By Dan LaBotz
On Friday, Nov. 4, Brazilian police violently assaulted one of the most important institutions of the country’s social movements, the Florestan Fernandes National School, the educational center of the Movement of the Landless (MST). While the MST and the police have for years clashed in struggles over land, this most recent attack is something quite different.
Several years ago I went to São Paulo, Brazil for a meeting of several North and South labor education centers—I was there representing Labor Notes—and we met at the educational center of the MST. The MST is a poor people’s movement that since its founding in 1984 has fought through protest demonstrations, civil disobedience, legal cases, and lobbying for legislation to take unused land from wealthy individuals and corporations and make it available to Brazil’s unemployed and homeless.
Like other social movements of the time, such as the Unified Workers Center (CUT) and the Workers Party (PT), the MST represented a convergence of labor unionists, Catholic activists inspired by the theology of liberation, and socialists. Their inspiration was as much Karl Marx as it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Using the methods devised by the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, they used their center to educate people who had little formal schooling about the economy and politics. There they developed strategies and discussed tactics. And they generously loaned their facility to others, like those of us from the labor education centers in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States with whom I was meeting there some years ago.
The MST is often militant, its activists illegally occupying land and distributing it to the poor, and when they do so, as you would expect, there are often conflicts with the police. Sometimes the landowners also send in their own thugs. Those conflicts, some of them violent, have been going on for years. Some MST members have lost their lives or been injured in those confrontations.
What has just happened, however, is something different. The police, using live ammunition, attacked the center, as well as several other MST facilities, as reported by “The Real News”. They also arrested eight MST leaders. This is part of a new government attack on working peoples’ movements.
Things have changed in Brazil since May of 2015, when, through a combination of judicial and parliamentary maneuvers, the Brazilian Senate impeached and removed President Dilma of the PT from office. Vice-president Michel Temer, a rightwing politician, took over the presidency, and since then there has been a qualitative increase in the criminalization of social movements.
The reaction to the attack on the Florestan Fernandes National School has been heartening. The school has many friends throughout the Americas. For example, Wagner Moura, star of the Netflix show “Narcos,” was one of the first to speak out, condemning the police attack on the MST. Let me add my voice to those who are protesting. The labor movement and the social movements around the world should stand by the MST, as it has so often generously helped us. Let us here in the United States remember our labor movement’s slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and speak out in defense of the MST.
Dan La Botz is a member of Solidarity and of the Democratic Socialists of America and a co-editor of New Politics.
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