Budapest, March 16
I have started my 2013 Spring Campaign in the East, along the banks of the Danube. My plan is to travel South from here, see what’s cooking.
There’s not much to say about Hungary after just three days. But I can give you a mirror image by telling you about the people I met in the hostel.
One was a French woman who had flown to Budapest to go to the dentist, because in France it has become much too expensive. Another was a guy from China, who is teaching Mandarine Chinese here in central Europe. Another was an Italian porn actor. It seems Budapest is the heart of the European porn industry, but with the crisis, even this sector is suffering. He hadn’t been working in a month.
I talked to a few locals as well. Their stories are pretty much the same ones you hear from youngsters in Southern Europe. They get pretty good education, but they don’t find a job. Their only real option is to emigrate.
In other news, protesters have staged a house call at the prime minister’s mansion in Portugal to demonstrate against corruption and austerity, yesterday. In Italy, the Five Star Movement is under heavy pressure from the media and from a significant part of their own voters to strike a deal with the left wing gerontocracy and form a government.
The latest appeal to Beppe Grillo has come from a handful of Italian intellectuals. They urge him to be reasonable, to swallow his pride, and to seize the opportunity to finally reform Italian politics.
Grillo is in a difficult situation. If he makes a deal with the same people he has been rightfully bashing for the last decade, he will lose a lot of his credibility. He will be just another politician who sells out.
So he said no. He describes the intellectuals (among whom Roberto Saviano and Roberto Benigni) as ‘sirens’, and the M5S as Odysseus. He urges the representatives of the movement to close their ears with wax, and to keep following their course. On his blog he quotes the following phrases: “In Italy, a legal revolution has begun. Maybe they will succeed in stopping it, but not with the voices of the Sirens. Right now, we are at war, and if we die, we will do so on the battlefield of the next elections. It’s better to take a leap into the dark than to commit an intellectually assisted suicide.”
More news from Italy. Maybe you already heard about it. There’s a new pope, one that shamelessly dares to call himself Francis, after the man who was nearly excommunicated for denouncing the decadence of the church.
What’s next? I thought. Pope Galileo?
Anyway, I don’t really give a damn about the church, but after the press announced that mr. Bergoglio didn’t raise his voice when many of his compatriots were arrested, tortured, murdered and made to disappear by the Argentine dictatorship, I was surprised by the reaction.
The Vatican vehemently branded these insinuations as left wing anticlerical propaganda, which is definitely not the reaction of a self-confident institution. Hell, they are afraid. They are shitting their pants.
So, let’s keep reminding them of what this church thing actually is. Let’s keep reminding them of the Christians who burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Let’s keep reminding them of the Catholic pogroms against the Jews. Let’s keep reminding them of how crusaders slaughtered Muslim men, women and children after they conquered Jerusalem. Let’s keep reminding them of all the innocent women who were tortured and burned or drowned for being ‘witches’. Let’s keep reminding them of the Holy Inquisition. Let’s keep reminding them of the church’s lifelong support for dictatorships everywhere. But most of all, let’s keep reminding these freaks of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of children who were sexually abused in the name of the lord, and who are still being abused to this day. Maybe not so much in Europe or the U.S. any more, but you can bet that these practices are still continuing in the Third World.
So whether you consider yourself left wing or right wing, believer or not, you have every reason to be anticlerical, and proud of it.
It has been quite a week. As the revolution goes, three things in particular were worthy of note.
First, the death of Stéphane Hessel.
Hessel was a former diplomat, member of the resistance in France during WW2 and one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1948.
Two years ago, at 93 years of age, Hessel became an idol with the youth when he wrote a pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, translated into English as ‘Time for Outrage!’
The pamphlet sold over two million copies in France alone. The Spanish translation was a major inspiration for the movement of the indignados.
As a member of the National Resistance Council, Hessel recalls the ideals that the Council adopted on 15 March 1944, and on which it wanted post-war society to be founded. These included “a comprehensive plan for Social Security, to ensure livelihoods for all citizens”, “a pension that allows old workers to finish their life in dignity”, “the return to the nation of the major means of production, common sources of energy, wealth of the subsoil, insurance companies and large banks”, “the establishment of genuine economic and social democracy which evicts large feudal economic and financial interests from the direction of our economy.” And, not in the least, a society where the press is free from corporate or foreign influences.
