Free Emilio Ali, Jailed For Asking For Food

March 16th, 2002
By Naomi Klein

Most of the news out of Argentina focuses on angry professionals who have lost access to their savings. The truth is that, in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line, the vast majority of the protests are simply attempts meet desperate needs for food, shelter and work.

One of the symbols of this grassroots militancy is Emilio Ali, a leader of the “Piquetero” movement. The piqueteros are groups of unemployed workers whose hunger has driven them to find new ways of wining concessions from the state. In a reversal of the traditional picket line (they have no factories to close) the piqueteros block roadways into the cities, often for weeks at a time, stopping traffic and the transportation of goods. Politicians are forced to come to the road pickets and negotiate and the piqueteros regularly win basic unemployment compensation for their members, a right stripped away by decades of the IMF’s “sound economic policies.”

Emilio Ali is from an extremely poor family in the upscale tourist city of Mar del Plata. A year and half ago, he led an occupation of a supermarket by piquetero families, many of them suffering from malnutrition. They did not loot the supermarket, steal or break anything. They negotiated with the manager and were given about 150 packages of food.

The manager has testified that the negotiation was entirely peaceful and that he gave the food voluntarily. Nonetheless, the city decided to charge Ali, a powerful organizer, with extortion. The judge fell asleep during the trial and Ali was sentenced, shockingly, to five and half years in prison. He has already served a year and half. He is 26.

Emilio’s case has become deeply symbolic in this desperate and class divided country. There are signs all over Buenos Aires with Emilio’s picture that say "Five Years For Asking For Bread: Hunger is the Crime." Adding to the terrible subtext is the culture of impunity for the elites in Argentina: while Emilio Ali is in jail for trying to feed his community, the convicted killers of the dictatorship still walk free. In fact, the prison where Emilio is being held was a secret concentration camp during the “dirty way” of the 1970s.

Last Saturday, three of us visited Emilio Ali in prison and did his first interview with the international press.

Meet Emilo Ali, In Jail For Asking For Food

March 9, 2002

Interviewers: America Vera-Zavala, Naomi Klein, and Avi Lewis
Translator: Justin Podur

Question: Can you describe the events that lead to your arrest?
Answer: It was May 5, 2000. We mobilized that day, as part of our regular mobilizations against unemployment and poverty. There was a national-level work stoppage that day, organized by various unions. But with this mobilization what we were looking for were just immediate necessities—and what our people needed most urgently on that day was to eat. On our march, we decided to go to the ‘Casa Tia’, which is a multinational corporation. We went to demand food, and the manager spoke to us. We said that we needed food for our families. There was a three-hour negotiation. Fifty or sixty state police arrived. There were about 120 of us, including women, young people and old, and we asked for 150 packets of food. They gave us the food. The chief of police asked if anything had happened, and the manager said no, nothing had—that we were just asking, passively, for food. And so they gave us the food and we left. The next month I received a citation. As the president of a social organization, I presented myself, and they told me I was under arrest.

Question: And then?
Answer: They took me to be judged, I was put before a prosecutor who accused me, they told me that I was to be interrogated, and I said no, because I didn’t have a lawyer. They took me to a holding cell very far from the city where I live, obviously afraid that people were going to mobilize for my freedom. I was in that cell for 28 days. Then they took me to the ‘Unidad 15 de Batan’ prison, which is a maximum security prison. I was there for ten months, before my trial.

Question: You were in prison for ten months without a trial?
Answer: Yes, after ten months they took me to trial. At the trial it became quite obvious that I had already been sentenced before the trial even started. And at the trial I was sentenced to 5 years and 6 months.

Question: On top of the 10 months you had already served?
Answer: On top of the ten months, an additional 5 years and 6 months. And it was a trial where there was only one side. There wasn’t a witness for the prosecution. Nobody accused us of any violent crime. The management from the ‘Casa Tia’ said that absolutely nothing had happened, that there was no violence, that we didn’t pressure them and we didn’t steal—that they gave us the food. When we left, the ‘Casa Tia’ wasn’t missing anything. The prosecutor found a cashier who said she felt a little bit scared, seeing so many people. When my defense lawyer asked why, she said it was because of the way we were dressed—because we’re poor. Only one side was heard, and when we presented our own witnesses the judges taunted us, didn’t listen, and slept.

Question: They slept?
Answer: It was a scandal, it was very ugly. To be in a situation where you feel that impotent, with that kind of impunity against you, a justice system that’s supposed to be protecting us is punishing us for asking for food.

Question: Why do you think they singled you out?
Answer: They wanted to finish us off for a while. I have never accepted a penny from the state to stop struggling. I started in the movement out of necessity. I come from a family that is oppressed. My brothers became delinquents because they had to. They went to jail, and died. I was organizing in 1996 against police brutality and at that time there were many cases. Since my brothers had criminal records, the police believed that I was going to do the same. A year later, in 1997, the police killed Chau Campo. Myself and some others mobilized youth against political repression. We won that case—thanks to the mobilization, the police who killed and burned Chau Campo were punished. From there I kept on organizing, and later in 1997 I organized the first picket in my area. We were 50 families blocking one of the main access routes to the city. We won 2700 ‘planos de empleo’—packages of 200 pesos per month that the state gives out—and we won those by struggle. It was a matter of necessity to mobilize. It wasn’t based on theory, or political science, it was the need to make changes.

