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Taking back the streets

Illustration by Sarah John

Protests are part of the landscape of Buenos Aires. As a social activist I have played my part in them for several years, recording images and video as a member of the press team for the Movimiento Popular Nuestramérica. I am always on the move, trying to cover what happens.

Recently the Cap March made a big impact on me. It was an outpouring of young people from the popular neighbourhoods wearing their characteristic caps, which are often accompanied by sportswear and jazzy sneakers. Dressing that way, being young and racialized, is enough to be considered suspect by the security forces, without having done anything wrong, just for existing. The Cap March denounced this view that some lives are ‘good’ and others are not.

Even the language used by inhabitants of the popular neighbourhoods is suspect: their creative use of words and expressions loaded with layers of meaning is looked down upon by the more well-heeled citizens of Buenos Aires. Part of my own job is to play with language and try to think up slogans that are both mischievous and communicative to be used during such gatherings. At times, along with the press team, I will toy with words for days in search of the impactful phrase.

That day we had agreed that the march would start at 3.00pm. This was two hours before the hoped-for actual start to ensure everyone would be on time, as lateness is a defining Argentine characteristic. I was guiltier than most. I arrived late and the others had already started to put together the flags, banners and costumes that gave colour to the action.

Little by little, the rest of the activists arrived. There were representatives of many groups affected by discrimination: homeless people, sex workers, street vendors, anti-racist campaigners.

My responsibility that day was to film. I try to capture interesting moments and images, something that will stand out, because, in a sense, all protests are quite similar to each other.

The reasons that cause us to mobilize are usually harsh, but there is always music, dancing and celebration. The batucada ensembles were the first to get going with their percussive rhythms and did not stop from the moment we started out from Government House until we arrived, nearing sundown, at the Palace of the Argentine National Congress. When I hear the drumming, an electric emotion runs through my veins, taking me back to previous struggles – and some of the victories that came from them.

The route we follow is a ‘classic’ one for demonstrations by now; it takes in the institutions that have the main responsibility for delivering social rights.

At the end of the march, a stage was improvised on the trailer of a truck parked on the sidewalk. It was festooned with banners proclaiming ‘I will never be a police officer’. The speakers, a mix of people directly affected by the problems and well-known campaigners, had to climb onto the stage using a chair as a ladder, the extra effort to get some of them up prompting laughter. Although they came from different political backgrounds and life experiences, the speakers strongly agreed on the need to eradicate institutional violence once and for all, and calling for state support to put an end to the problem of homelessness. Following the speeches was difficult for many of those gathered due to the sheer size of the crowd. What was clearly heard, though, was the closing of the event, when the volume was cranked up and cumbias were played. A cheer went up as people danced before eventually dispersing. Volunteers then began the clean-up.

Virginia Tognola focuses on politics, culture and human and environmental rights in her writing. She is an activist in the Movimiento Popular Nuestramérica

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