for a year and a half. During his career, he participated in multiple right-wing parties. His resignation was submitted on November 6, 2018. Prior to that, his name over the years was involved in many scandals. In 2015, for instance, on the tribune of the National Assembly, he called the Bulgarian Roma minority group "beastly human-like beings" and he defined their wives as having the instincts of "homeless bitches." In 2017, near the Turkish border, he dragged and aggressively pushed an elderly woman of Turkish descent.

Figure 1: Valeri Simeonov

All of these schandals helped to construct his message. Politicians use their message to inhabit an idea, to make the audience believe in something, or to make the audience wonder if they meant what they said, or not (Silverstein, 2003). Image is a component of the message of a political persona. It is "an abstract portrait of identity fashioned out of cumulating patterns of congruence across all manners of indexical signs – including visual ones – that addresses and audiences can imaginatively experience, like a hologram" (Silverstein, 2003, p. 15).

Simeonov used a populist discourse (Maly, 2018), i.e., he spoke in name of the people and framed his ideas as “good for the nation”.  By spreading obvious populist slogans (promises to help the  country prosper) populist parties try to gain followers. Simeonov's message was not stylized to appeal to the whole population. Like most right-wing populists' messages, 'the nation' and 'the people' are very specific concepts implicitly refering only to 'our people', in this case 'the real Bulgarians.' This immeditiately explains why not much action was taken until this recent case against Simeonov's racist discourse. 

The scandal that eventually triggered his resignation happened in October 2018 when he called all mothers of disabled children in the country "wailing women with allegedly sick children," simply because they were protesting for support (since the state does not support them in having the basic financial conditions for raising their disabled children). He also defined the mothers as using their disabled children for material advantage. All cases were displayed in the public sphere and were contributing to building his “bad” image for years and years, but only this last time his offensive words were so hurtful that they caused massive disapproval and voices were finally raised. This is what started the “war” between him and the movement.

The System Kills Us

After Simeonov’s words, the movement became even more determined to stand for their rights and fight for more recognition. Castells (2013) sees the online space as a stage for networked social movements. Being inflamed by outrage, people can connect and reach high numbers of followers that form a swarm or a networked movement. Contrary to the theory of Castels, 'The System Kills Us' cannot be understood as a leaderless movement or an instance of networked individualism. It was the exsiting community of activists that used digital media to upscale their activism by creating an open Facebook page with the name 'The system kills us' on June 23, 2018. Currently the page has reached 13k likes and 14k followers.

The dichotomy between online and offline activism does not make much sense here. In this case, the protests occurred offline, but mobilization power was largely an online activity. The online is an essential part of how offline networks occur (Maly, 2018, p. 178). The activists choreographed offline assembly  (Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 40). Organization was happening mostly through posts (Figure 3) on the Facebook page stating the place and time . In Figure 3 Vera Ivanova informs the people of when and where to go, what to bring, and that cars and motorcycles are also joining the demonstration.  Usually people who would participate, or strongly agree with the community’s intentions would like the post.

Figure 3: Organising a protest

For 26 days mothers choreographed protests in front of the Council of Ministers in Sofia, calling for Simeonov’s dismissal. They would post photos from the demonstrations every day, which made more people think about it and triggered their emotions. In that way more and more people participated. Every day someone from the community would post an assembly in the Facbook group, noting the place and time.

After their first protests, Simeonov said in public: 'I will not apologize for my words, because I cannot apologize for telling the truth. It is sad, I know, but it is true.' 

This circle of protests and Simeonov's refusal to resign, repeatedly claiming he did not do anything wrongcompletely demolished his image as an authority and as a man of the people. Knowing that 689,187 people (almost 10% of the population) in Bulgaria have a disability, makes you realize that he was now publicly attacking a large part of the common 'real Bulgarians'. A survey conducted among the Bulgarian population showed that 81% of the citizens called for his resignation. On November 5 cars joined the protests.

On November 14, mothers called everyone to send their e-mails to the Vice Prime Minister, demanding for a resignation. Over 23k e-mails were reported in hours after the post was written. The same day in the city of Pernik (Figure5), where citizens were also protesting , police officers were supposed to keep the situation under control. Instead, they removed their helmets in sign of solidarity. People were united. Eventually, under the pressure of protesting mothers, Valeri Simeonov submitted his resignation on November 16, 2018.  

Figure 5: Police officers remove helmets in sign of solidarity

 

Why did it work this time?

We can examine various ways in which Simeonov failed as a political authority. By offending Bulgarian citizens and his refusal to apologize for his words, he was off message (Silverstein 2003), that is, he communicated himself as an enemy of the people and thus destroyed his populist image. He was now a brute attacking the common Bulgarian.

Usually when politicians say something offensive they can easily get away with no judgment or punishment but this time, the opposite happened. The movement succeeded in making a negative message about him stick. One reason may be the big number of followers of the movement that could mobilize for change. Another is the passion with which they were defending their opinions , the stamina and strong will to stay and not give up.

Another reason is the role digitalization played in the process. Access to organization and the fast spread of messages played a huge role in accomplishing the activists' goals. All photos (Figure 6), posted during the period show real emotion and real actions in real time. That is what triggered so many more people’s emotions and feelings of solidarity and community and the conviction that people should fight together in order to make the change really happen. 

Figure 6: Day 22 from the protest, life photos post

 

In only 26 days “The System Kills Us” managed to force Simeonov to submit his resignation. Digital media, and Facebook in particular, were a useful tool. It allowed the mothers to mobilize, choreograph and organize a massive movement. If this online page would not have existed, if people would not have had such easy access to the platform and the ability to make contact and connect, the event would most surely not have had such a huge influence and outcome. The mothers organized first on a local level, then on a national one. With the help of digitalization, a lot of determination and a strong team, the community connected and worked together both online and offline as a whole, in order to make the change happen.

References

Maly, I. (2016). New media, New Resistance and Mass media: A digital ethnographic analysis of the Hart boven Hard movement in Belgium. In T. Papaioannou, & S. Gupta (2018). Media representations of anti-austerity protests in the EU. Grievances, identities and agency. New York & London: Routledge.

Maly, I. (2018). Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies. nr213

Maly, I. (2018). The New Right, global nationalistic activism and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild & Vrienden. Tilburg Papers in Culture studies, nrnr. 220

Silverstein, M. (2003). Communicating the Message vs. Inhabiting “Message”. From Silverstein, M. Talking politics. The substance of Style From Abe to ‘W’