Over sixty years later, Hessel concludes that our society is not the one that was envisioned by the members of the National Resistance Council. Despite decades of booming economic growth, ours has turned into a society of suspicions against immigrants and expulsions, one that challenges pensions and social security, and where the media are in the hands of a few powerful people. Ours, in short, is not a society of which we, as human beings, can be proud.
Hessel denounced indifference as the worst of all attitudes, and he called for “a true and peaceful insurrection against the media that only offer our youth a horizon of mass consumption, of disdain for the weakest, of generalised amnesia, and of all-out competition of everyone against everyone else.”
He made an appeal to all youngsters. “To the men and women who will make the 21st century, we say, with affection: to create is to resist, to resist is to create.”
In 2011, his call to rise up took the world by storm. The spirit of resistance lives on.
Thank you, Stéphane Hessel. May you rest in peace.
Number two, last Saturday March 2 was another day of massive protests in Portugal. In thirty cities there were demonstrations against austerity. Over a million people took the streets, which is more than ten percent of the population. Imagine thirty million people demanding the resignation of President Obama on the same day. That’s about the scale of the protest.
The demos come a week after equally massive demonstrations of the ‘Citizen’s Tide’ in Spain. It looks like it’s going to be a hot spring on the peninsula.
Third, and most entertaining, is the elections in Italy. Without kidding, I’ve been rolling over the floor laughing. It’s a farce, but it’s all dead serious.
Immortal Berlusconi made yet another come-back. He had been declared politically dead by many commentators who don’t understand a thing about Italy. He might not have won parliament, but he did win the senate, which could give him enough political leverage to keep his ass out of prison.
But the real winner of the election is comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, a party-political version of the indignados.
In the foreign press, Grillo has been called a populist and has been compared to any other populist in Europe. This is not just bad journalism, it is intentionally misleading.
Beppe Grillo and the movement he inspires is one of a kind, at least for the moment. I remember the very beginnings of his political campaigning. It started in theaters, it went online through his daily blog, then he came to the squares to decry political corruption, in favour of participatory democracy. Grillo exposed politicians of all parties in a way that nobody ever dared to do from a pulpit. He had been banned from television, he had been ignored by the press, but thanks to the Internet his movement reached millions of Italians who are fed up with business as usual.
In 2009 he supported civil lists in local elections. His party won the mayorship of Parma and other towns. In 2012 he made a breakthrough in the Sicilian local election. Now, in the run-up to the general elections, he drew a hundred thousand people to his show in Milan, eight hundred thousand in Rome. He inspired people like only a black preacher with a gospel choir can do. The man is a phenomenon. Last week, his movement became the single biggest party in Italy.
It’s hilarious. A few years ago, when I left the Beautiful Country, Grillo was a troublemaker that politicians loved to ignore. Now they are begging him to support the formation of a government.
With enormous satisfaction, Grillo told them to fuck off. All his opponents have been in politics since the age of the dinosaurs, they have to go, and before they do, they have to account for all the income they received over the years. They created this mess, the citizens themselves will have to clean up. Grillo’s party will only support bills that reflect the movement’s principles. They will not support any government. The representatives of the M5S have been chosen through preliminary elections on the movement’s website. They are tied to a code of behaviour which obliges them to respect the electoral program they were voted to enact. They have renounced to more than half of their income, and they will refuse to use or accept the customary title of ‘honorable’. Instead, echoing the French Revolution, they will address all representatives as ‘citizen’.
On the day the M5S entered in the Italian parliament, they opened the doors to the public, saying ‘this is your house’.
The first demands of the movement have to do with the clean-up of Italian politics. Two mandates should be the maximum, parties should not receive public subsidies, and no condemned criminal should have the right to be elected.
The left wing party, if it is to form a government, will have to be supported either by Berlusconi or by Grillo. They know that Berlusconi will eat them alive, so they grudgingly prefer the other clown.
