Report on the struggles against austerity in Portugal, focusing on the street demonstrations and riots which continue to escalate.
In the last few years Portugal has been singled out as the well-behaved student of the IMF and EU, quietly taking note of the teacher’s class while all the others were wreaking havoc. Unlike Greece and other countries, which regularly provide footage of massive demonstrations for the rest of the world to see, in Portugal, besides minor scuffles and folkloric activism, all was well. There was a broad base of support for the right-wing coalition enforcing the austerity measures, which was after all elected behind the bailout program. People supposedly understood the need for some austerity, as the crisis wasn’t so new for Portugal, and the institutional left has been unable to go beyond their usual ritualized forms of mobilization.
While general resentment was brewing underground, and could start to be seen on television talk shows and elsewhere in the general media landscape, people would rather complain in private than act in public. This was all in keeping with an oft-repeated ideological meme spread during the Salazar regime that the Portuguese people, unlike their other southern European counterparts, were quiet and serene when dealing with politics. Of course this was said while countless acts of repression and extreme violence were carried out by the fascist regime, but it was repeated often enough that the idea somehow spread throughout society.
The real reasons for the apparent social peace and the slow pace of radicalization are of course much more complex. First, the cultural heritage of the 1974 Carnation Revolution still carries a significant hegemonic weight in society and most of its political organizations. The democratic instruments of participation from the time of the revolution are still cherished as the best hope for social change and intervention, even if they were flawed from the start, and quickly lost whatever relevance and power they might ever have had. The institutional left is now composed of two parties: the PCP, the Portuguese Communist Party, the biggest organization on the left, and one of the last Stalinist communist parties in Europe; and BE, the Left Bloc, a coalition of several smaller leftist parties, including different tendencies of Trotskyism, post-Maoist sects, and ex-PCP social democrats. The PCP controls the largest union, the CGTP, and is rooted in the south of Portugal, having won control of several of its municipalities over the last few decades. Its historical relationship to social movements, or anything beyond its reach, has been largely authoritarian. It has been known to use physical violence to remove unwanted participants from its union demonstrations, and has even collaborated with police in kettling apparently non-aligned demonstrators. BE, the Left Bloc, plays a softer, but equally problematic role. It has always promoted itself as the parliamentary expression of the social movements, but the reality has been quite the opposite. It typically tries to infiltrate and organize within social movements, as an attempt to control their political directions and choices, often with its members not making their party affiliations apparent. Within the left there have been several other smaller organizations of different tendencies and leanings, but up until now they have had little to offer other than the usual “party-building” initiatives and preoccupations, generally appearing as more competitors vying for the institutional legitimacy to occupy the same places the current actors now take up. Alongside all of this there has been a small anti-authoritarian scene, whose beginnings can in part be traced to the late-90s squatting scenes in Lisbon and nearby Setúbal. Despite its small size, and typical problems, it has raised its head every now and then, but often without any impact outside its clearly defined borders.
This panorama started to change, and fast, with the occupation of Lisbon’s central square, Rossio, in May 2011. Largely inspired by what was happening in the Spanish plazas, different groups started an acampadathat lasted for ten days, with around 300 gathering daily for its general assemblies. If it was smaller in its general impact than its Spanish or North American counterparts, it nevertheless provided a meeting place for a number of different realities. Activist movements, the extreme left, some from the anti-authoritarian scene, and other non-aligned young people met and started to develop ties between them, forming an informal network which would come to provide a context for future mobilizations and projects. Though the political discourse elaborated was often plagued by the same problems as the Occupy movement, it nevertheless demonstrated a collective intelligence that by far surpassed any of the previous stances of the individuals taking part. Due to a collective refusal, and a balance of its different tendencies, it has so far refused to let any of its factions gain power over the others (even though all of them, from the extreme left to the eco-activists, tried at one point or another to put in place some sort of formal or informal leadership). It has also embarked on a process of collective learning, mostly taking place in the streets, which has managed to destroy the ideological and identitarian strongholds that have kept movements like this underground, incapable of providing a methodology of political action and organizing that could spread out beyond activist and militant circles.
On March 12th, 2011, a couple of months before the Rossio occupation, a massive non-union and non-party demonstration, the first, happened, following a call originally put out on Facebook that was later picked up by mass media. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Lisbon, signaling the start of something different: the discontent with Portugal’s formal social democracy was taking some shape other than bitter complaining. The momentum quickly dispersed following the demonstration, as its organizers assumed themselves to be the messianic leaders of a new revolution, before falling into public ridicule and general contempt.
