Gang killing explodes myth of racial tolerance

Portugal shocked by skinhead rampage
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The Independent Online
WHEN 50 skinheads rampaged through Lisbon last month and beat to death a black Portuguese of Cape Verdean origin, politicians reared back in horror at the breach of Portugal's tradition of racial harmony based on brancos costumbres (gentle customs).

But for Fernando Ka, leader of the Guinea-Bissau community and Portugal's only black MP, the country's much-vaunted racial tolerance is a colonial myth, fostered by the late dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, that many Portuguese still want to believe. "Portugal is usually tolerant of blacks, but only as long as they are kept inferior," Mr Ka said in his office in Lisbon's Chelas quarter, a jungle of scruffy high-rise blocks. "You won't find a black person in Portugal who hasn't experienced racism. But it's hidden, unstated."

The attack did not surprise Mr Ka. "It was not an isolated accident. It was premeditated and has left black people worried. The government plays it down; the police are slow to react."

In response, some blacks are taking matters into their own hands. A number of black-on-white attacks have occurred since Alcindo Monteiro's death, including one the following Friday on military conscripts whom the assailants mistook for skinheads. A black counter-offensive is the last thing Mr Ka wants. "Some young blacks want to organise vigilante groups to defend themselves, but it only provokes the 'skins' and leads to anarchy and civil war."

Lisbon's Bairro Alto is one of the few central areas of the city left unscathed by the earthquake of 1755. The area was once dedicated to the professions of journalism and prostitution. Now, it is a fashionable night- time haunt for Lisbon's multi-racial young set, but since the night of 10 June there has been an edge of fear.

"This is where the skins ran riot with iron bars and baseball bats," said Jose Falcao, chairman of Portugal's anti-racist organisation, SOS- Racismo, in the steep, narrow Daily News Street."Look how close the police station is. The place is stiff with cops, but they did nothing for two hours while 12 blacks were being beaten up."

Portugal's first skinhead attack was in 1989, when a white left-wing activist, Jose Carvalho, was stabbed in the heart after a party in the Bairro Alto. Pedro Grilo was jailed in 1991 for 12 years for the killing, but four months later escaped and is still at large. Mr Falcao says more than 50 racist attacks have happened since, and five deaths. "I warned that more was to come," he said.

A police report found the skinhead hard core was organised by an extreme right National Action Movement (Man). But the authorities declined to ban it in 1994, in accordance with a law outlawing Fascist movements, on the grounds that it had disbanded. In the years after the "carnation revolution" of 1974, prompted by soldiers sick of fighting an unwinnable war in the African colonies, up to a million retornados, mostly white, were absorbed into Portugal. Africans driven from the former colonies by poverty, drought or civil war were welcomed as cheap labour by the booming construction industry. Portugal, with a population of 10 million, has 170,000 registered foreign residents, and between 70,000 and 150,000 illegal immigrants.

Most live in shanty settlements on the fringes of Lisbon with the dusty anarchy of Third Worldtownships. Prior Velho, a chaotic jumble of alleyways, is a well-established though illegal shantytown whose residents, over more than 10 years, have scaled up their tin shacks into plaster and concrete dwellings. But they still fetch water from a standpipe and steal electricity by tapping into mains cables.

A slow rehousing programme has been under way for years, but the new flats residents are sent to are often worse than the slums they leave behind. Those who remain, as they look across the motorway to the glass and steel towers of a European metropolis, live in fear of the bulldozers.

Prior Velho's community of Gypsies, Cape Verdeans, Guineans, and some poor Portuguese, co-exist without really mixing, but underlying tension has heightened in recent weeks. Mamadu Djoco, in his thirties, arrived in Prior Velho from Guinea-Bissau in 1982 and works, when he can find employment, on building sites. "I am not very happy, because the whites don't treat us as equals. It is two worlds. Even if we live side by side they treat us differently."

In 1993, the government tightened up asylum and immigration laws to bring Portugal into line with other European countries in the Schengen group, which seeks to drop border controls. It ended the previous open-door policy, alerting many Portuguese for the first time to the idea that Africans should be kept out. It offered an amnesty to illegal residents, giving them three months to get their papers in order. But many were afraid and took no action. Now, technically, they face deportation.

Mr Ka says mass deportations are unlikely because construction companies need the labour for such big projects as the new bridge over the Tagus - a British joint venture - the metro extension and Expo-98, but the authorities will not legalise the Africans either. "So they remain in a sort of limbo, neither deported nor legal, vulnerable to blackmail and exploitation."

Quintero Aguiar, 25, came from the island of Sao Tome nine years ago, and likes a drink in the Bairro Alto. "I've been turned down so many times for houses and jobs that now when I phone I say from the start that I'm black. The worst is when you go into a bar and the barman just ignores you, serving all the other people." Mr Aguiar works in the theatre as a dancer. "I can easily get work doing an African dance like this." He sketches a crude hip-jiggle, beer glass in hand. "The Portuguese love it. They think it's exotic. But if you want to do something serious, forget it.

"The racism here is not obvious, it is subtle, soft and dangerous. In old South Africa I would know I can go down this street and not down that one. Here in Portugal I don't know which streets are safe. And the stones I don't see are the ones that kill me."