It’s going to be very risky for the new M5S representatives. The Italian parliament is the most dangerous place in the country. The crime rate at Montecitorio is much higher than the crime rate in the most lurid outskirts of Naples. The new parliamentarians and senators will be thrown into a pit full of snakes. These creepy lifeforms have been lurching in the shadows of power for ages, they know exactly how much one is worth, they know who is selling, and they know who is buying. Ethics are not an issue in Italian politics, and the worst thing that can happen is that the M5S movement is torn apart by the existing parties and massacred by the press.
With Beppe Grillo and his movement gaining notoriety, some commentators have tried to understand what is going on, some others are dismissing this movement all together. They say that Grillo is dangerous. They accuse his internet strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio of having a secret agenda. The writers collective Wu Ming published a shameless declaration in which they accuse Grillo of being ‘one of them’ politicians as usual, without presenting any credible basis at all for their accusations.
Instead of giving in to this crazy need to always have an opinion, on whatever subject, I urge people to shut up, and watch. Beppe Grillo’s movement is a first attempt to bring direct e-democracy to a real parliament. His newly elected representatives are in a position to make or break a government. Let’s enjoy this, let’s see what’s going to happen, and learn from it.
Lisbon, November 19
The day after the strike, everything was back to normal – or whatever can be considered normal these days. Only the dockworkers continue to strike. According to the newspapers the government is considering to deploy the army to make sure the Portuguese ports continue to operate. But there is a legal problem with this. The army only has authority within the borders of the country if there is a state of emergency. And for the moment the government still respects certain rules.
According to those rules the police wasn’t allowed to shoot footage during the riots, for privacy reasons. So to identify the people who were throwing stones, authorities are using television images and the footage that people posted on the Internet.
It’s a curious situation. In the weeks before I arrived, the police themselves had protested against cutbacks, and the army as well.
In 1974, left leaning officers from the lower echelons of the army staged a coup to put an end to 15 years of colonial war and over half a century of military dictatorship. Ever since, the army has been a counter force on the side of the people. In case things get out of hand, the government most probably won’t be able to count on them to restore order by force.
For the moment, it won’t be necessary. Poverty, misery and malnutrition are on the rise in Portugal, but there is no day-by-day organised resistance like in Spain. Neither is there a real squatter movement active here, even though you find abandoned property all around. In the centre of Porto they amount to roughly a third of all buildings.
Here in Lisbon, there exist two neighbourhood assemblies, one in Benfica and one in Graça, where I am staying at the moment. The rehabilitation of abandoned buildings is one of the local assemblies’ primary goals, but they prefer to go the legal way instead of occupying.
In Spain, yesterday there was a massive demonstration of medical personnel – the ‘White Tsunami’ – against the privatisation of health care. At the same time, much less publicised, there was a demonstration of police officers against the cutbacks. It was funny to see images of police vans being deployed to control a crowd of their colleagues. One of the banners they carried made it to the news. It said ‘Citizens, please excuse us for not being able to arrest those who are responsible for the crisis – politicians and bankers.’
Next Thursday the students go on strike in Lisbon and in about a week there will be more protests as the budget for next year will be discussed. There are too many things. We need a serious revolutionary newspaper, with online local editions. Sign up! Make it happen. I’ll lend a hand.
For now, I will soon be leaving Lisbon to follow the sun. This means I will reduce the frequency of my reports. But don’t worry, if anything big happens, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Here is some footage of yesterday’s European General Strike.
Police aggression against minors in Tarragona:
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.
Lisbon, November 14, 1130 hrs.
Yesterday I met up with a comrade from the Communications commission of the Indignados Lisboa. He later took me to an anarchist hide-out where banners were being prepared for the general strike, and where I had the opportunity to meet other people active in local assemblies and working groups. They filled me on the history of our movement in Portugal.
Bear in mind that the scale of the protests here is in no way comparable to what happened in Spain. When it all started, last year in May, there was an acampada of the Indignados Lisboa in the central Rossio square. The people who organised it were not an heterogeneous mix of citizens, they came specifically from anti-militarist groups opposed to NATO. The acampada lasted two weeks, and ended like most camps do, in internal struggle and decay.
In October, when the fall wave rose, there was another encampment, this time in front of parliament, and this time inspired by what was happening in the USA. It was called ‘Occupy Lisbon’, and it was a distinct group from the Indignados Lisboa.
