SOS Racismo, Countering Racist Discourse in Portugal

by Teresa Lorena Machado

In Portugal, the Luso-tropicalist idea of ‘tolerance towards diversity’ is still latent in its collective imaginary. The growing power of the extreme right in the Portuguese political sphere proves its existence, making invisible the public debate about racism. To help reverse this trend, activists such as Mamadou Ba (a Guerrilla grantee) and the organisation SOS Racismo, are holding the frontlines in the fight against racism in Portugal.

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Mamadou at demo against racism & police brutality, February 1 2021

Mamadou is a Portuguese citizen born in Senegal. He is a father, polyglot, Pan-Africanist, and, as he puts it, “a decolonial-anti-racist by condition and conviction”.  His wholehearted commitment to the cause led him to be awarded this year’s European Frontline Defender award and, paradoxically, to be hospitalised due to burnout from his activist work. Although he looks at the European award with joy for the recognition of his dedication, he ascribes it to the cause and the collective work that has led to this moment.

He began his activism with SOS in 1996. This organisation aims to help create conditions for the self-organization of racialized people so that they can achieve greater citizen equity. From distant inspirations such as the ten points of the Black Panthers’ manifesto, the association emerged in the context of a reorganization of the Portuguese extreme right that was then gaining shape and strength in Portugal, and in the wake of racial hate crimes against important figures of the anti-racist struggle. 

Its intervention in the fight against racism started in schools, as it observed that this was the place where right-wing extremist groups recruited their supporters. To this day, it maintains this focus of action, but the list of initiatives developed extends far and wide, and in an intersectional way. Its work unfolds in autonomous decentralized centres throughout the country, applying a horizontal approach in decision making as well as in its ability to self-organise, whilst encouraging active participation at the national level.

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Mamadou Ba with Ruth Gilmore debating “Break the silence, unveil racism” for the ‘Cinema de Urgência’ 18th edition of DocLisboa 

With persistence and networking, SOS Racismo has contributed to the creation of a critical voice in the public sphere to the political apparatus in Portugal, the latter structurally racist and with colonial origins. “Understanding what cultural diversity means in the Portuguese context implies radical actions,” says Mamadou. And what form does this radicality take? Firstly, in breaking the taboo that “Portugal is not a racist country,” an idea that is still present in the collective memory of Portuguese society.

During the interview, Mamadou criticizes the way political action perpetuates and defines the possibility of the existence of a racial system. He notes that, the understanding of public governance is lacking the idea of community, of recognizing the diversity that characterizes Portuguese society, and the perception that spaces are not made for people, but with people. “Any social intervention needs to be done with the people who will benefit from it,” says Mamadou. Drawing from SOS’s experience, Mamadou explains that this systemic arrogance also influences organizations like his, where these embedded vices of detachment can result in biased social interventions. Perhaps we simply lack a greater presence of solidarity and care in our practices, which could help deconstruct such systemic harm. 

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Demonstration for the case of a racial-hate-crime murder of Luís Giovani, 11 January 2020

This is why within SOS Racism creating a culture of care is important, emphasizing the relevance of informal relationships to the struggle. According to Mamadou, “learning to know each other outside of the struggle is absolutely beneficial”, because experiencing the other allows one to understand people in their multiplicities – emotional, affective, or relational – and not only as political activists.

But despite its efforts, care continues to be a topic of inquiry for SOS. In fact, we mentioned above how militancy brought Mamadou to the hospital earlier this year. The truth is that the extractivist logic of the system as well as the voracity of public events demand constant availability from SOS’s members, which, despite its national representation, remains a small association. And now more than ever, the threat of the extreme right and the lack of commitment of society in the fight against racism lead to an enormous pressure for intervention on the movements. Organizations asking questions regarding self-care is essential for contemporary activist movements. Mamadou understands how we quickly prioritize the struggle over personal well-being, but also reminds, “without life, there is no militancy”.

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Demo against racism and police violence, February 1 2021

As Mamadou says, when we want to change society for the better, the people who seek to be agents of that change must also be joyful about it. It is important to step out of the extractivist logic that we want to combat, just as it is relevant to cultivate joy in social movements. “Ultimately, the goal of the struggle is happiness, not as a universal idea, but in a way that people can be happy how they want to be. And when they are happy it is because they are not oppressed by anything within the system.”