“No se desalojará, no se desalojará. Ni por la metropolitana, ni por patovicas, ni por la federal…” (We won’t be evicted, we won’t be evicted. Not by the metropolitan [police], or bouncers, or the federal [police]…”)
Everyone who has walked down Sarmiento street between Montevideo and Paraná in the last 28 days is likely to have heard this chant several times. Some people have even learned it and joined in support.
At first glance, the huge encampment on Sarmiento 1551 looks like a summer rock festival. Boxes of second-hand clothes to be sold litter the entrance, and a few steps away from them two young people cook for the crowd on an improvised parrilla. Big posters on the fences talk about public art, while a few policemen walk by, keeping an eye on the youngsters. It does not feel like a typical summer festival though. The purpose of this movement goes beyond arts and summer activities.
Welcome to the first massive social protest of 2013 – the Sala Alberdi take-over.
History of A Struggle
Plaza Seca, the open-air space in front of the entrance to Centro Cultural General San Martín (CCGSM) has been taken over by 150 young artists who define themselves as “students, former students, and friends of Sala Alberdi”. Five others remain at Sala Alberdi itself. And they intend to stay until the end.
Sala Alberdi is sometimes better known than the CCGSM itself. Located on the sixth floor, it has become synonymous with independent art available to everyone. Originally opened in 2006 by the city’s Arts and Education Department as a space for vocational theatre studies, 43,203 people from different social and economic backgrounds participated in its activities on that year. Besides institutional activities and workshops, the artists also delivered a collection of children’s plays for free to 5,000 public schools and libraries, including rural schools.
Only a few months later funding by the city government was cut and by 2008 most activities were scaled down. Over 500 teachers lost their jobs, and the number of workshops decreased from 40 to nine.
On 17th August 2010 a group of activists decided to “protect Sala Alberdi from privatisation” and took over the space. Since then, they have evolved into a large number of squatters, who started offering new and continuous workshops and artistic activities ‘a la gorra’ – based on voluntary contributions from students. According to the protesters, only in 2012 they had 1,500 artists and 30,000 participants in general. They ran one performance per day.
However, a court ruling by Judge Fabiana Schafrik ordered the squatters out of the cultural space on 4th May 2012. The occupiers refused to leave and said they would continue with their activities.
On 2nd January 2013 the CCGSM closed for holidays until 10th February and shut down access to everyone, including the artists from Sala Alberdi. “They didn’t even let us know they were going to close the doors,” recalls Belén [surname withheld], one of the occupiers. “We tried to get inside anyway, but then they put the fences all around the entrance. A few of us attempted to break them, and that was a turning point in the conflict.”
On 4th January a group of five protesters refused to leave the space and remained barricaded inside. Their compañeros immediately mobilised their resources and organised an encampment outside, on Plaza Seca. In only one week the number of supporters increased “from four tents to 49,” says Belén.
Since the first day of occupation at Plaza Seca, protesters have slowly restored their cultural activities and invited famous artists such as La Chilinga, Perotá Chingá, Miss Bolivia, and Javier Calamaro, who have lent their support.
The latest episode in the conflict happened on 21st January, when the protesters were sued by the city government for usurpation of the public space and given 72 hours to leave. On 24th January, they delivered a document to public prosectur Iván Coleff, signed by Alejandra Darín (sister of the actor Ricardo Darín), Mirta Israel (Association of Argentine Actors), Héctor Bidonde, and Luis Zamora (former deputies) among others. They did not receive a response.
Unfortunately and despite repeated requests by The Argentina Independent, neither authorities of the city government or the CCGSM were available for comment regarding the current situation.
For now, the conflict remains unresolved. However, the legal challenge by the government has only made the occupiers’ position firmer: “We will stay here to the end.”
Life at Plaza Seca
Along with massive movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the US or the recent takeover of high schools in the city of Buenos Aires, the Sala Alberdi protest provides an interesting example of horizontal organisation and self-government.
Requests to be introduced to the protest leader are met with vague answers. “Well, you could talk to that girl in a grey dress or that guy in a red T-shirt… Whoever you like.” It quickly becomes clear that there are no leaders. Or rather, that everyone is one.
