A leader of Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement, one of the most prominent social organizations in the country, was arrested Tuesday while resisting military police’s attempts to evict hundreds of homeless families occupying land in Sao Paulo.
Guilherme Boulos, a coordinator of the Homeless Workers’ Movement known by its Portuguese acronym MTST, was detained during the demonstration in a move that fellow activists slammed as an arbitrary arrest.
“We will not quietly accept that in addition to the massacre of people in the neighborhood occupation — they threw them into the streets — they still want to arrest those who always try to help (the families) in a peaceful manner,” the MTST said in a statement, adding that although the movement did not organize the occupation, Boulos had long been supporting the families.
According to the MTST, some 3,000 people from 700 families — including disabled people, women, children and elderly — were thrown out of the spaces they were occupying Tuesday morning in the eviction the activists dubbed an “inhumane action.”
Police arrested Boulos on charges of contempt of authority and inciting violence, according to local media. Riot police also reportedly unleashed tear gas and pepper spray on protesters attempting to resist the eviction attempt.
Jose Afonso da Silva, secretary of MTST, told EFE news agency that Boulos “supported the struggle of the families and mediated the conflict.” The activist warned that if Boulos is not released, the movement will “set fire” to the city with protests.
The MTST also vowed to continue supporting vulnerable families and “fighting against unjust eviction.”
Boulos’ movement was born out of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, also known as the MST, which is widely regarded as the largest social movement in Latin America. The MTST is the urban wing of the renowned squatters’ movement, as the MST is more focused on rural land occupations and demands for agrarian reform.
The 1.5 million member-strong MST pioneered the tactic of mass land takeovers more than two decades ago and has settled some 370,000 landless families through more than 2,500 mass farmland squats.
The movement also increasingly organizes around issues of education, health, gender equality, environmental justice and food sovereignty, while also building connections with urban movements, including the MTST, to expand its struggle for rights beyond the countryside.
The MST and MTST have organized to put pressure on right and left-wing government alike over the years, but they also have recently expressed outrage over the neoliberal rollback under the unelected government of President Michel Temer, installed in a process widely condemned as a parliamentary coup against former President Dilma Rousseff.
Both movements have repeatedly taken to the streets to slam the Temer government as illegitimate and protest his administration’s attack on basic rights through harsh austerity reforms.