One of my brothers killed himself—because he didn’t have a job—he shot himself in the head in my house. My father was in the union for ten years, and now he’s mentally incapable of working but he doesn’t have a pension, or anything. I lived this whole situation and started to struggle. It was the only way out I had. I had three options—crime, suicide, or struggle. So I decided on struggle. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here because of my struggle, my role in the struggle. I never stopped. One time I was offered 200,000 pesos and a place to live if I would stop organizing and I said no, even though at the time I didn’t even have food. That’s for my own conscience. There were people who depended on me and I couldn’t let them down. And those of us who want to see change, try to do that.

Question: Where does your name, Ali, come from?
Answer: I was born in Argentina, but my father is of Arab descent and my mother is of Turkish descent.

Question: Is there racism in this country against Arabs, Turks, people with different names?
Answer: I think no, if there has been I haven’t felt it. Here what exists is persecution of those who are involved in social movements, those of us who show the needs of the people, that we need food, housing, health, education. This exists in our Argentina. Before 1997 there weren’t social movements in Mar del Plata. It was terrible for the authorities that we showed that hidden side of Mar del Plata, which to them was a happy, tourist city. We showed something that had been very hidden.

Question: After December 19 the middle classes started to mobilize and today there’s some solidarity between the middle classes and the piqueteros. How do you feel about this, and what was it like before? We heard that before the banking crisis, the piqueteros were treated as ‘the ugly, dirty, and bad’. How do you see this change?
Answer: It’s a very important change. Before they would beat us, or complain about us to the police. That’s changed. But more importantly, the people have said no to the old way of doing politics, the politics of people who sold all of our Argentina and created all this unemployment and misery. The people said no to all that, and when you see them now they don’t believe it. The politicians who had fooled the people, making promises of jobs, food, education and not delivering it. There were 30,000 disappeared in this country. And the people decided that they don’t want any more. No more ‘Peronistas’, and no more ‘Radicals’ either. This is the important thing. The people realized too that the banks have benefited from the whole system, screwing over the poorest and enriching the wealthiest.

Question: You are sentenced to five and a half years for asking for food, peacefully. And at the same time we see the middle classes trashing banks, and they don’t get sentenced at all. How do you feel about that?
Answer: The people have lost all hope because of this whole situation. The people want what’s theirs. The government knows that they can’t jail everyone who takes what’s theirs even if they’re not peaceful about it. I saw what happened on the 19 and 20 of December [when huge protests in the Plaza de Mayo brought down the president] and wanted to be with my friends in the streets. I felt so impotent not being able to be out there with them. I also felt impotent because I’m here and [ex-President Carlos] Menem and others who put the country in this situation are free. I’m in jail for asking for a bit of food. That’s impunity in Argentina.

Question: Could you tell us a bit about the neighbourhood assemblies that you helped to form in 1997? What is your vision of democracy?
Answer: We organized people’s assemblies, where you choose a spokesperson for today, you can drop them tomorrow. In our organization nobody’s a permanent politician. This is a principle for me, that people’s positions change. That nobody is fixed in a position, because we have seen that with fixed positions people turn into the unionists of the CGT [the official Peronist trade union].

When there’s a need, an assembly is called. At the assembly the agenda is set. If someone can’t pay their electricity bill or are going to be thrown out, the decision is made to go to the municipal office to ask for rent money or to go to the electricity company about the electricity. Democracy for us is about eating every day, having a place to live, being able to send our children to school, to have a job and a right to organize ourselves the way we want. For us doing things differently is a matter of necessity. And that’s why we’re persecuted and condemned.

Question: Do you feel like your struggle is part of a global movement? Do you feel a part of something bigger?
Answer: Unemployment exists everywhere. I feel close to many social and political movements all over the world. And I think that it’s time for us to unite, because the capitalist financial system has shown that its project doesn’t work—and not just here in Argentina, but all over. A project for a few is actually no good for anyone. It’s time that we organized politically on that basis. The struggle is political—it goes well beyond asking for a little bit of food and it is time that we started to define the way forward, started to decide our destiny. Who better to decide our destiny? We’re the ones who are living this misery and insecurity.

Question: Has being in jail changed you at all politically?
Answer: If the state thought that putting me in here would change my conscience, they were very wrong. I’m more convinced now than ever in the justice of what we’re doing, that we’re doing the right thing. If we weren’t, they wouldn’t have put me in here.

Question: What do you think about your chances of getting out? We read in the newspaper today that the vote will take place on Thursday and you could be free very soon.
Answer: I have high hopes, but I am trying to be very careful because the government has said before that they were going to let me out and… here I am. The only thing I trust right now is those friends that are mobilizing, the thousands of people who have gone out to petition for my freedom and the freedom of others who are here. The only guarantee I have right now is the people who mobilize and the hopes that I have are with them. I have no confidence at all in the state, which continues to do exactly the opposite of what it says.

[Interview Ends]

It turns out that Emilio was right not to trust the state. Even though Governor Sola had agreed to call a vote to release Ali last Thursday, he changed his mind at the last minute and called it off. Apparently, the government considers Ali to be “too dangerous” to be released during this time of social unrest in Argentina. A key factor is no doubt that the IMF is currently deciding on whether or not to give Argentina a loan package. Part of the assessment, according to the head of the IMF mission Anoop Singh, is Argentina’s “governability.”

The piqueteros are furious and have declared that unless Emilio Ali is released by noon on Tuesday March 19, they will turn Wednesday March 20 into a national shut-down, blocking roads all over the country and setting up a permanent roadblock in the important suburb of Buenos Aires, La Matanza.

If you want to help pressure the federal and provincial governments to hold a vote to free Emilio Ali, emails can be sent to:
Governor Felipe Sola at:
President Eduardo Duhalde at:
or contact your country’s Argentine embassy.