A number of demonstrations were organized during the acampada that Spring, but they failed to gather more than those already involved in it. But something more interesting started to happen: several autonomous spaces opened up in Lisbon. These spaces would end up providing a logistical support to the acampada, and then serving as a meeting place after the acampada ended. They carried over the multiplication of relationships and formal and informal networks being formed underground, which would later provide a context for the upcoming social upheaval.
On October 15th, 2011, a demonstration took place that proved something had changed since the Spring. A loose coalition of social movement groups came together to organize a local demonstration in Lisbon as part of an international call for a day of action. 15O gathered people from the different extreme-left groups, activist circles, and the Left Bloc’s satellite organizations, all within a tense framework that would fall apart some months later. A few days before the protest a fresh batch of austerity measures was announced by the prime minister: salary bonuses typically given out during the Christmas holidays and summer vacations, known as the 13th and 14th months, were going to be cut. This boosted attendance of the demonstration into the tens of thousands, significantly surpassing the activist milieu which had been active during the previous months. People from all walks of life gathered and marched to the Parliament, where the October 15th coalition had organized a general assembly. The Portuguese Parliament is set on a small square and has a huge stairway leading to the entrance. These stairways would become a central point of confrontation over the next year – with protesters regularly trying to invade, and the police trying to defend – but on October 15th the demonstrators caught police unprepared, and managed to invade and occupy the stairs after two police officers stepped into the crowd to try to arrest an older man. During the scuffles that ensued people managed to break the police line and take the space. This provided one of the first splits within movement: while hundreds of demonstrators were pushing through the police line, a large number of the organizers, through their sound system, tried to order people, without any success whatsoever, to stop advancing and to instead sit quietly. The supposedly open mic was controlled by a collective of Left Bloc professional militants who would censor people whose contribution diverged from the party line. Many people completely disregarded these organizers, and proceeded to occupy the stairway. Just minutes later the same people that were trying to contain the demonstration were cheering for its collective power. This moment proved extremely important and defining for two reasons: the first was that this embryonic movement clearly had no room for self-appointed leaders, which it openly and clearly despised, and that demonstrations and collective actions would become ever more unpredictable and uncontrollable; the second was that people were willing to go much further than these formal and informal leadership groups would, meaning the self-appointed vanguards, striving for some legitimation from institutional power, were in fact a step behind.
Upon the success of the October 15th demonstration, amidst heavy internal strife, the 15O coalition continued to organize demonstrations. A general strike was called by the CGTP for November 24th, and 15O called for an autonomous demonstration to take place on the day, something the CGTP had always avoided doing, fearing it would draw energy away from the union picket lines. Small conflicts with the police again took place in front of the Parliament, with plainclothes cops making a number of violent arrests based solely on people having an “anarchist” style, meaning they were wearing black. On January 21st, 2012, in yet another 15O demonstration, a group of organized fascists tried to join the demonstration and were violently kicked out by an improvised crew of marshalls made up of a broad group of people from every faction of the movement.
The internal conflicts of the organized movement finally made it fall apart on March 22nd, during another general strike. Fearing the moment when another demonstration calling itself “Occupy Everything” would join the 15O demonstration, BE ordered all its satellite organizations to leave the meeting point and to join the CGTP’s march instead. BE’s militants were then beat up by the CGTP’s marshalls after being mistaken for anarchists. Meanwhile, at the “Occupy Everything” demonstration, a fight erupted when police arrested and beat up a demonstrator. The demonstrators reacted and police charged, injuring several people, who responded by hurling everything within reach, the first mass answer to police repression in years.
Around this time changes started to happen in police methods. Previously, the officers assigned to demonstrations were part of rapid response teams, which deal with unexpected street turmoil. These teams of officers were inexperienced in dealing with demonstrations, and were used to only a rapid and strong use of violence, which assured continuous bad press for the government. People were being randomly beat up at demonstrations, journalists had to be saved from police violence by other demonstrators, and such violent charges only made people angrier. Conscious of this, the government started using proper riot police, specially trained to deal with large-scale riots, who wore traditional riot gear and relied on plainclothes teams to make arrests. These new agents maintained their calm even under a rain of rocks, and were less susceptible to provocations from demonstrators. This new strategy also meant that in smaller demonstrations police would now surround those involved and ID them one by one, arresting those who broke any possible law, for example carrying a pocket knife or pills without a prescription.
In the city of Oporto, north of Lisbon, a squatted social center, Escola da Fontinha—which had gained a lot of visibility due to the successful cooperation between locals and activists—was violently evicted. On April 25th, the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, about 2,000 people, a number unthinkable some months earlier, spontaneously marched to the neighborhood and reoccupied the place. Though it was violently evicted again the morning after, the fact that 2,000 people had joined for a re-occupation was remarkable. In Lisbon, out of solidarity with the struggles around the Oporto squat, an old building belonging to the city hall was also squatted on April 25th. This occupation lasted for a month, until it was also violently evicted. On the morning of the eviction a demonstration was called for that afternoon and about 400 people showed up, a number also remarkable for a demonstration called just a few hours before. Police surrounded the demonstrators and ID’ed everyone, charging dozens of people with illegal street occupation.
