Battlefield LisbonPosted: November 15, 2012
November 14, 2330 hrs.
‘Intifada’ is how the Portuguese news described the events in Lisbon today. Maybe it was a bit of an overstatement, we’ll have to see. In any case, nobody I spoke to ever witnessed something like this happening in Portugal…
A spectre is haunting Europe. For the first time ever, the proletarians of twenty countries joined together in a general strike. If anything, austerity measures are creating a sense of unity among the European peoples.
I’ve seen brief images from Greece, Italy, Spain and England. But today was too big to get a clear picture of everything. I will just tell you what happened here in Lisbon.
There were two feeder marches. One of the big unions and one of dockworkers, anarchists and social movements. Naturally I joined the latter.
It started off very small. A couple of hundred people gathered at Cais do Sodré near the harbour around one o’ clock. Once we got moving, the march had already swollen considerably. We had music, and we had firecrackers, courtesy of the anarchists. They could hear us coming from afar.
At the monumental Praça do Commercio an undercover police officer made a clumsy attempt to arrest one of the people throwing bombs. He almost got lynched by the mob. His colleagues in uniform stormed in to bring him to safety. The arrest was never made.
At Rossio we joined with the march of the unions. That was when the crowd really got big. Through the narrow streets we walked up to Bairro Alto, ‘high hood’. The firecrackers resounded frighteningly loud between the old buildings.
All the way, there was a clear distinction within the march between the unions at the front, and the movements at the back. At the top, we split. The red flags took the road, the black flags descended a small staircase to reunite at São Bento, the Portuguese parliament.
The building is on a hill, accessible through stairs, and surrounded by lawns. It was all fenced off with barriers. It’s an interesting sight, massive police protection of institutions against the rage of the people. It accentuates the ambiguity of the word ‘democracy’.
In front of the stairs, the union leaders staged their little piece of theatre, they were applauded by their members, and thankfully, they soon left.
But the people stayed. Something was about to happen. You could feel it from the beginning. For the moment, the drum band was drumming, the people were cheering. I was talking to a friend of mine. She said the crowd was actually pretty calm, too calm.
Before she even finished her phrase, it started. All along the line, people tore down the barriers. At the stairs, the front line moved up to face the police, but the crowd fell short of taking the stairs by storm. They could have succeeded, but the moment of hesitation was enough for police to organise and to form a line.
So the bombardment started. It was around four thirty. First came the paint bombs. When they were finished, there came the bottles. When those were finished, there came the stones.
Now, you have to know that the streets in Lisbon are made of typical small stones. They are easy to dig up and they are the perfect size for throwing. The anarchists pulled their scarfs over their faces and they had a ball. Behind them, the entire crowd backed them up. The line of police had orders to stand and resist. It went on for hours. Given the amount of ammunition at hand, it could have gone on for months.
At the start of the assault, there had been some small skirmishes at the stairs in which the anarchists conquered one of the officers’ shields. With spray paint, someone cancelled out the word ‘police’ and replaced it with grand capital letters spelling ‘PEOPLE’. The roar was awesome when they brandished their booty.
And the beat went on. The drummers accompanied the stoning. Another police shield was smashed, a lone molotov was thrown to the delight of the crowd. But after about an hour, some people were growing restless. To them it was of no use to go on. They wanted everyone to stop throwing, and charge. At that moment I witnessed the most amazing demonstration of courage by some unprotected citizens who defied the stones by taking the stairs. Two girls sat down on the steps with their hands folded in meditation. But the assault continued, and they finally had to retreat.
Among the people battering the shields of the police there was an adorable old man throwing pebbles. He was completely relaxed, and he had an excellent aim. With one stone after another he could hit the same police officer on his helmet. He didn’t care to hide his face, he was having the time of his life.
Around six, authorities had enough of it. Via megaphone it was announced that people had to disperse or police would charge. The answer came with firecrackers and an intensification of the bombardment.
So police charged. And after having resisted for so long, they were bloody pissed off. They clubbed people down like savages. I took the space that the first line had left open in their wake, shooting footage of the violence. It was not very smart, I should have counted with the second line coming down behind me. One of the bastards went for my camera, then he went for me, then he got assistance. So now I know what a billy club feels like. It makes you mad. Really really mad. In the heat of the moment, I managed to save my footage, to shout all kinds of bad things about these goons and their mothers, and to get the hell out of there in pretty good shape, all more or less at the same time.
Part of us regrouped in a narrow street. We built up barricades from big plastic containers full of trash, and they were set alight. When police advanced, we retreated and built more barricades. Within minutes there were piles of trash ablaze at every street corner. The stench was disgusting, but the sight was wonderful. There was a sense of liberation in the air. “It’s good this is happening. Things needed to be shook up here in Portugal”, someone said.
Meanwhile police were blocking streets left and right, and advancing. We descended towards the sea and the big avenues. At a certain point, police officers started shooting rubber bullets. That’s when most of the group dispersed.
We reunited again at Cais do Sodré, where the demo had started. Phones were ringing continuously, stories came in about police hunting isolated citizens in the alleys and beating them up. Then they came to the square, in full riot gear. They raided the bar where we had found refuge, they took away the usual suspects. One of them was the streamer from audiovisuals. He hadn’t been able to broadcast today, because they had already confiscated his equipment before it all went down. Now he was taken in for questioning. Unlike another person that was taken away from the bar, I haven’t seen him return.
“This is what democracy looks like”, one of my comrades commented.
By now the images have reached the far corners of Portugal. Tomorrow we will have to see what their influence will be on the Portuguese state of my mind. If it were for me, without a doubt, I’d be back at parliament.