The main decision-making body in the encampment is an open assembly, which Sala Alberdi activists have been running for two years. The assembly later divides into working commissions such as security, finance, cultural agenda, press, and arts. Each commission has its tasks, which are evaluated during the following assembly. Sole [surname withheld], the representative from the press commission and Sala Alberdi speaker, says: “Everyone has absolutely the same right to speak, propose, and reject any idea. We divide responsibilities, but we don’t have any hierarchy. Our system of management is completely horizontal, and we avoid leading or being led. We rely on everyone’s personal sense of responsibility and commitment.”
“Our daily agenda is quite relative in terms of timing,” Sole assures. “We are always in a state of alert, as anything can happen from one moment to the next…”
The protesters, however, are not alone. They have to coexist with the metropolitan police force, and the relationship is getting increasingly tense.
At a press-conference held on 21st January, the day the protesters were notified of the lawsuit, Nico [surname withheld], another speaker, denounced the metropolitan police for illegal actions towards protesters. “At the very beginning they beat a couple of our friends heavily, and they were so scared that never came back. Another day the police car followed another compañera to her house in the province and never introduced officially. Finally, they held one of the protesters in a police car for over three hours and obviously had no legal explanation for that.”
Protester Baldir Silva, who stayed inside Sala Alberdi until 21st January, recalls the period between 2010 and 2012, when Sala Alberdi squatters did not have problems with the security personnel. After a while, both groups reached an agreement about certain hours and rules of behaviour. “They simply realised that it didn’t make sense to fight against us, who never represented any danger.” As a response, CCGSM authorities completely changed their security personnel last year and increased the number of metropolitan policemen to have more control over the cultural space.
Belén affirms that the police treat them worse than criminals: “I am not surprised. It’s much easier to manage criminals than people who think differently and fight for their rights.”
Support and Inclusiveness
The sight of such a large number of artists investing much of their time in the protest begs the question: where do they get the money from? The answer is quite typical for this kind of protests: they are supported by personal donations and small compensations from other jobs, like selling crafts, food, and second hand clothes. “No one is obliged to pay anything,” says Belén. “However, when someone wants to participate in our activities, we appreciate contributions such as water, food, and other items needed in the encampment.” The daily needs’ list is published on Sala Alberdi’s Facebook page, so anyone paying a visit can find out how to best contribute.
In terms of political support, Sala Alberdi protesters say they are open to receiving help from anyone, however they prefer not to be used for the objectives of any political party. Among the protesters there are indigenous rights activists who joined the encampment from the first day and consolidated their forces and goals with the Sala Alberdi protesters. “We do not only demand justice for our recent issues, we also feel we have a responsibility to unite this social movement, reach our common objectives, and protect our constitutional rights,” said Qom community representatives.
The Sala Alberdi encampment also counts with support from Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Línea Fundadora, the Argentine Association of Actors (AAA), Coordination Against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI), and a large number of NGOs, independent media, and social organisations. Mirta Israel from AAA says that “we came without being called. This space is open and you don’t have to ask for permission to be supportive.” The AAA representative heavily criticised the city government for “commercialising art”.
And the Fight Continues…
The destiny of Sala Alberdi remains uncertain. Whilst the city government demands the May 2012 court ruling be upheld, the occupants of Sala Alberdi define it as violation of their rights. They quote article 32 of the Buenos Aires Constitution, which states that the city “guarantees cultural democracy; ensures free artistic expression and prohibits censorship; facilitates access to cultural goods; encourages the development of national cultural industries; [...] creates and preserves spaces.”
At the moment the Sala Alberdi protesters are focusing on having their protest recognised as a social event rather than a criminal act. Their next milestone is 10th February, when the CCGSM will open again after the holidays.
6pm at Plaza Seca. Some people sit on the stairs, waiting for the tango lesson. Others are cooking and talking. Within a few seconds, a group of protesters come back from the city centre singing another song: “Ole ole, ole ola. La Sala Alberdi no va a cerrar. Y todo el mundo por el arte popular…” (Sala Alberdi won’t be closed down. And everyone supports popular art”). The singing gets louder, and the neighbours start joining the group and smiling to strangers. The four remaining squatters on the sixth floor stick their heads out the window and sing together. The protest will keep going until the end.
Click here to find out what porteños think about the Sala Alberdi protest.