And then the summer of 2012 came. To the emerging movement the evictions came as an anti-climatic end to a year of unparalleled political activity. Even if thousands of people had been on the streets, wilder than they ever had been before, even if numerous projects outside of the realm of the institutional left had sprung to life, people still felt that the level of social conflict was far from strong, and that in general apathy and resignation reigned. The movement had grown both in numbers and quality, the streets had proved a powerful school to those who got involved during Rossio one year earlier, but somehow it missed that final push out of normality.
In late August a group of people, surprisingly those closer to the Left Bloc, overcame the deep bureaucratization which had surrounded the organization of demonstrations—tedious and never-ending debates over the background color of the poster, or the minutia of the call-out manifesto—and posted an event on Facebook calling for a demonstration. Advance online indications of attendees was limited at at first, and people assumed it would be another smallish protest. But a week before the protest the prime minister announced a new wave of ultra-harsh austerity measures, and attendance numbers on Facebook jumped into the hundreds of thousands. Suddenly it seemed that decades of political “good sense” had vanished, and even historical ideologues of the party in power were saying that the austerity measures were armed robbery. Internal strife between different parties started to cause the right-wing coalition in power to tremble.
On September 15th the biggest demonstration of the last thirty years, maybe ever, took place all over Portugal. Several smaller cities had their first demonstrations in decades, others had the biggest turnouts of anyone’s memory. In Lisbon over half a million people turned out, making a compact mass of people from the rallying point to the end of the demonstration. But more than their numbers, these demonstrations were important for what took place within them.
The beginning was a generally quiet affair, where austere conservatives march side by side with insurrectionary anarchists, more aligned with the exercise of civic rights than with any radical perspective. But a general hostility against the police was felt before it even started. People cut the road upon the arrival of the assigned riot police, who afterwards remained invisible for most of the march. Apart from minor skirmishes in front of the IMF offices, the demonstration was quiet until it reached its destination, Praça de Espanha, a square near the city center. There a rumor started to spread that some people were going to the Parliament, and suddenly several thousand were on a spontaneous and illegal march. Several bank windows were smashed along the way, and cops were repeatedly booed away from the march. Upon arrival, people tried to storm the stairs, but were pushed back by riot police. TV reporters were told to stay behind police lines on top of the stairs.
What followed was both the heaviest and quietest riot of the last twenty years. For three hours police endured a solid rain of rocks and bottles without charging, even when people joined arms and tried to cross their lines. The crowd was composed of young people, from the bourgeois and ghetto neighborhoods, anarchists and fashionistas, engineers and unemployed, dockers and hooligans, some in full black bloc attire, others wearing nothing but shorts and flip-flops. A strange stand-off appeared: on the one hand, demonstrators didn’t have the weapons to overcome the heavily protected cops; on the other hand, police knew that if they charged, they would turn a wild demonstration into a wild riot, and so refrained from doing so.
This showed the complex relationship between the government and the police. The government, already weak, feared that a violent police charge would just piss people off too much. The police itself also started to show doubts in pursuing political repression. The police in Portugal are especially violent, having absolutely no qualms about beating specific groups of people, mostly black people, soccer ultras and anarchists, but things changed when faced with what they considered to be “normal” people. They were wary of coming to be seen as the Praetorian Guard of the most hated government of our lifetime, in the process becoming a target for popular rage, something which was already well under way. At 2 AM, people were still showering the cops with rocks.
Newspapers and TV all but censored the three hours of rioting, and commentators from both the right and institutional left pretended they didn’t happen, or reduced them to insignificant temper tantrums. A week later another demonstration was called in front of the president’s official residency, to protest a meeting of the his state advisers. Again the huge and heterogeneous crowd, again the bottles and rocks, again the media silence. Feeling it was losing ground, the CGTP put all its weight into a demonstration it had organized for the following weekend. Its general secretary told the many thousands that the unions were losing patience and that austerity would stop, if not peacefully, then in harsher ways. In fear of more conflicts, the demonstration was ended as quickly as it started, the square being empty at 6 PM.
