15,000 landless workers march on Brasilia

15,000 landless workers march on Brasilia

Date: 13 February 2014

Yesterday about 15,000 members of Brazil’s biggest movement, the Landless Workers Movement (MST), marched to the headquarters of Brazil’s federal government from the camp where the MST’s sixth congress is taking place.

Everyone who was able to march had a break from the talks and discussions of the congress to march through the Brazilian capital. The march followed an action in the morning by the Sem Terrinha (‘little landless’ – the children in the movement) at the Ministry of Education. The children hand-painted its walls and invading the entrance. For many of the children, it was their first action as part of the movement.

Photo: Ninja Midia/flickr

For everyone else, the afternoon’s march definitely wasn’t their first, as massive demonstrations and marches are a vital part of the MST’s struggle for popular agrarian reform.

I was in the international bloc with about 200 others and the organisers were really strict about keeping us together the whole time. The entire march was organised in four long columns. This meant that it was hard to grasp how huge the march really was, as you had to stay in your place in the line. The MST developed this way of organising marches as a response to serious police violence and people being killed on their early marches. Staying in columns makes is harder for people to infiltrate the march, or for the police to stir up trouble through a crowd.

The route took us past the heavily-guarded US embassy, where activists covered the walls in hand-written posters with anti-Monsanto messages and called for the release of five Cubans who have been in prison the US for 15 years.

When we finally made it to the federal government building, the march spilled onto the huge esplanade outside it. In the international bloc we were made to stick together in case the mood turned.

It did.

About half an hour after we’d arrived, activists started unloading a truck with hundreds of crosses and pieces of wood and foam. Another bus also made its way through the crowd, filled with more props for a symbolic action. Trouble started when the police wouldn’t allow the Sem Terra to unload the bus. They stormed the bus, snapping the key in the ignition so it couldn’t move.

Photo: Ninja Midia/flickr

It was unclear at the time what actually happened, but suddenly we heard gunshots and we started to run away. The pieces of wood that had been used for the crosses were flying through the air. Everyone started to retreat up the road, only to find that Brazilian police had lined it. Meanwhile the organisers of the international group were frantically trying to keep us together and make sure nobody was missing or hurt.

The panic quickly died down. Information started trickling through the crowd and we found out that rubber bullets had been shot and a stun gun used. A Sem Terra activist who had been trying to negotiate with the police had been arrested. He had been thrown on the ground, beaten, and taken away.

We all congregated on a hill overlooking the government buildings, and were kept animated by people speaking through a sound-system on a bus.

Photo: Ninja Midia/flickr

Having marched 9 km already, the plan had been to get on buses back to the camp. But when asked by the person on the microphone, the crowd decided we should march back instead. This time, were weren’t organised into neat columns, but rather sprawled across the road and occupied its six lanes. The chanting was more powerful than before and it felt like the police couldn’t defeat us.

It was quite unsettling not knowing how the police were likely to act or how worried to be about what was happening. Whereas in England I feel like I know my rights fairly well and know what behaviour to expect from the police, being in a different country makes you feel unsure about what the norms are.

Marching back and talking to people from Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil who I have gotten to know this week, police violence is a reality of every demonstration. They seem unsurprised, if unphased at what had happened and it was all over so quickly that the tension subsided quickly. But the deaths of hundreds of fellow MST activists still haunts the movement. Celebrating the lives of those murdered by security and police, and massacres like Felisburgo has been a big part of the congress which marks the MST’s 30th anniversary.

*Since writing this article, we have found out that after three years of the MST trying to meet with President Dilma and being refused, Dilma called on the MST’s national organising committee to meet with her at 9am this morning, less than 24 hours after the march had taken place. This was announced to us during the morning’s plenary, and the whole stadium erupted at the news as it’s a big moment for the movement.