Que se Vayan Todos

Beware the Bourgeois Block

18th Fe. 2002

It's noon on a Monday, and we are on Florida Avenue, the main pedestrian shopping street of Buenos Aires, no different from London's Oxford Street, with its numerous McDonald's, Tower Records and Benettons. This busy street, normally full of bankers and business people making quick lunch time purchases, runs along the edge of the financial district. But today something is not quite normal. The rustle of shopping bags is drowned out by a deafening racket.

A crowd of about 200 people are beating the steel sheet metal that protects the entrance of a bank. They bang with hammers, ladles, monkey wrenches, one woman even removes her shoe to use as a tool. The entire facade of the building shudders under the fury of the raining vibration of the blows. The force of some of the tools manages to punch gaping holes straight through the metal, agile gloved hands prise the sheets apart. Suddenly the armor falls away and the crowd cheers.

A handful of people split off and invade a bank lobby across the street. Within a fraction of a second all six ATM machines are systematically smashed, shattered glass flies, and a woman sprays the word "chorros," or crooks, in huge letters on the marble wall. Nervous bank employees watch the scene from behind a glass door; an egg sails through the air and breaks against it. The bankers flinch, then turn away.

The crowd repeats the accusatory chant, "Ladrones, ladrones," or thieves, and then join in a longer chant, while jumping ecstatically up and down, waving portfolios and briefcases around. The chant translates loosely as "Whoever is not jumping is a banker, whoever is not jumping is a thief...." When this dies down, everyone casually exits the lobby and moves on to the next bank, less than fifty yards up the street.

These kind of tactics have become archetypes of contemporary protest: the shattered glass, graffiti smeared across bank walls, the corporate symbols of capital destroyed. Images like these have been imbedded in our imagination over the past few years, placed there by the mega-machine of mainstream media in its attempt to divide, discredit, and attack the growing anticapitalist movement, which is increasingly referred to as "terrorist thugs", "violent anarchists," and "mindless mob." From London to Genoa, via Seattle, Prague, and Québec City, it has been the same story, the same images, the same rituals of symbolic destruction, played out over and over again; a high drama which effectively sells newspapers when splashed across the front page, and which serves to distract from the real issues at hand. However, here in Buenos Aires, things are very, very, different.

For one thing, it was impossible to tell the demonstrators from the passersby. Men in suits and ties with briefcases in one hand and hammers in the other, women with gold bracelets, hand bags, and high heels sharing cans of spray paint, anonymous suits on their lunch break joining the fracas and then melting back into the crowd. Walking through the pedestrian zone was astonishing - not only was it impossible to tell who was who, but also, businesses remained open, leaving their doors and windows open, fearless of looting or damage, as it was perfectly clear that the targets were the banks and nothing but the banks. Even McDonald's, usually having the honor of being the first to lose its windows, left their door open, solely guarded by the customary single private security guard.

Another major difference is that this is not the black bloc - in fact there are no hooded sweatshirts to be seen. No one is masked, although one woman covers her face with a newspaper and large sunglasses, understandable if you've survived the disappearance of 30,000 of your fellow citizens. The spirit of "militant" (and often, macho) clandestinity is completely absent. It is broad daylight - while the bank is being trashed, shoppers are buying tennis shoes next door, and the handful of police, unable to do anything, stand idly, watching sheepishly. This is the most open, accountable, and disciplined property damage (one can hardly call it a riot when the police don't fight back) that we've ever witnessed. It's also probably the most surreal. If one must call these people a bloc, and why not, as they move and act as one, maybe "bourgeois bloc" would suit them best.

The ahorristas, or savers, hold their demonstrations three times a week. On the day we followed them, 17 banks were "visited." Before meeting them, it was difficult to imagine women with shopping bags and high heels kicking at corporate windows, huge lipstick grins spreading as they watched the glass shatter into thousands of pieces. That day they also surrounded every armored security van transporting cash from bank to bank that they came upon and covered each one in graffiti, while men in pin striped suits proceeded to unscrew the wheel nuts and others pried open the hood, tearing out wires from the running engines. Soccer moms jumped up and down on top of the vans, smashing anything that could be broken, side mirrors, headlights, license plates, windshield wipers and antennae. For three hours on a Monday afternoon, our understanding of the world was turned on its head, all our preconceptions and stereotypes melted away. "This could be my mom," we kept thinking.

The ahorristas are the upper to lower middle class who have had their life savings frozen by the government-imposed corralito. Dressed in shirts and ties, pumps and designer sunglasses, they just don't seem the sort who would be smashing up corporate property. They are architects, computer programmers, doctors, housewives, accountants, and even bank employees, one of whom, dressed in a business suit and holding a wrench and a metal bowl, explained, "It's not just the banks who are thieves, it's the government with the corporations. They confiscated the money we had in the bank. They stole it." She pauses, and then shakes her fist. "I am very angry!"

And yet the ahorristas are not simply the selfish petit bourgeoisie, worried only about their own money. Their struggle has broken out of the enclosure of self-interest, and has begun to encompass a critique of much of the social system. They have publicly allied themselves to the piqueteros and many take part in the assemblies . "A lot more than just the government must change here," says Carlos, a computer programmer, who has painted slogans all over his suit. His words echo those of the piquetero, Alejandro: "Us, the piqueteros, and all the people who are fighting, are struggling for social change. We do not believe in the capitalist neoliberal system anymore."

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