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Brazil: The giant has awoken

Matthew Richmond writes on Brazil's growing mass movement

June 19, 2013
7 min read

somosaredesocialThe banner reads ‘We are the social network!’

Brazil is in revolt. What started as a protest about a R$0.20 rise in bus fares has turned into a mass nationwide movement against corruption, the rising cost of living, starved public services and money squandered on sporting mega-events. Events are moving fast with protests growing and spreading to new cities each day, and it is far from clear when or how it will end.

On 17 June an estimated 100,000 people marched through the streets of Rio. I started out at a gathering of students from Rio’s Federal University in a square in the Uruguaia shopping district. One protestor held a banner reading ‘Nada deve parecer impossível de mudar’ (‘Nothing should seem impossible to change’), a quote by Berthold Brecht. A speaker shouted out instructions for the route the crowd would take and exhorted his audience to be disciplined, peaceful and brave in the event of confrontation with police. The crowd collectively repeated the words so that those at the back could hear – a technique developed by trade unions and democracy activists during the 1980s. Everyone sang ‘Olê olê, olê olá, se a passagem não abaixar, o Rio, o Rio, o Rio vai parar!’, roughly translated as ‘If the (bus) fare is not reduced, we will bring Rio to a halt!’

The crowd began to move and upon reaching the Avenida Getúlio Vargas converged with a much larger protest. I think here everyone began to realise the scale and importance of what was going on. Placards and banners with messages like ‘O gigante acordou’ (‘The giant has awoken’) and ‘Somos a rede social’ (‘We are the social network’) expressed a mixture of joy and relief. In a country often seen as politically passive, a silent majority was finding its voice. The marchers gleefully chanted ‘Não é Turquía, não é Grécia, é o Brazil saindo da inércia’ (‘It’s not Turkey, it’s not Greece, it’s Brazil leaving its inertia’).

The participants were predominantly young, but the movement resonates far beyond them. Suited professionals leaving their workplaces mixed in and office workers waved white flags and threw confetti from the skyscrapers overlooking the procession. Similarly, although the majority were middle-class, there were clearly also many from humbler backgrounds. People of every age and across the social spectrum are voicing similar grievances: a corrupt and arrogant political elite, high costs, substandard public services and a contemptuous attitude towards human rights, particularly within the police. Until now they discussed these problems individually with resignation, saying ‘that’s just the way Brazil is’. Now they are demanding change.

Mega events and resistance

A key aspect of the protests concerns the urban impacts of preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. In Rio the mega events are being treated as catalysts for a ‘whole city project’, which besides new sporting infrastructure includes major transformations in housing, transport and security.

While the stated aims of investment and integration are widely supported, the way the policies have unfolded has created widespread disillusionment. A housing boom has brought a windfall for speculators, but priced many out of their neighbourhoods, while the first large-scale favela removal programme since the military dictatorship of the 1960s is being carried out. Expensive transport and favela ‘pacification’ (or proximity policing) policies appear more geared towards delivering the mega events than improving quality of life in the city. Meanwhile public schools and hospitals remain underfunded and overcrowded.

Innumerable placards and chants highlighted these issues: ‘Quantas escolas cabem na Maracanã?’ (‘How many schools fit in the Maracanã stadium?’). ‘Copa do Mundo eu abro mão, quero dinheiro pra saúde e educação’ (‘Forget the World Cup, I want money for health and education’). One sign ominously read, ‘There will be no World Cup’. This will send shivers down the spines of political elites who see the successful hosting of these international spectacles as economically and symbolically crucial for the future of the country, and for their own reputations. They may have been concerned about drugs gangs and street criminals marring the events. They never foresaw the possibility of mass opposition.

In Rio the protests have been targeted at the State Governor Sergio Cabral and Mayor Eduardo Paes, who are seen as responsible for the failures of the city project. Brazil’s highly federalised system leaves significant powers at the state and municipal levels, including in the key areas of health, education, policing and transport. As a result President Dilma Rousseff has been less of an obvious target. However many believe she has not used her powers to pressure for change. One banner called for Dilma to ‘wake up’, as Brazil had, implicitly referring to her own revolutionary past. Wider disillusionment with her Workers Party, the PT, was expressed by the chant ‘Não temos partido’ (‘We have no party’).

After reaching the Candelaria the protesters continued on towards Cinelândia, with many congregating on the steps of the beautiful Theatro Municipal, still in light-hearted mood. Occasional loud bangs of firecrackers, perhaps mistaken for acts of vandalism, prompted chants of ‘Sem violência’ (‘No violence’). There was a conspicuous lack of police presence, presumably a deliberate strategy following the outrage they provoked with their indiscriminate use of pepper spray and rubber bullets in São Paulo.

Whose violence?

When the march finally converged upon the ALERJ, the Rio state legislative assembly, the picture began to change. Around 30 police guards were stationed outside it, separated from the demonstrators by a wall of railings. As the mass arrived some elements began to throw bottle and stones, thinning out the police line and pushing them up the steps towards. Crackling fireworks that were being set off into the air began to be directed towards the building. Then what appeared to be a molotov cocktail started a fire beneath the building’s main columns, causing the remaining police, by now at the top of the stairs, to scramble into the building. The crowd broke through the gates and occupied the steps. (A video I took of the incident is available here). Bonfires were lit in the square and surrounding streets, and a car was set ablaze.

For the next two hours police attempted to clear the square using tear gas, while protestors fled down side streets only to return as the air cleared. I saw a few people spitting blood. This pattern continued for at least the next two hours. It was only at this stage that I saw any vandalism – mainly masked, adrenaline-fuelled teenagers smashing windows and graffitiing on walls. In almost every case other protestors intervened to try and stop them. One time a large crowd chanted ‘sem vandalismo’ (‘no vandalism’) at a young man trying to kick in a window, and he sheepishly walked away.

I headed home around 9.30pm when there were still several thousand protesters in the square. There have been reports of disproportionate police violence at this stage, though I personally did not witness any (the continuous use of tear gas notwithstanding). The firebombing of the ALERJ was certainly a shocking sight, but later footage showed a relatively small minority to have been responsible. By contrast the vast majority of the protest was remarkably peaceful – and self-policing.

A few days earlier the violence might have been used by right-wing media outlets to sway public opinion against the protests, but I suspect that after the unpopular actions of the police elsewhere and the momentum the movement has now taken on it is much too late for that. Further protests are scheduled for this week all over Brazil. On Thursday organisers hope to get a million people out onto the streets of Rio.

O Brasil Acordou! Brazil has awoken!

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