On the Brazilian protests and the vulnerability of new democracies


Photo cred: Joel Silva.

Note to readers: The title of this post indicates the ‘Brazilian’ protests and the text is very much about that, but I focus specifically on the parts of the protests that I know best which are undeniably about how they have taken place in São Paulo.

Okay so I’ve spent a few days now thinking about whether to even write this post on this blog because I write the blog in English and the people who I perhaps need to be addressing are Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Three things made me re-think my position. The first is the dissemination of partial, simplified and biased information in social networks about the protests in Brazil as an ultimately revolutionary revolt against the present federal government and the politicization of the FIFA World Cup (which, by the way, it is not. Or it is, but that’s not all. More on that later). The second is the way that traditional international media has been reporting the protests in these same lines and without properly contextualizing what is happening. Thirdly and lastly, really incredible blog posts have been written about this in Portuguese. If you are Portuguese-speaking, I particularly recommend these three: https://medium.com/primavera-brasileira/dfa6bc73bd8a,  http://www.brasildefato.com.br/node/13269#.UcDYbqHxuJ5.facebook and http://escrevalolaescreva.blogspot.com.br/2013/06/nao-acredito-em-golpe.html. I obtained information on the protests from many places and people but these two links definitely helped me in placing my discomfort with the situation.


Street art in NYC, photo taken Jan. 2012 by agirlwithoutborders.

To offer a little background, the protests were originally organized around the rise in the already very expensive – in particular relative to the minimum wage norm in Brazil – bus fare in the city of São Paulo where the bus service is not exactly outstanding. On June 10th, the Movimento Passe Livre (Or Free Pass Movement. MPL, henceforth.) of São Paulo, an established social movement in favor of ‘the right to come and go’ that has been consistently and continuously critical of bus fare rises for just under a decade, organized a march. Once the march reached Avenida Paulista – one of those incredibly post-card-like symbolic spaces of contestation where cities like São Paulo become stages for contention and objection – it was met with incredibly brutal violence by the state of São Paulo’s military police force (not the city police. A little more on this later too). Rubber bullets were shot, tear gas and pepper spray were used, and a good five thousand people were viciously and ferociously attacked. National newspapers and general political commentary was very much against the movement at this point. In favor of the flow of traffic and condemning the ‘vandal’ protesters disturbing the public order, the national media was – perhaps shockingly – rather congratulatory of police repression.

By June 13th the next demonstration was to take place and the military police was there again. Many people were arrested simply for carrying vinegar – apparently effective against the effect of tear gas – and thus ‘seeming to intend on taking part’ in the protests. The people’s right to protest had clearly been fully disregarded from the first march, but now things were getting very oppressive. Some news media journalists were injured, and one even took a rubber bullet to her eye. After these occurrences were publicized, the support for the protests started to grow. The discourses started to shift. Those once branded as ‘vandals’ became the admirable heroic youth who wanted to change the country. The idea that “it’s about more than just 20 cents” – i.e. the bus fare debate – became dominant and people started raising their own concerns.

In an incoherent social forum of sorts the internet, as it does best, became a platform for raising personal opinions and re-framing the issue. Questions started being raised about what it then was about and things started running loose. Was the main concern with this now about police violence? Was it about the very existence of our military police – an inheritance from our dictatorship and a police force that acts in cities while belonging to the state (not the federal government, but local state-level government) terrorizing much of our urban poor and murdering a disproportionate amount of people of color? (Side note, if you haven’t seen Tropa de Elite I or II, then definitely do so) Was it really about the low quality of the transportation infrastructure? Or was it perhaps, and this is where things get problematic and ambiguous:  1. Against a very loosely defined idea of corruption pointing uniquely and ahistorically at the Partido dos Trabalhadores – labor party – federal government? 2. An apolitical patriotic tribute to the nation state as the ultimate binding force of the people, both trumping and rejecting partisan support? – but mostly rejecting one party, blaming the PT mayor and president while downplaying the Partido Social Democrata do Brasil (Or Brazilian Social Democratic Party. PSDB, henceforth.) state government of São Paulo’s very prominent role in both the police violence and poor education, health and transportation infrastructure of the region.

By the next march, on June 17th – figures really vary on this so I’m going to go with what I think is plausible from the different things I heard and pictures I saw – some 200,000 people came to the streets. The topics being raised were various. One thing was clear: the rather overwhelming nationalism and vaguely defined movement against ‘corruption’ pointing all fingers in one direction had caught on. With complete disregard for basic understandings of democracy, someone even started a petition on Avaaz for the impeachment of president Dilma. People in my network, many of whom very highly educated but rather optimistic about the whole thing were enchanted by seeing the masses take to the street.

ImageThe following day people in my own network posted a link to a video that every time I have forced myself to watch gives me the chills – and not in a good way. It’s a scene I would absolutely flee from in most contexts and any county: the collective and loud chanting of the national anthem in a public space. I welcome you to watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGie8JLRjjk. The comments were all about how beautiful and proud this nationalistic turn was making everybody. Having lived in a continent where neo-nazism and anti-immigrant (like, you know…anti-me-and-everyone-I-know) lunatics roam free and are never too far away for over a decade, I’m always skeptical of national pride as a framework for mobilization. It reeks of conservatism and backwardness. Reactionary and exclusionary, the nostalgia that the national narrative evokes frightens me to the very bone.

