A couple days after I arrived in Argentina a friend invited me to a protest against police brutality in a working class Buenos Aires suburb called La Matanza. Over the past several years many local youth have been killed by police. In one shocking case, a youth from La Matanza, Luciano Arruga, was “disappeared” by police. Disappearances refer to a practice, common under the Argentine Military dictatorship from 1976-1983, in which the authorities rounded up thousands of political dissidents and then secretly detained and murdered them. Someone would simply go missing, never to be heard from again.
According to family and friends, on several occasions police had tried to force Luciano Arruga to rob for them but he had refused. Then, on the night of January 31st, 2009, he has beaten by police and taken away. He has not been seen since. As in the murders of other local youth, no chargers have been filed to date in Luciano Arruga’s disappearance.
The protest, meant to call attention to the broader problem of police brutality and impunity for their crimes, commemorated the one year anniversary of his disappearance. When we arrived in La Matanza, family and friends of murdered youth, as well as a wide array of political groups, where gathering in a central plaza. From the beginning, the protest had a heavy, serious air, as many family members carried pictures of loved ones killed by the police. Eventually, a group of these family members linked arms and began to lead a march out of the plaza. We immediately blocked an intersection and stood, singing and chanting. I kept looking around for police, who were nowhere to be seen, especially since there was no permit for the march.
No police arrived, and soon enough the march continued down a city street. There were periodic pauses marked by chants and songs against police violence. I was impressed that everyone participating seemed to know the songs despite the fact that they were more complicated than your typical call and response. When I asked my friend about it she explained that many of the songs had originated in the times of the military dictatorship. They had thus retained both a place in the collective memory and a continued political significance. Indeed, as we walked down the street chanting, an old lady who was sitting at a bus stop joined us in song. It was one of my favorite moments of the protest. In the US I’ve become so used to getting insulting comments and dirty looks from passersby when I participate in public political actions. Even though we were blocking the street, and therefore preventing her bus from coming, she wanted to show her support. And she knew all the words.
Eventually we reached a large avenue and proceeded to block that as well. Then something really unexpected happened:
A group of Bolivian dancers, led by a car blasting music, led its way through the march. At first, I was totally at a loss for what was happening. Then, a car trailing the group emerged with a Bolivian flag and a picture of a youth killed by the police.