Argentines have a fondness for taking over the streets – hinchas pile into their re-purposed buses, hanging out the windows and blowing vuvuzelas, to party before and after matches; cyclists, skateboarders, and inline skaters claim the streets during Critical Mass; students proudly march, masked and waving signs, for improved educational institutions; political parties convene under massive banners and behind bullhorns on a trek to Casa Rosada. And then there are the labor unions, who are by far the most active lot. At least once a week some labor group (or more likely many) is marching down 9 de Julio, banging their drums and chanting in protest of better benefits and higher wages. While I sometimes find the noise level irritating, I laud the Argentinos and their ability to freely mobilize and rally behind their respective causes.
Sometimes the protests start early, around 9 or 10am; most often they begin around 1 or 2pm and last several hours, but usually no later than the evening rush hour. A sure way to gain attention is to piss off commuters on a major traffic artery (or all traffic on Route 7, the Pan-American highway). A result is the incessant blaring of car horns – drivers can’t seem to figure out that repeatedly honking their horns doesn’t actually make traffic move any faster. Boludos!
The marchers employ a variety of noise-makers (besides clogging up traffic). Drums are common. Just about every group I’ve ever seen stream beneath my windows has at least one lone drummer, though a drum-core of 3-6 members is just as likely. Mi favorito is when an obviously unskilled player wields a drum- I really have to resist the urge to get a pot from my kitchen and teach them how to properly keep rhythm. Huge firecracker-rockets are the first choice in non-musical, exploding noisemakers (the term “M-80” from home comes to mind, though a quick internet check confirms that what people referred to as M-80’s were most likely not such due to clever marketing ploys). I seriously wonder what is packed into those innocuous looking tubes – they have a serious blast of noise that scares the living daylights out of me every time one is fired. I have spilled coffee on myself countless times (but it’s really funny when Fernando jumps out of his skin and grabs his chest like he’s going to have a heart attack).
My annoyances aside, an important point to note is that protests and marches are remarkably calm and respectful. Despite the frequency, I’ve never seen anyone become out of control or violent. Here, protests are more like quiet parades; protests in my former town could get ugly. I’ve witnessed the police get pretty nasty over a bunch of hippies. Some protests turned into ridiculous riots spurred by alcohol and poor decision, and even those that started out peaceful often ended up with someone being beaten or tasered by cops. So much for the concept of “public servants”.
In contrast, Argentine police are generally here to protect the protesters, not harass. They help block and redirect traffic and prevent counter-protestors from clashing. Several times I have seen the gendarmería and la policía federal show up with their scary tank-like trucks and detainment buses, but they pretty much stick to hanging around a block from the action. Consider that the greater Buenos Aires metro area’s population is larger than 12 million, while Eugene-Springfield is a mere 215,000.
It wasn’t always like this, though. It is prudent to point out the torture and murder of tens of thousands during the military junta from the mid 1970s to 1983. More recent suppression include riots in 2001 that ousted a president, Fernando De La Rua, during the catastrophic economic collapse. Dozens of protestors were killed in fierce and violent battles after police were given absolute power to quell uprisings; De La Rua was rescued by helicopter from Casa Rosada. Half a year later, under president Eduardo Duhalde’s direction, more citizens were killed by the police in another massive and violent protest. These events eventually spurred a slow overhaul of the police force, changing the directives and rules of public engagement.
Even with the current increased acceptance of public demonstration the situation isn’t perfect: every once in a while someone may be killed during a protest. But the overall deaths are remarkably low when you consider how many people organize in the streets on a weekly basis. Civil conflicts are rarely dealt with by force and the military is constitutionally barred from stepping in.
The one sort-of exception are the gendarmería. They are comprised of highly trained civilian volunteers, and thus not technically a part of the national armed forces, whose main tasks are border patrol, various aspects of rural and national security (drug- and human-trafficking, smuggling, environmental crime, etc), and peace-keeping.
In a country infamous for its years of ruthless dictatorship, freedom of speech and demonstration has come to represent a basic and sacred human right for Argentines. I say, keep on marching, Argies, even if your drums wake me and rockets startle me. Keep fighting for what you believe in and let your voices continue to shape your freedom.
(As for the hinchas– keep doing your thing, though I am glad you have police escorts because you do look like an unruly bunch. And don’t fall off your buses because it’s really gonna hurt the next morning.)