Another splinter group from 15O, inspired by what had happened in Spain the week before, called for a siege of the Parliament on the occasion of the delivery of the next year’s state budget to the different political parties. The institutional left got scared by the call and gave it only minimal attention, shyly talking about it more for fear of losing face than anything else. On October 15th, one year after the occupation of the stairways, 3,000 people gathered again at Parliament. Unlike other times, people were silent rather than screaming their hearts out. When night fell, some people decided to join hands and surround the building. The unexpected movement caused police to react and run towards them, making the rest of the people jump up and tear down the fences protecting the stairway. Bottles and rocks flew continuously towards the police. Some demonstrators used a giant flash drive they had made (the budget was handed out in flash drives) as a shield to try to storm the stairs. Others tried to force open the entrance on another side of the building and threw bottles and rocks at police again. During this action, two undercover cops were spotted in the middle of the demonstration, and were chased away by an angry mob, having to run for safety after being hit in the head by several rocks. Things then quieted down for a while. Numbers were dwindling until some people decided to light up a huge fire in front of the stairs, burning the flash drive and everything else they could find. Some people tried to go around the back and reach the prime minister’s official house, finding a weak spot in the perimeter set up by police. Some windows were smashed, and until the riot police arrived the agents hid from the protesters. Fireworks were thrown into the prime minister’s backyard. Upon arrival, the riot police charged and several people were beat up, two of them arrested.
If up until now the relative marginality of the radical scene has prevented its means and methods from being adopted by the general population, something that appears to be happening in Greece and Spain, it seems that the social turmoil in Portugal has now surpassed anything seen here in the last thirty years. Demonstrations called through Facebook have multiplied, and are now occurring daily, ranging from symbolic actions like “let’s all wear a yellow flower to protest austerity” to “let’s storm the prime minister’s house.” Protests are increasingly wilder, stronger and smarter, with most voicing the need for stronger resistance to power. The military, traditionally on the left, has voiced its discontent with the austerity measures through some of its associations and through its bishop. It also stated that it won’t repress the people in the case of further social upheaval. But despite all of these signs and developments, and of an uncontrollable force starting to take shape, there are still many issues at hand.
First is the obvious rise of the far right, not in the shape of a political party or even an organized movement, but in the rise of a populist and nationalist discourse. The Carnation Revolution slogan “the people united will never be defeated” was altered to “the people united don’t need a party” by some anti-authoritarian groups a few years ago and it has quickly gained ground in the demonstrations. During this process, however, it has somehow lost its anti-authoritarian appeal, and is now chanted as a critique of the political class, implying not the need for autonomous organization, but for virtuous leaders, impervious to corruption, strong enough to control the “thieves” and “criminals” in power. This kind of populist fascism-lite has always been the main current within the Portuguese right, which is present in the current mobilizations, with half of the protesters singing the national anthem and the other half singing something about the international nature of the anti-austerity movement.
Coupled with this, the movement has been slow to create structures of autonomy or anything that goes beyond the dates of mass mobilization. A small network of social centers, occupied gardens and squats has been taking shape, but so far it hasn’t recovered from the blow suffered in the spring of 2012. This disparity between the movement’s power in the streets and its power beyond the streets is its biggest challenge, and where the lack of an autonomous organizing tradition shows its weaknesses. If on the one hand this means that the movement isn’t overcome by the identitarian and sub-cultural aspects of contemporary anarchist and anti-authoritarian movements, on the other hand it has made it extremely difficult to build any network of communication, discussion and support. As society is changing so rapidly, political focus is often necessarily placed on daily and short-term events to the detriment of longer-term organizing projects.
This text was written as a general introduction to the events taking place in the last two years in Portugal, and as such tries to quickly glance over a complex social situation. In doing so, it obviously simplifies complicated issues and social, political and economic contexts that would merit further analysis and illustrations, and not only from the movement’s viewpoint. November of 2012 arrived with a new siege of the Parliament, the approval of 2013’s government budget, Angela Merkel’s visit to the country, and a new general strike, events that will surely change and complement all that was said here.
On October 5th the state celebrated the end of monarchy and the implementation of a republican regime in 1910, with a holiday and public ceremonies. This year, fearing demonstrations and disruptions, the president of the republic decided to move the celebration indoors to a space closed off from the public, a palace where the city hall functions. Upon the end of the speeches by the mayor and the president, an older woman ran into the hall where the ceremony was taking place and started to cry and scream that she couldn’t survive on her salary. Nobody knew what to do, and as security arrived, another woman began to sing an old revolutionary opera song. The attendees—ex-presidents, politicians and political party leaders—were baffled. The ceremony ended with the president quickly leaving the hall and all the others just standing around amidst all the commotion. Earlier someone had sabotaged the flag-raising ceremony, handing the flag upside-down to the president, making sure it would be raised that way on one of the country’s most symbolic dates. This anecdote fully illustrates the ongoing internal decomposition and disintegration of the state in Portugal. We couldn’t be happier.