Portugal: Police Batons for Protesters and Rubber Bullets for the Kids of Bela Vista

Bela Vista, Setúbal.
Photo by Público.pt.
Tony's Mural
Tony’s Mural.
Photo by Mark Bergfeld.

Ruben Marques, 18, died at the hands of the police in the barrio of Bela Vista, Setúbal, Portugal, on Saturday, March 16.  His crime: he crossed a red traffic light with his moped.

The media blame the victim for not wearing a helmet, the Communist Party mayor blames the victim for stealing the motorbike, and the police turn the victim into the culprit.

Ruben is one of many casualties of police brutality in marginalized working-class communities under siege.  Just recently, the police officer who shot the 14-year-old “Kuku” at point-blank range was acquitted by the courts.  Tony’s mural has remained colorful since 2002.

As news of Ruben’s death reaches more and more shacks and apartments of immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies, travelers, and the unemployed, the police station gets surrounded by people in protest.  Young men and women start torching bins, vandalizing cars, and hurling rocks and glass.

All odds are stacked against a neighborhood synonymous with drugs, crime, and violence as protesters confront the militarized unit of the Public Security Police (Polícia de Segurança Pública, PSP) into the early hours of the morning.

With more than 50 percent of Bela Vista’s population living below the poverty line, the barrio has become a powder keg in crisis-ridden Portugal.  A huge PSP mobilization was able to contain the situation that night, but the conduct of the police has continued to fuel the flames of discontent, exemplifying how a fractious PSDCDS government is tearing up the post-revolutionary settlement and resorting to state terror not seen since the days of Salazar’s dictatorship.

Tearing up the Post-revolutionary Settlement

Once known as one of the most effective secret services in history, Dictator Salazar’s secret police force, PIDE, was so despised by the working class that during the course of the 1974-75 Revolution workers and rank-and-file soldiers of the MFA chased undercover agents into neighboring Spain or underground.  This cleansing process — saneamento — as well as the memory of PIDE’s abuses in supporting the regime delayed the establishment of a new civilian intelligence agency for more than a decade.

While other European countries received their first taste of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s, Portugal was establishing a welfare state as part of the post-revolutionary settlement.  The compromise between capital and labor meant that police training was “civic” and inspired by the value of “loyalty to the Republic.”  (The containment of the revolution, though, also meant that only one former PIDE agent faced prosecution for crimes under the Salazar dictatorship.)

Movements such as the militant student demonstrations which had an impact in bringing down the Cavaco government in 1992 saw the first big post-revolution clashes between protesters and the police.  But, even then, the police would hold students in custody and release them once the demonstrations finished.  Police tactics were based on not only intimidation but also the fact that the vast majority of the population consented to the rule of successive Socialist and Social-Democratic governments.

Since then, police officers have been re-educated in a militarized fashion.  Wrapped in the language that calls for the “re-foundation” of the Portuguese state, policing has qualitatively changed in order to push through austerity measures and reverse the gains of the revolution.

14N: No Turning Back

Demonstration Against Merkel in Lisbon
Demonstration Against Merkel in Lisbon, November 12, 2012.  Photo by Mark Bergfeld.
14N General Strike: Outside of Parliament.
14N General Strike: Outside of Parliament.  Photo by Mark Bergfeld.
14N General Strike: Minutes Before the Police Storm the Square
14N General Strike: Minutes Before the Police Storm the Square.  Photo by Mark Bergfeld.
Police Breaking Up a Bus Picket Line in Lisbon
14N General Strike: Police Breaking Up a Bus Picket Line in Lisbon.  Photo by Mark Bergfeld.

The general strike on November 14 called by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) is seen to be a turning point in policing austerity.  As protesters sang the “Internationale” and “Grândola, Vila Morena,” a dozen heavily-armed riot police protected parliament from the wrath of thousands of people.  In a Greek-style confrontation, they crushed the demonstration.  People were forced to hide in side streets, cafés, bars, and shops.  That night, more than twenty people were arrested and kept in solitary confinement for more than five hours without being able to see their lawyers.  While in the end no charge was brought against the protesters, they found their names printed in the following day’s papers.

Rodrigo Riveira, a Bloco Esquerda activist, told me: “That night one woman was arrested a kilometer away from where the protest had ended.  She was there to meet her partner and suddenly found herself being charged with violent disorder.  She hadn’t even been on the demonstration.  In mid-March the charges of violent disorder against her were finally dropped.  Currently, a civil case against the police is being prepared.”

While the media blamed “anarchists” from Italy and Britain for creating havoc, the daily newspaper Público discovered that more than 20 undercover police officers operated inside the demonstration.  Further investigations showed that one of them threw rocks at the line of riot police and that 5-10 of them were in the front row of the demonstration, inciting other protesters.  When the police steamrolled the demonstration, the undercover police officers simply jumped through the police lines.

Splits in the Security Apparatus

No one could have foreseen the consequences of this policing operation.  The following day Prime Minister Passos Coelho and the Chief of the Police were openly clashing over tactical maneuvers of the day.  Beneath their public clash lay its hidden roots — a security apparatus on the verge of crisis.

On November 6, more than 5,000 local police officers marched against the government’s plans to stop early retirement and to end free public transport and healthcare for police officers.  Only a few days later on November 10, 10,000 active and retired members of the military in civilian dress marched against austerity through Lisbon.  Some officers complained that their salaries have been cut by as much as 25 percent.  One banner read: “The military is unhappy, the people are unhappy.”  Given the role that radical officers played in the 1974-5 Revolution, many people supported the military’s protest.  Later on television, one member of the military went on to say, “We will do everything so that the indignation of the people will not be suppressed.”

Whenever ministers speak in public, protesters confront them and chase them off.  Whenever police officers protect these ministers, they are called “fascists.”  Tectonic plates are shifting inside Portuguese society.  Consent to hegemony amongst the popular masses is crumbling.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that the riot police received an 11-percent pay rise while Portugal’s city police, the PSP, received 13.2 percent more.  The militarized GNR (Guarda Nacional Republicana, National Republican Guard) police got an extra 9.9 percent.  In total, the budget for the Ministry of the Interior has increased by about 12.3 percent to €2.14 billion for 2013.

The latest announcement of further austerity measures will only translate into more policing under the banner of the “rule of law.”  Ruben Marques’s death, the policing operation against the November 14 general strike, and the splits inside the security apparatus show how the “re-foundation” of the Portuguese state will increasingly replace consent by coercion, eradicating any hint of democracy.  As the Troika’s policies fail, Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s motto might well become: police batons for protesters and rubber bullets for the kids of Bela Vista!


Special thanks to Rodrigo Riveira and João Carlos for some interesting discussions on the topic of policing during my stay in Lisbon.

Mark Bergfeld is a socialist activist.  He was an international delegate to the Left Bloc Congress and reported on the general strike from Lisbon on November 14, 2012.  He tweets @mdbergfeld.  His writings can be found at mdbergfeld.wordpress.com.  See, also, Mark Bergfeld, “Portugal: ‘I Prefer the Horses in My Lasagne to the Donkeys in the Government'” (MRZine, 4 March 2013).

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