Scenes from the general strike in Portugal

On March 22nd the second general strike in four months took place in Portugal, ending in confrontations with the police in Lisbon, and once again illustrating the shifting landscape of resistance to the IMF-imposed austerity measures, and capitalism in general.

Submitted by Lucky Jim on March 29, 2012

The strike was called by the largest union, CGTP, closely connected to PCP, the communist party, one of the few in Europe who reclaim the ideological heritage of the USSR. Although still a powerful union, the CGTP has lost a lot of influence in the past decades, both because of the historical changes going on in the workplace, but also due to its almost anachronistic methodology and discourse, which alienates a lot of the work force, as well as a lot of the energy dedicated to anti-capitalist struggle. More interesting is the way in which a rising current of new social movements have found in this and previous general strikes opportunities for mass mobilizations, taking the stoppage and interruption of the economy to new spheres, outside of the factories and public services in which the unions still have some power.

Both the past general strikes, November 24th, 2010 and November 24th, 2011, signified key moments in the formation of an extra-parliamentary social movement. In the first, 2010, some informal groups organized a demonstration, something CGTP had always refused to do, as it felt it drew attention and energy away from their picket lines. This happened only a few months after CGTP had forcefully stopped an anti-authoritarian group from joining one of their marches on the basis of their being “anarchist provocateurs”. The general strike demonstration that was called gathered around two thousand people, much to the dismay of the union, who felt they had lost the streets.

One year later, 2011, both CGTP and a smaller union, UGT, closely connected to the center-left party PS, now in opposition, called for a new general strike for the same date. But over the course of that year between the strikes a new coalition of social movements, collectives and radicals had formed, inspired by the events of the Arab spring, the spanish acampadas, Occupy, and a local acampada movement. Taking the name of the international day of protest, the October 15th platform became a new player in the mainstream political arena and called for a demonstration, trying to organize it with the union. The union refused and two separate demonstrations were organized, with the same convergence and arrival points, one happening an hour before the other. The strike was a moderate success, with mass transportation totally shut down in Lisbon, but with low impact on commerce and services. Some institutional facilities were attacked with molotov cocktails in the morning. In the afternoon the CGTP demo quickly left the convergence point, Rossio square in the center of Lisbon, and quickly ran to São Bento, the location of parliament. The 15th October demonstration quickly followed, gathering some 10,000 people who invaded shopping centers along the way, spray-painting the walls, hanging banners, all under heavy police attention. Upon arrival the union’s order service (union security force, initially created to defend the union from police, now used to keep away non-union people from demonstrations) considered not letting the informal demonstration join theirs, but quickly realized they were heavily outnumbered and packed up and left. Demonstrators gathered around the large stairway leading to the parliament and some small fights with police ensued. Undercover police started to arrest and beat up random people, injuring many. About six people were arrested, some still awaiting trial. The next day several blogs and later mainstream media showed undercover agents severely beating up a German demonstrator who was arrested on the sole charge of looking too anarchist. Media scandal ensued with the images of the violence being broadcast intensely for a couple of weeks, generating a sort of PR scandal for the police force.

All of this is to say that this week’s general strike was anticipated with a lot of tension in the air. The October 15th movement called for another demonstration, but since November the platform had all but disintegrated due to internal strife between different ideological sects. Less people involved meant less publicity for the demo. CGTP didn’t want anything to do with the previous strike’s violent episodes, so decided to call only a small march and a not a full-scale demonstration, leaving Rossio a couple hours before the October 15th demonstration’s departure. One other informal group consisting of different anti-authoritarian sensibilities called for a mobile picket line/demonstration under the name of “OCCUPY EVERYTHING”. From their call-out:

“When they make us choose between shitty work and shitty unemployment, when transportation has become a luxury, when essential social services and goods like healthcare, education and housing are no longer even minimally secure, and when we are forced to swallow all of this as if the only alternative was the Apocalypse, then the only response is to stop complaining, to stop asking, to stop being scared, and instead to OCCUPY EVERYTHING.

The fear that they threaten us with is like a carnival float: made of paper and empty inside; we are not prisoners on this ride, we can get off when we choose. If the domination that work, the economy and austerity has over our lives is extended well-beyond our immediate places of work, then it only makes sense that on the day of the general strike the city itself should become a generalized picket. We propose to occupy and block the centre of Lisbon between Saldanha and Rossio during the hours before the demonstration to Sao Bento. With music, masks, bicycles, with everything and more.”

On the day before the demonstration several activist groups heavily linked with a leftist political party, BE, decided they would rather go with CGTP’s demonstration than with the October 15th movement. The news came as a huge blow as most of these people had had a voice in the organization of the anti-authoritarian demo, and in the decisions regarding how it would happen, mostly pushing an agenda of refusing all direct action. They did try to join CGTP’s demonstration, but the union police mistook them for anarchist infiltrators and kicked them out from the demonstration using force, sending one of them to the hospital with a cracked skull.

The anti-authoritarians gathered about 200 people, below the expectations but still a fair number for a demonstration starting at 1pm on a day without mass transportation, and when many cannot afford to strike. The demonstration confused the small police presence by taking an unannounced route and by throwing eggs against several banks and shops that had not closed down for the strike. More police were called immediately. Some 20 or so bicycle riders also joined and the demonstration proceeded to blockade several important traffic routes in the city, at one point cutting both ways of one of the most important avenues of the city for about an hour. Police twice tried to arrest people in the demo, but a quick response managed to secure those attacked by the police.

The anti-authoritarian march later joined the october 15th demo, gathering about 2000 people, and they marched together towards the parliament. Police, at much bigger numbers now, tried to kettle the demonstrators in the narrow streets of the historical city center, some having had been alongside the demonstrators since the first demo. Eventually police tried to arrest one demonstrator, they grabbed him and took him to a side street where they started beating him. Several people tried to stop it and a police line was set up to try to make people step back, cracking two heads in the process. The demonstrators decided they had had enough and managed to throw the contents of an entire esplanade on the police line, tables, chairs, glasses, napkins dispensers and coffee cups were all thrown towards the police. Proper riot police were promptly called and charged from below. Several people, including elderly, tourists and two journalists were beaten up by the riot police charge, which was all broadcast live on TV. Demonstrators managed to flee, setting fire to some trash cans. The live violence provoked a huge media scandal, with a lot of journalists taking sides with their beaten-up colleagues, generating a second media scandal and PR disaster for the police and their leaders.

This strike takes another step taken in a redefinition of the forces on the left and beyond. Since the revolution in 1974 Portugal has had a strong left, albeit an institutional, based on political parties and unions, with small clusters of ideological cliques on the margins. But the past year has shown the emergence of an inorganic mass of people who, with differences among them, refuse leadership and structures of mediation, who continue to take it to the streets, every time a bit wiser than the time before, as if the movement was forcing itself to make up for time lost. Even if it wasn’t a peak in mobilization, this general strike and its demonstrations helped clarify the situation: the institutional union’s showed their lack of force in the streets and their fear of the movement, reacting even with violence; the political parties showed that their strategy of trying to infiltrate the social movements, now clear to everyone, has largely been a failure; and the movement, a constellation of new autonomous subjectivities, took note of its power and capacity.