Grupo Alavío - video & direct action




Straight from the barrios: Argentina's TV piquetera is transforming broadcast media into an instrument of the poor
Colorlines Magazine: Race, Action, Culture,  Fall, 2004  by Marie Trigona



The flyers, hung throughout the barrio, show a photograph of an unemployed worker: his face covered by a bandanna T-shirt as he climbs a telephone pole with an antenna in his hand. It's an advertisement for TV piquetera, a broadcast that is transforming television into a political and organizing tool for the poor.

The programs, which begin at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, are not the usual lineup of telenovelas and corporate-generated news. Instead, viewers disconnect from cable television and tune to channel 4, whose empty signal is usurped by TV piquetera. There, viewers can watch reports about local water pollution, neighborhood community projects, and an experimental video about the war in Iraq.

Barrio resident Andrea Garcia tunes in. While making her way through a load of ironing at home, she turns on her TV and chuckles when she sees someone from the barrio presenting a segment about International Women's Day. Other barrio residents, not used to seeing their neighbors on TV, stop by the local community center to see if the transmission is actually real. It is.

TV piquetera was born as Argentina's economy collapsed in 2001. Trying to appease international lenders, the government made deep cuts in education and state salaries. The unemployment rate soared, hitting an all-time high of 18 percent that year. In response, unemployed workers began to organize, giving birth to the piquetero (or picketers) movement and adopting the strategy of blocking highways to make their demands. Several groups, though, didn't stop there. They took over the airwaves, filtering into the very communities destroyed by capitalism and shunted by the government.

"Some ask us, 'How is it that you are unemployed and have a television station?'" said Maria Oveido, a TV piquetera activist. "We say, 'Who shouldn't have access to their own media?' We have the right to organize and use media as a tool for liberation."

TV piquetera has been developing since 2001 in working class barrios on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Live pirate TV signals are transmitted to local communities with programming produced by community activists and barrio residents who number anywhere from 50 to 200. Through both live transmissions and pre-recording programs, the shows cover issues like labor protests and water pollution. Participatory, critical and introspective, TV piquetera has also caught the attention of local police who have disrupted broadcasts. During one transmission, police drove their trucks into the middle of a festival that was being broadcast, demanded that participants end the show, and began to threaten them by showing their guns. The piqueteros defended themselves and kicked the police out.

From Blockade to Broadcast

TV piquetera was the brainchild of the video collective Grupo Alavio and the Popular Unity Movement-December 20 (MUP-20), an unemployed workers organization based in several neighborhoods in Greater Buenos Aires. Independent media activists, Enrique Carigao and Ricardo Leguizamon, began broadcasting TV piquetera in the aftermath of Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, when the economic crisis hit a peak, bringing thousands into the streets with the demand, "Que Se Vayan Todos!" (All the politicians out!). Those two days, now described as a popular rebellion, brought on a state of siege, 33 deaths, former President Fernando de la Rua's flight from the Presidential house and an upsurge in popular organizing. In the excitement of the months following Dec. 2001, Carigao and Leguizamon began transmitting during activities.

Grupo Alavio along with MUP-20 developed a declaration: "It's immediately necessary to tell the history of struggle with a media belonging to the organizations in order to combat corporate media's censorship and misinformation."

MUP-20's print publication explained the motives behind transmission: "The broadcasts demonstrate that we do not need to depend on bosses and owners to make ourselves visible and communicate with our neighbors. To tell our story with our own media is to think with a logic different than that which the system imposes on us."

TV piquetera made its official debut on September 25, 2003, during an ongoing piquetero road blockade at the Argentine transnational beer brewery, Quilmes. There, protestors transmitted a live pirate television signal and oriented the antennas toward the surrounding blocks, where many of the factory's 500 workers reside. the piqueteros demanded that the company hire unemployed workers, cut the work day to six hours, provide better safety standards, and increase wages according to basic family needs. With cameras in hand, they hoped to counter the mainstream media's portrayal of the action. During the transmission, protestors articulated their reasons for the blockade, expressed solidarity with workers inside the beer brewery, and described what it was like to be a piquetero.

"I carry this struggle in my blood. It is part of me and I fight because I like to be with my companeros who are suffering the same injustices of unemployment and poverty as me," said Marta, a piquetera in a live interview during the blockade.

As another woman from Solano explained that they had come prepared to fight, the live camera registered shots of the women preparing the fire and frying bread for the blockade that lasted over 24 hours.

TV piquetera has since broadcast in several neighborhoods, rotating transmissions and programming. So far the transmissions have been planned around special dates or activities. The equipment skills (transmitter, antenna, cable, cameras and control board) and special technical are brought by activists Carigao and Leguizamon in a small truck. However, local activists are in charge of the logistics of programming. Pirate television technology is relatively simple, comparable to pirate radio. However, unlike radio, television demands a high level of production quality to catch the eye of viewers. Aspects of documentary filmmaking and editing are incorporated into the production.

