Since November, in Liège, Belgium, several nocturnal demonstrations have expressed determination to resist repressive measures, presented by the state as sanitary measures. The curfew was particularly targeted, as a symbol of an authoritarian policy preventing the construction of autonomous solidarity in the face of the virus. In the continuity of the work done by the Popular Solidarity Brigades, but also in the continuation of the riots that crossed Italy and, more recently, the Netherlands, we return to these “igneous demonstrations” with those who initiated them.
ACTA Zone: In Liège, several demonstrations against the curfew have been taking place. Can you explain how the idea to oppose the curfew came about? And more broadly, the characteristics of the political and health management in Belgium that justified this response.
In Liège, first of all, there was the first confinement. Most of us respected it and we found it made sense to be careful with a new virus at the beginning. However, we soon noticed that the repression was multiplying in the working class neighborhoods and later everywhere. More and more people had financial problems, problems with isolation. Despite the presence of many structures and associations in Liège, they were overwhelmed. We even saw the royal family wishing us good luck from their luxurious park in Laeken while families were living in unhealthy apartments. We can clearly see the contempt for our class being expressed. On our side we are reduced to work, to consume and that’s about it. The cultural venues are closed and so are the bars and restaurants. The curfew is from 10 pm to 06 am here. Initially it was from 00 am to 05 am.
During the second confinement, there was the suicide of a hairdresser, Alysson, who could no longer cope with it. Therefore, it seemed important to us to get the anger out of the homes, to spread out the demands in the streets and that these demands could live through this demonstration. Whether it is the cultural sphere, whether it is people who have difficulties with isolation, I am thinking particularly of the elderly and people with reduced mobility, but also all the people who are rarely heard in the demonstrations. As they say around here, “C’est todi les ptits qu’on sprotch”!
The closure of the gastronomy [hotels, restaurants, bars] and party and cultural places have particularly damaged nightlife in the city. Bans on gatherings hampered social protests. New powers were given to the forces of repression and its patrols (e.g., the ability to enter private places on the basis of a phone call, in an arbitrary manner). The “Covid fines” began to rain. The government’s priority is not to effectively fight the virus, it only wants to keep the capitalist economy running as smoothly as possible, even if it means blaming the entire epidemic on those “who don’t play by the rules”. After the first demonstration, the Minister of the Interior told the media: “The police will be visible in the streets. We will make controls regarding the wearing of masks, rallies, the curfew … and at home.”
All these measures ignore an essential point: “vulnerability” is not only a medical fact (general state of health, age), it is also social (forced precariousness through loss of benefits, refusal of residence permits, eviction from housing, etc.). Health is not only a question of viruses, but also of mental health, physical and psychological integrity, and human relationships. Hypocrisy is blatant when we see crowded shopping malls, while certain outside gatherings or family visits that nevertheless respect common sense in terms of health are forbidden. They have hammered the term “social distancing”, which is epidemiologically incorrect, when it is only physical distance and respect for other common sense gestures that are necessary to fight against viruses. This should not imply an absence of social life. But their prophecies come true wonderfully: physical distances are non-existent or insufficient (in public transport, companies, etc.), while social distancing is almost total.
The curfew penalizes and ignores people trapped in homes facing psychological, physical and/or sexual abuse (mainly women, children and LGBTQIA+ people); those for whom the mental and physical burdens are too much, those who are isolated; people who are homeless, badly housed, and/or undocumented; migrants; sex workers; people working in gastronomy, cultural, party environments and night trade; people who mix some of these realities with a situation of dependency, drug addiction, racist oppression, mental disorders and illnesses; people working in reception centers or on the street, unable to carry out their social and/or solidary missions; all those who are no longer able to make plans for themselves.
The curfew, as a security measure, is an additional, so-called “exceptional” step towards installation and widespread acceptance of repressive powers. The individualization of collective responsibilities, the multiplication of liberticidal and surveillance measures, the repression of self-organized solidarity initiatives, the lack of coherent measures to fight the virus, and the excessive misinformation constitute fertile ground for reactionary currents, such as the far right or conspiracy theories, which instrumentalize a widespread frustration – a frustration that is both legitimate and justified.
When the curfew fell on “the burning city”, it was like one drop too many, we wanted to take back our capacity for organization and opposition in our own hands. And take back our streets, joyfully, together, by putting attention to the situations and people most affected by these incoherent “measures”. We are also among those concerned. We want to:
- Visibility of certain socio-economic realities denied by the authorities and the increase in inequalities and violence that goes with it. We have been collecting and highlighting testimonies for several months in various forms (podcasts, interviews, posters, open mic…). We are also discussing with actors in the field to reflect on the situation and the health measures that would make sense for us.
