Argentina Reporting — 21 March 2017

buenos aires protests

by

Jonathan R. Rose

photo by Beatrice Murch

I once participated in a protest in Mexico City, days after the current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, was elected. And what I remember most was the amount of police officers present. I tried to count them, but there were far too many.

Each police officer was draped in riot gear. They were all holding shields and batons. It was an unsettling, scary feeling seeing that many cops, standing side by side, encasing the thousands of protesters, waiting for something to happen just so they could react. But the fear faded when I started to realize there was something encouraging at the sight of so many cops, something empowering, something validating. Whether or not the government was afraid or even worried about the protest is anybody’s guess, but they were aware of it, and judging by the extreme measures taken in response to it, they were taking it seriously.

This brings me to a protest I observed in Buenos Aires, on March 7th of this year.

Walking down one of the city’s main streets, Avenida de Mayo proved difficult. There was no room to move. The street was completely filled with people. Many of them were wearing shirts indicating their support for one of the many workers unions present. They were waving enormous flags, banging on drums, blowing horns, chanting, shouting, fist-pumping, eating, drinking and chatting. I watched people shouting speeches through a microphone at the head of the protest. I heard rousing words about fighting back, about standing up, about banding together, about not taking it anymore. The speeches were met with thunderous rounds of applause and shouts of approval by the crowd. It looked like any other protest I’ve seen, except for one thing, there was not a single police officer present, at least not one in uniform.

I couldn’t get over the complete absence of law enforcement. Was there a peaceful accord made between the protesters and the authorities prior to the protest? If so, does that not defeat the purpose of protesting? Is it even a protest when you ask permission to do it by the very people you’re protesting against?

I have no idea what took place prior to the protest, behind closed doors. All I know is what I saw, and what I saw were thousands of people blocking a major street in the middle of the afternoon, on a weekday, and not a single cop there to see it.

While I felt afraid of during the protest in Mexico City after seeing so many armed cops present, it was that fear, that tension, that possibility of danger, that made it seem like it mattered being there. But feeling no fear during the protest in Buenos Aires, feeling comfortable, feeling at ease made it seem like my presence on that street didn’t matter at all.

Is it possible for comfort and safety and protesting to co-exist? Or is the price one pays for protesting supposed to be the prospect of getting hurt? Is that not the sacrifice one is supposed to make before leaving their home and protesting on a major street against a figure or system of authority they deem unjust? I was always led to believe that protesting was supposed to come with some risk, but on that day in Buenos Aires, where was the risk if not a single cop was there to impose it?

After the protest ended, I returned home and sat in front of my desk, thinking back at what I saw, but more so at what I didn’t see. I questioned if having no police present was a possible strategy carried out by those being protested against. As I mentioned earlier, seeing all of those cops in Mexico City, while frightening, was empowering. It made me want to be there. It made me want to stand up against the newly elected government. So what does it mean when not a single cop shows up in Buenos Aires during a massive protest that blocked off a major street for several hours?

I also thought about the history of what the people here in Argentina have done when faced with an unpopular government. Unlike many other countries, when faced with governments they deemed unjust, Argentineans fought hard to oust them. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without heavy losses and a great deal of bloodshed, but they did it. Perhaps that history of successful opposition is what led to the absence of police during the protest I witnessed. Perhaps it was a sign of respect for the people on behalf of the government. Perhaps it was even fear, though no government in their right mind would ever publically say they were actually afraid of the people they’re tasked to govern.

Or maybe the lack of police presence was a sign of disrespect, the government’s way of saying they were not afraid of the people at all, like a boxer so supremely confident in his opponent’s inability to hit them they don’t even bother raising their fists in defence.

I also considered the possibility that police were there that day, but I just couldn’t see them because they were in plain clothes, hidden in plain sight, mingling, maybe even marching with the protestors themselves, all the while prepared to respond if things reached a level they deemed unacceptable.

When speaking to several people here in Buenos Aires, it was made clear to me that many of them are not happy with the current government. And while I don’t have the answers to any of the questions I’ve posed, I have no doubt that answers will nonetheless be forthcoming in the not too distant future.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. There actually is police at the protests in Buenos Aires. If you see in plaza de mayo the black wall of shields made is all with officers behind it protecting the presidents house, la casa rosada. There is police repression but it happens more in secret and discrete. Usually at the end of a protest a small riot make occur but during the day light hours it is not likely. Police officials are there just not in plain sight where you will see them. but what i observed was when there was a protest in support of the president there were no police officials to be found any where. I am a student studying abroad in argentina

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