Unlike Spain, where the 15M is kind of an overarching movement of many different struggles, in Portugal the resistance consists of independent movements which loosely collaborate. Among these are not only Occupy and the Indignados, but also the Zeitgeist movement, Anonymous and various unions and semi-political organisations.
In February of this year a nationwide encounter of popular assemblies was held in Coimbra. Later on, in April and May, activists met in Lisbon to exchange ideas and coordinate struggles. But it wasn’t until September 15 that the movement in Portugal really took off.
That day, two months ago, an estimated one million people all over the country took the streets and forced the government to swallow the latest austerity measures. Considering the fact that Portugal only has about ten million inhabitants, the number was enormous.
Since then, the government has disguised the same austerity measures in different ways, and the people have made a habit out of demonstrating and striking. Every week, more or less.
From what I hear, the situation is not as tragic as Spain as far as evictions go, but the privatisation of everything, including health care and water is dangerously looming over the country, here as elsewhere in the South of Europe.
In the anarchist cove I met the two people who form the Lisbon audiovisual team, broadcasting from bambuser.com/ptrevolutiontv. And as they explain to me their way of working I realise how technologically advanced we are in Madrid. We can cover any small event with one or two streamers, who can operate independently without need of a laptop or a generator. In case of big events we can deploy four to eight streamers (‘cells’ or ‘units’), sometimes even more. We can mix everything comfortably from a studio while keeping an eye on the headlines from around the world.
Here in Portugal, our comrades have one laptop and a couple of webcams at their disposal. They use a car to function as generator for the laptop. Still, they make maximum use of the limited means at their disposal, but they need more people. And I wonder, in a few years time, looking back, we will be amazed about how primitive our current technology is. And at the same time we will be happy that we were there to witness the pioneers of this amazing technology called ‘livestream’.
Lisbon, November 13
I took the overnight bus to Lisbon in order to be here for the November 14 general strike. Latest news from Spain before I left: 46 super judges from all over the country have spoken out against the evictions, and self-proclaimed themselves the spearhead of reform. Also, the mayor of Madrid went to La Princesa hospital in support of the struggle against the hospital’s closure.
Now here I am on the estuary of the Tago river. They say that Spain and Portugal live with their backs against each other, and I have a feeling it’s true. In general, they don’t speak each other’s languages. It’s not obligatory in school. The Portuguese speak better English than Spanish.
Maybe this could be explained with the strong bond that has united England and Portugal for all of modern history. The two countries maintain the longest still active alliance in the world, going as far back as the late 14th century. The thing they share is that they face the ocean more than they face the continent.
Another thing you notice is that Portugal is a lot darker skinned than Spain. The country has a long and intricate relationship with Africa. As empire builders, they were the first to go there and the last to leave, over 500 years later. As a result, black blood has merged into the lifeline of Portugal. In Spain on the other hand, most of the blacks you encounter are recent immigrants, mainly from Francophone Africa.
One of Portugal’s most notable former colonies is Angola. The country was ravaged by fifteen years of colonial war followed by over twenty years of civil war. For a decade now, the country is in peace, and it’s finally starting to exploit its huge mineral and oil resources.
This has led to the creation of a super rich elite, Arab style. If you are looking for the most expensive hotels, restaurants, night clubs and casino’s, don’t go to London, New York, Las Vegas or Dubai. Go to Luanda, the Angolese capital. You will live like a satrap. By contrast, the majority of the population in Angola is still among the poorest of the world, with low life expectancy, high infant mortality, etc.
Instead of investing in their own society, the Angolan super elite prefers to invest in the mother country. With Portugal being pushed to privatise, the petrol dollars from Africa are flowing back to Europe to buy up banks, utilities, etc. At the same time, Portuguese engineers are moving to Angola, attracted by the absence of a language barrier and the possibility of becoming super wealthy in a short time.
Understandably, there is also a significant Brazilian community here in Portugal. I don’t have any figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this emigratory flow is about to reverse. If it hasn’t already started, we might see many Brazilians returning home, and many Portuguese going with them in the coming years.
Yesterday, Merkel was here to assure herself that German directives were well implemented. A few hundred people protested against the visit, burning a Merkel puppet outside the presidential palace. Tomorrow there is the general strike, and from all the banners and manifesto’s I witness around town, everybody wants to be there.