- Highlight solidarity-based health responses: established by the people concerned, which take their needs into account and aim to confront the virus(es) collectively, genuinely and sustainably.
- Denounce the curfew as one of the security measures that embodies the denial of these experiences: it restricts fundamental rights, justifying a false sense of security that reinforces a regime of coercion, surveillance and criminalization, especially towards the most marginalized and unseen people. It fails to address the real causes of contamination and mortality, and reinforces other injustices and social vulnerabilities, sometimes fatal. As a nurse said during the first demonstration, denouncing curfews and unjust measures is also a matter of care.
- Breaking isolation, remembering that we are not alone, continuing to organize ourselves to develop dynamics of mutual aid, care and self-determination in our lives (as the Popular Solidarity Brigades have been doing since April).
How did the demonstrations unfold in the current security context? What kind of repression were they confronted with?
At the first event which was not announced on social media, we were at least 150 people, just with word-of-mouth (and SMS and Signal channels). It went really well, the police was not aware of it and therefore not present (despite a discreet presence according to them). The people who witnessed the demonstration were cheering on their balconies (even if some of the petit bourgeois were spitting on us at one point). We shouted support, we left leaflets at the doors to explain why we were breaking their curfew. There was a lot of talking in front of the town hall, with a nurse, a homeless person, a person with a disability, a precarious worker… It was clear and beautiful: a response to a social need.
Video of the first demonstration:
There has never been a request for authorization of the demonstration. Beyond the fundamental and constitutional right to gather, to demonstrate, which the communes in Belgium should never have limited by their systematic requests for authorization, we do not need its approval to exist and express ourselves in public spaces. It is contradictory to ask a power for authorization to challenge it. Liège has been a so-called socialist city for a very long time. It has a pacifying police management towards social movements and organized militants (not towards the “undesirable” of course). We knew that the situation would change if we would carry out these marches, but it remains a choice of the powers that be to tense up and move towards confrontation.
After this first wild demonstration, a dozen or so people, identified on social media (notably via a livestream on facebook) and by the surveillance cameras of the city, were summoned for what they called “public health problems”: ” non-compliance with the wearing of masks”, “non-compliance with the ban on gathering” and “non-compliance with the ban on non-essential travel between 10pm and 6am”. The same police went so far as to make visits to the homes of these people, at a speed that was rarely seen, trying to get them directly to the police for questioning (hear, without a lawyer).
A second call “to re-ignite our fires” was launched on November 17 and invited – this time publicly – to a rally to which over 700 people attended. It was organic to get this many people excited. Yet it was not easy to reach the place at 9 pm, people were freaking out about the army of robocops on Saint Lambert square. But you had to hear the batucada , see the fire-eaters, feel the crowd going through the dead city, not being alone anymore, and look at all the colors that were glowing on that particular night. Something really strong and hot happened that night in Liège.
Video of the second demonstration:
And then at 10 pm, it started to look like Brussels. Several hundred of us were crammed on a bridge by the armed federals [the Belgian CRS] and two water cannons. From the start of the demonstration, there were blue lights all over the city, but they didn’t manage to prevent hundreds of people, who were waiting, from departing. Many of them were not usually at the demonstrations and at first some shouted “the police are with us” before realizing that the police were not there to save the widow and the orphan. As a result, many people were photographed and identified by the police (between 350 and 400 according to them). About 50 people were arrested because they refused to leave la Nasse voluntarily. There were humiliating episodes, including a person they did not allow to go to the toilet. She urinated on herself and one of the cops thought it was smart to take pictures with his personal phone. Or the person on a bicycle – who didn’t take part in the demonstration – who was beaten up, arrested and is now awaiting trial.
The mayor of Liège publicly announced that they had chosen a strategy of “de-escalation” to justify their absence on the first demonstration. That it had been necessary not to intervene because “some of us were just waiting for that to happen”. Furthermore, he was trying to hide his responsibilities and referred to the federal government in an attempt to “cover up” the repression and the totally disproportionate measures that had been taken during the second march.