"I Don't Like My Reality"

Solano, an hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires, is surrounded by abandoned factories. As the military dictatorship began to lose power in 1981, families squatted on land in Solano and built barrios. The conditions have not changed over the decades. The streets are still unpaved and the infrastructure for gas lines and proper sewage has not been developed. However, the industrial center and factories have changed, cutting back personnel or closing altogether.

Today, 58 percent of Argentina's population is living in poverty and 44 percent of the active population is either unemployed or underemployed. Without access to the factory where they could strike or occupy, piqueteros sought out new practices for struggle--the road blockade. They block highways to prevent merchandise from arriving to the market and to prevent factories and commercial centers from operating. During the late '90s, the unemployed workers movement attempted to organize autonomously from leftist political parties and the populism of Peronism. According to piqueteros, they organized to fight for more than the 150 pesos (about 50 dollars) of welfare-to-work subsidy they receive a month.

During transmissions at MUP-20's community center, a shack in the neighborhood of Solano, piqueteros participate in every aspect of the community television experience--planning the programming, producing the especially prepared news pieces, arming the studio, cooking empanadas and pizza, raising the antenna and watching the programming in the screening room in the kitchen.

"The corporate media is never going to come here to the barrio to report on what our lives are like. They show us as violent and victims," said Diego, a dedicated activist who was in charge of the movement's security area.

The mass media's characterization of unemployed workers has worsened with time, using current President Nestor Kirchner's progressive discourse to justify the characterization of "hardline piqueteros" (those who continue to organize road blockades, carry clubs and cover their faces as politics of self-defense) as criminals who are unwilling to negotiate.

In April, the government launched a massive security plan, including a bill to lower the age of those who are arrested to 14 so minors can be charged as adults. Other bills would increase jail time for criminals and make blocking traffic a crime. In the face of the mass media's support of the government's plan to control the poor by making them into criminals, the need for oppressed sectors to have their own media has taken on new urgency.

"This [piquetero] broadcast was a gesture valuing the process of working class identity and a break with exclusion," said Fabian Pierucci of Grupo Alavio. He added, "By presenting people's daily realities, it allows neighbors to identify with one another and build solidarity to break the hegemony."

Beyond the broadcasts, the experience has opened a space for media makers, activists and neighbors to engage in a dialogue. Even though most community members do not actively participate as piqueteros, many remark on the importance for the barrio to have its own media.

Real Reality TV

The first transmission in Solano on October 18, 2003, featured a story on the water pollution by factories in the neighborhood of La Florida. The video began with shots of the area's polluted stream, a dead dog floating along in the water, a horse defecating, and foul brown water flowing from a pipe into the stream. Images of the nearby factories that dump their garbage into the stream were intercut with interviews in which residents explained how a meat packing plant and other factories next to the barrio dump chemicals and blood into the stream that runs through La Florida. Nearly every time it rains, the putrid, dangerous water floods metal and wood shacks and cement houses. The barrio's children have chronic skin sores and other medical problems from the polluted water.

The abuses themselves become factors in the filming process: During the first transmission in La Florida, heavy rain caused flooding that day and participants had to wait for the water to recede in order to bring in the equipment and start the transmission.

After the video was broadcast, activists, getting lessons in how to film, lugged their cameras and went out to do more interviews. They came across a man and asked him what he thought of the transmission.

"I didn't like it," he said. Asked why he didn't like it, he replied, "The news report on water made me see my own reality. I don't like my reality."

It's that divide between TV and reality that TV piquetera bridges on camera and off. Inside the barrio, there is a possibility of interaction among TV piquetera participants and the audience who live in the barrio or are integrated into the movement. Because activists are integrated in the barrio, they participate in internal debates and create media that promotes a new subjectivity.

Making technologies and skills accessible and available to exploited sectors has been a priority for Grupo Alavio, an organization of activists with a wide range of artistic, technical and media skills. For over 10 years, Alavio has been participating in working class struggles with audiovisual materials.

Grupo Alavio and MUP-20 plan to transmit in more neighborhoods south of Greater Buenos Aires and ultimately build a network of community television stations that can function autonomously under a large umbrella of collaboration and mutual support. Alavio is organizing intensive video workshops with a group of participants from MUP-20 in La Florida. As part of the programming for TV piquetera, workshop participants produced a video, Mujeres en marcha (Women in protest), in which women interviewed each other during a march to protest the government's move to cut off some 250,000 unemployed workers from the 150 peso (about $50) subsidy plan on March 3. Women sat in front of the camera, with banners and marchers behind them and were asked how they become part of the organization and how they became piqueteras.

Elisa, who declined to give her last name, joined three years ago. "I was 40 years-old and I no longer served the system," she said. "I didn't have a job and I couldn't find anything because of my age. So I was forced to be part of into the struggle."

TV piquetera is an attempt to transform television into a tool for political organizing and liberation--not as symbolic resistance but to directly confront the state, bosses and politicians.

Marie Trigona is an activist and independent journalist based in Argentina. She is also part of Grupo Alavio, video and direct action