Que se Vayan Todos

The Neighbourhoods Rise

Every week people make this pilgrimage, from every corner of Buenos Aires, some of them coming as far as seven kilometres. They walk with their asembleas populares, the neighborhood meetings which have spontaneously sprouted up over the last few months in over 200 different neighborhoods in the city, and throughout the surrounding provinces. These assemblies are rapidly becoming autonomous centres of community participation. Most meet weekly (the more ambitious, twice a week!), and all meet outside - in squares, parks, and even on street corners.

Every Sunday there is an assembly of assemblies, an inter-neighborhood plenary in a park, attended by over 4000 people and often running for more than 4 hours. Spokespeople from rich, poor, and middle class districts attend to report back on the work and proposals of their local assemblies, share ideas, and debate strategy for the following week's city-wide mobilizations.

The local assemblies are open to almost anyone, although one assembly has banned bankers and party activists, and others have banned the media. Some assemblies have as many as 200 people participating, others are much smaller. One of the assemblies we attended had about 40 people present, ranging from two mothers sitting on the sidewalk while breast feeding, to a lawyer in a suit, to a skinny hippie in batik flares, to an elderly taxi driver, to a dreadlocked bike messenger, to a nursing student. It was a whole slice of Argentinean society standing in a circle on a street corner under the orange glow of sodium lights, passing around a brand new megaphone and discussing how to take back control of their lives. Every now and then a car would pass by and beep its horn in support, and this was all happening between 8pm and midnight on a Wednesday evening!

It all seemed so normal, and yet was perhaps the most extraordinary radical political event I'd ever witnessed - ordinary people seriously discussing self-management, spontaneously understanding direct democracy and beginning to put it into practice in their own neighborhoods. Multiply this by 200 in this city alone, and you have the makings of an irresistible popular rebellion, a grassroots uprising which is rejecting centralized political power. As Roli, an accountant from the Almagro assembly said: "People reject the political parties. To get out of this crisis requires real politics. These meetings of common people on the street are the fundamental form of doing politics."

Outside of the weekly meetings, the assemblies meet in smaller committees, each one dedicated to a different local issue or problem. Committees of health are common - with many local hospital budgets slashed, there is an urgent need to develop alternatives to the collapsing welfare system. Some are suggesting that people who own their own homes withhold their property tax, and instead give that money to the local hospitals. Many assemblies also have alternative media committees, as there is a widespread critique of the mainstream media's representation of the rebellion. It took a large cacerolazo outside their head offices to get them to cover the uprising more accurately. However, the spirit of distrust for any enormous corporate entity remains at large, and local assemblies are beginning to print their own news sheets, broadcast updates on local radio stations, and put up web sites.

In addition to the innumerable meetings and the weekly cacerolazo, the assemblies also organize local street parties and actions. In one neighborhood, for example, the assembly organized pickets to prevent the authorities from closing down a baker who could not afford to pay his rent.

For many of the assembly participants, this is the first time they have been involved in any form of grassroots mobilization in their lives. By creating a space for people to listen to each other's problems and desires for change, the assemblies have enabled people to realize that their personal daily struggles are connected to other people's problems, and that all roads eventually lead to a similar source, whether it is the government, the banks, the IMF, or the entire economic system itself. An elderly shopkeeper, whose experience is representative of many participants, said "Never in my whole life did I give a shit for anyone else in my neighborhood. I was not interested in politics. But this time I realized that I have had enough and I needed to do something about it."

For radical change to occur, transformation has to take place in our minds as well as in social structures, and it is often on the tongue through the tool of language that one can trace some of the most radical shifts in consciousness. A beautiful illustration of this is that out of the experience of the assemblies, a new form of greeting has arisen. The traditional political leftist form of greeting in Latin American culture, compañero, or comrade, has been rejected in favor of a new form of address, vecino, or neighbor. It's a simple trick of the tongue, but one which signifies a major shift away from an authoritarian politics based on power and parties towards a participatory politics made up of people and places.

next part: Converging Currents | Que se Vayan Todos | Argentina