The third demonstration was strongly repressed, mainly as a preventive measure. The police were already present in large numbers on the square where the event took place. They controlled all the entrances (including plainclothes cops in a nearby wood) and spread the message that the demonstration was banned. They harassed people in the surrounding streets on the basis of appearance to dissuade them from going further. The police arrested some of them as a preventive measure and also at the end of the demonstration.
These interventions – and the police-judicial persistence that will follow – are part of a recent increase in police pressure on social movements in Liège. They are also part of a context where the virus is used as a pretext to ban and repress a whole range of necessary mobilizations, with a particular tolerance towards far-right actions and rallies (especially in Flanders and Brussels). Fortunately solidarity is there and these reactions could lead to regrets about the repression.
What types of groups and individuals were mobilized by the initiative in its early stages, and then at the demonstrations? Did the announcement of opposition to what are presented as “health measures” raise doubts, give rise to contradictions?
Above all, the protest brought those together who are most affected by the curfew, as they no longer have access to collective places. The average age corresponded to those who were most active at night. Many people with left-wing backgrounds, responded to the subversive dimension. Artists who made it so beautiful. Actors in the field. People with marginalized socio-economic realities, such as homeless or undocumented people. People who have become incapable of carrying out their activities, like fairground workers. The second demonstration was even more heterogeneous, including an incredible variety of independent professions. A lot of gastronomy workers were present, as well as a lot of students. There were more younger and older people than in the first demonstrations, and even more artists. Health care workers were present, like the collective “la Santé en lutte” (health – sector – in struggle), but also the Brigade de Solidarité Populaire de Liège. It was quite incredible to see that this people can protest together.
Since the call was public – and despite the many clarifications in the invitation – there was obviously a presence of people affected by the confusionist discourse. But we did not see any organized group, nor any attempts of Instrumentalization (except for some, pitiful, hot tempered attempts on the Internet from people who were not even present). Of course, we did not necessarily all agree on the causes and our perspectives, but we did agree on the need to express a rejection of the current situation by marching together. And some were able to exchange their points of view.
Some of the media slandered us after the first rally, by copy and paste the message they received from the police, which claimed that it was a rally “against the measures taken against the coronavirus”. But most of them corrected it after the second demonstration. The feedback they received from activist and community groups was either more than a warm thank you or an embarrassing silence. We have opened a rift, for all those who refuse the false opposition between health and social life that the state is trying to impose on our bodies, our lives and our organizations.
What was the answer to those who wanted to caricature the movement and classify it as a form of conspiracy or denial movement? From your side, do you talk about the importance of “appropriating the virus” rather than accepting authoritarianism?
The answer to those who wanted to characterize the movement as a conspiracy movement was to say that we are not against sanitary measures, but that they must be in a solidary way. That is to say, with support for people in difficulties. During the second demonstration, there was a presence of people close to QAnon. In our city, this movement tries to surf on the legitimate questions of many people in order to impose its fascist discourse. The anger is legitimate, the questionings too. In our opinion, it is very dangerous in these times to let these discourses appear without reacting. Perhaps it was our communication, what we decided to put forward, the nature of our alliances, and the slogan – “Against the curfew, for solidarity-based health measures” – that made a difference, but in the end there were few attempts to characterize the movement as a conspiracy movement.
Of course there were people who said that these gatherings were inconsiderate in the current context, and even wished that our loved ones would get sick from such gatherings (including a member of the MR, the equivalent of LR, to whom we responded ). However, it must be said that the majority of the participants were masked, masks were distributed, proposals for solidary sanitary measures were discussed, and then quite simply the streets were wide and airy, as long as one was not bothered by the police. Above all, there were a lot of people to give feedback on the therapeutical effect of these mobilizations. Frankly, it felt really good, this organic and collective power. We need these unifying moments to be able to continue to face the realities that each of us faces. And we can do this by paying attention to each other.
What we call “appropriating the virus” is refusing to fall into the trap that is set up by the powers-that is, having the choice between obeying or not taking the virus seriously. For us, on the contrary, taking the virus seriously means disobeying the inconsistent and hypocritical measures of this government. What we call “appropriating the virus” is to question these state measures and to think for ourselves about what should be implemented in order to truly and fairly fight against the virus(es). During the first demonstration, we cited these examples from the social movements we are in contact with:
“Almost no hiring, training, or improvement of working conditions, especially in the health and social work sectors; little control (and even fewer sanctions) for major companies that refuse to protect their workers; no involvement of the field in decision making; no massive investment to adapt certain areas of contamination (schools, cultural places, etc.) to the needs of the workers. ); very few requisitions of empty houses; too little support for self-employed people in trouble (mental health, cancellation of bills, debts, rents); no significant increase in the quantity of public transport, testing capacity, and number of teachers to reduce the number of students per class, etc…”
In what way do you think it is possible to give a political and organizational follow-up to this movement? In what way can it open up perspectives? With what kind of limits?