June 18th some of the people in my family and many of my acquaintances took to the streets of São Paulo. The protests were again rather weird. It was absolutely incredible that the numbers kept growing, and that a generation once apparently so indifferent to politics was now engaging in the core political tool of the masses. It was humbling to see. But when you have people marching side by side for things as diversified as 1. in favor of the criminalization of abortion, 2. in favor of gay and women’s rights, 3. against ‘corruption’, 4. against public spending on the few social security government programs Brazil has, 5. in the name of a just city, 6. against the intensive FIFA World Cup spendings and 7. every-other-possible-thing, what’s being created is not exactly legitimate contestation so much as a monster. The protests have been catching on like wildfire with cities all over the country now in full participation. The national congress building was occupied by protesters in Brasília on the night of the 18th. The town hall of São Paulo was attacked by a very odd crowd, to say the least – people who afterwards proceeded to burn the national flag and then torch a news reporter car in the city center. Oh and by the by, the military police once so incredibly present and violent, abandoned the center. If you’ve ever been in São Paulo city center by night you know that this ain’t exactly the kind of ‘hood where the police wouldn’t be around, in particular when “social classes are ‘mixing’” – a phrase I had the misfortune of hearing from a military police officer when I was mugged at gun point in the city center at night.

Unfortunately, the wave of middle-class conservatism that has been in uprising to ask for political reform while not fully understanding the political system is astounding. Of course Brazil needs work. Of course and undeniably so. I’m the first one to say the constant threat of violence – police or otherwise, low and borderline undignified wages paid out to people working in the public sector – aside from elected officials who apparently do quite well for themselves – and the increasingly evangelical agenda of law makers are all horrifying. Not to mention that I was always 100% against Brazil hosting not one, but two massive sporting events of the kind that deplete public funds and whose effects are often felt for years to come and usually negatively. I hate this ostentatious position of ‘look at us now!’ and ‘see, we’re not only a third world country’ that seems to reign when applying to host these events. There’s a lot to be protested. There are countless reasons to be on the streets. But you know what? People like me have been, since always. This is absolutely not a post defending government atrocities or even criticizing people for finally getting off their asses and joining us in the political process. This is a cry of desperation in seeing that the protests are taking a decidedly right turn due to the blatant ignorance and aimlessness of the majority of its participants. It’s honestly also a concern for riots of that size in the cities where my loved ones live. And the reason for all of this, I believe, is that in trying to keep the whole thing so broad and inclusive, it has been depoliticized. Saying that the protests are non-partisan but exercising this by forcefully excluding members of the political parties that have always been present in this fight for justice is a form of fascism. In saying that the only flag to be raised is the Brazilian one, the movement has opened its doors to the Carecas do ABC – a self-proclaimed neonazi and very violent nationalist group from the peripheries of the city – to yesterday physically attack people wearing red and displaying affiliations with the PT.

The main problem, in my view, is that leaving the protest so stripped of ideologies and so intrinsically anti (and not non)-partisan in its definition has created the type of setting where populist half-truths tend to thrive. With all of the work that Brazil needs, to look at Brazil today, with its model of economic growth which I personally find despicable but is turning the country into a world superpower, as well as its meagerly developed but now finally existing social inclusion programs and tiny welfare state, and think the country has ever been any better than it is right now in its very brief democratic history is either: a) incredibly stupid or b) incredibly manipulative. Because, let me tell you, whichever way you spin it: that just ain’t the truth!

Since these massive turn outs, the movement – or perhaps ‘wave’ is a better word for what’s happening – has continued to hold public support. Last night, the first death was claimed in a mid-sized city (by Brazilian standards anyway, but not much smaller than Amsterdam) when an idiot in an SUV ran over a protester. Yesterday, with all of the aggression on the streets and lack of police interference – turns out that now that things are getting violent they are watching from the sidelines waiting for things to turn sour – the once very positive masses went home frustrated. Facebook statuses of fear and discontent, seriously concerned blog posts and an international media coverage depicting the worst of the worst – even if my family and friends present there say things are somewhat weird but these were isolated cases – set the tone for the experiences lived.

I do like to think there’s still room for educating people into fighting for a cause that truly benefits the common good. And lots of room for making people understand that being anti-political party is an act of fascism that rings so very similar to discourses that were once commonplace in the times of our military dictatorship. But nothing thrills me less than the idea of enduring violence with no purpose whatsoever. The fragility and immaturity of Brazil’s democracy has never been more evident to me as it is now. The impeachment effort – signed by no less than 310,000 people so far! – and true fear expressed by the more politicized classes of Brazil of a coup d’état make for very chilling thoughts. And yet maybe a little far sought, hopefully. What I personally fear right now is where this movement is going. The MPL has officially called off its presence in future demonstrations as of today and condemned the right-wing hijacking of the protests yesterday. Plenty of people remain optimistic, but when the so-called unifying goals of this wave of protests are so poorly defined I can’t, even using the best of my sociological imagination, picture what good could come from allying with this violent, misinformed, prejudiced and proudly apolitical crowd.

My most humble opinion – and it pains me to say this – is that the dream of changing Brazil needs to go back to the drawing board!

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