The political follow-up is already in preparation. The opening of self-managed places is, in our opinion, a necessary response to the coming crisis. We can already see the first signs with the closure of bars, restaurants and the serious problems of some independent theaters here in Liège. Many people are in trouble and it will be necessary to work on the creation of connections between these people in difficulty but with a discourse and a project behind it. To say that there are problems is good and I think everyone is aware of this. But if it’s to have structures that remain very pyramidal as many are, it’s not interesting. Mutual aid is a perspective that seems very important to us in these times. We see it with the street nurses. They have just created SMILE, for Service Mobile Infirmier liégeois, an association that will work to take care of global health care for all.
There are more than 3000 empty houses in the greater Liège area and these buildings have been empty for years and nothing has been done with them. These are political choices, in Liège as elsewhere, which prefer to spend millions of euros to renovate and gentrify neighborhoods rather than requisition of empty buildings, which have sometimes been abandoned for more than ten years in order to rehouse people who are in big trouble. But it’s not just people on the street. There are also all those people who live in poor condition with a landlord who doesn’t care if the tenants are healthy as long as he gets his money at the end of the month.
The development of the Brigades has already helped, at our level, to develop a spirit of mutual aid in a number of people. Housing and food are the first things to be reappropriated in order to build up something organized. The limits, to be exact, are not to fall back into the same problems that we have had here in Liège. The militant inner self, the fear of people who don’t think like us, who don’t have the same situation. It’s a huge task, but the creation of places open to everyone in a dynamic of mutual aid will allow the meeting and the creation of connections that have been lost with confinement.
What are the perspectives? To “confine” oneself every three months? Wait passively for announcements of new “measures” on TV and a third wave without flinching? Watching the conspiracy theorists flourish without reacting? Watching the moments and possibilities of human and social relations gradually deteriorate in favor of strictly commercial relations? The question is not whether the measures are too strict or not strict enough, but what are they being taken for, protecting who and with a clear vision of saving what.
The vaccine arrived, but with a long delay. What will happen next? Will the curfew disappear? Will the repression disappear? Not so sure… We think the state will take advantage of it to generalize drone surveillance, a practice that has developed significantly during the lockdown. The companies that develop this repression equipment are in vogue and the repression business is more and more present in Liège, especially by buying tear gas launchers. We demand more resources for hospitals and less for the Police and its racist repression.
Nor do we need to be given “the milieu of the church in the middle of the village”, as Beaupère, the chief of police of Liège, used to say. What we need is to be able to gather in the milieu of the village, in a public, inclusive, airy, safe and secure space. What we need is to collectively improve our living conditions, to meet and organize ourselves. To be able to take care of each other and especially of people with the most precarious socio-economic realities or the most abandoned or even attacked by your measures. It is to be able to oppose decisions that are taken when they are unjust, unequal and ineffective. It is to be able to occupy the middle of the village by expressing our anger and our disagreements with the way they are imposing their vision of social order.
Against repression, we demand a global amnesty for all those prosecuted for “illegal” demonstrations. The abandonment of all judicial, penal and administrative proceedings against all demonstrations and gatherings of social protest.
DES BRAISES INVITE:
- To the next demonstrations that are surely going to happen.
- To follow the news of the actions and communications of braises here: https://mobilizon.fr/@braises.
- Send us your testimonies.
- To take an interest in the realities of the unseen.
- Fight for real sanitary measures in solidarity.
- Support the demands and mobilizations of the health care sector and actors in the field.
- To take an interest in the struggle and solidarity initiatives that exist close to home and to see how to support them, to go out on our doorsteps at 10:00 p.m., to meet in the public squares and parks of our neighbourhoods and share some warmth, to break the isolation, to rekindle our fires.
The braises  de Liège…
 Batucada is a substyle of samba and refers to an African-influenced Brazilian percussive style, usually performed by an ensemble, known as a bateria. Batucada is characterized by its repetitive style and fast pace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batucada
 MR is the Reformist Movement (French: Mouvement Réformateur, MR) is a French-speaking political party in Belgium. The Republicans (French: Les Républicains; LR) is a political party in France.
 Braise is french for ember.