On June 20, nearly 2 million Brazilians took to the streets as the country's largest protests in two decades grew. But things got a lot less hopeful and a lot weirder.
Those who showed up with banners from the Worker's Party (PT) were harrassed at the São Paulo protest and forced to leave, and there were even reports of people just wearing red (the color of the PT) getting shouted out and even attacked. There were vocal calls to impeach Dilma; an online petition has now reached nearly 330,000 signatures. The bus-fare protest organizers said they would no longer organize demonstrations, saying the protests had been infiltrated by right-wing groups. In Rio, both violent vandals and the police--who even hostilized people who weren't protesting--spread fear throughout the city over the past two days. It looked like a protest that was so amorphous and allegedly non-partisan was actually turning into something else.
After years of fighting to organize large numbers of Brazilians and get them in the streets, groups like the Free Fare Movement found themselves at a loss when they succeeded.
For insight on the turn of events, I turned to Brazilian journalist Juliana Cunha, a sharp observer who's been reporting on the protests from the ground in São Paulo. The international media hasn't necessarily been able to capture the subtlties and the history of what's going on; there's much more to this just the economy. So Juliana was kind enough to write a piece for this blog explaining her perspective.
Juliana Cunha: Be Careful What You Wish For
If you have any interest in Brazil, you may be wondering what’s going on in this country. What are these so-called peaceful and “cordial” people so angry about? First, people were angry about the bus and subway fare increases. It's a lot of money for most people in Brazil to pay R$3.20 (US$1.42) for a ride on a lazy and inefficient public transportation system, but to understand what happened, we need to go back a few years.
Ten years ago, public transport had become an important agenda item for social movements in Brazil. This happened during the so called “Bus Riot," when Salvador—the fourth largest city in the country—stopped for almost two weeks when protests spread throughout the city, blocking traffic to fight against the fare increase.
The protests at the time had many of the characteristics of the current revolts. One of these features is the hatred of political parties, which ends up extending to unions, student organizations, and all forms of traditional and organized social movements. In a way, this was a response to the fact that most social movements and leftist parties became co-opted by the government after Lula became president, to the extent that they practically became an arm of the administration.
Over the past decade, the public transportation agenda has become one of the most popular causes of social movements in major cities. It is easier to mobilize people in Brazil when the bus fare rises than when a corruption scandal breaks. It's a given that when the the cost of transportation goes up, you'll be able to get people to protest.
So over a month ago, when it was announced that São Paulo’s bus fares would rise in June, the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), or Free Fare Movement—an organized and non-partisan movement whose main cause is making public transport free—decided to organize a big protest against the increase. The invitation was made mainly through Facebook.
A week before the fare increase, MPL held some small demonstrations in the suburban neighborhoods of Pirituba, Dom Pedro, and Jardim Angela in São Paulo. They were very small events with 50 to 100 people. Right after the increase they held small protests in M’Boi Mirim and Vila Leopoldina; again, peripheral neighborhoods in São Paulo. Then, four days after the increase, they got 4,000 people in the streets, stopping Nove de Julho Avenue, a major route in São Paulo. Police cracked down on protesters. Other cities across the country began to hold demonstrations against the bus fares. Even in places where the rate did not go up, there were protests. There were protests in favor of other protests, protests against corruption, and protests against the excess of public funds used for the World Cup.
Two days later, MPL organized another protest of 4,000 people, in Largo da Batata. There was no police repression. Four days later, 12,000 people took to the streets. Two days later, there were 14,000 people in the streets with heavy police repression. Reporters from major newspapers were shot with rubber bullets, and beaten.
After that, everything changed. The coverage of Folha de São Paulo, the country’s main newspaper, stopped calling the protesters rioters and turned against the police. Rede Globo, the country's largest television station—a channel that was complicit with the military dictatorship among other things—also changed its mind and reinforced the non-partisan and spontaneous nature of the demonstrations. The press practically congratulated the protesters and called on people to go to the streets with generic demands.
The demonstrations, which used to be against the bus fare increase, became protests for the right to protest.
A massive demonstration was organized. People who previously called the protesters deluded or vandals decide to join the march, influenced by the change in media coverage and the police violence. At least 65,000 people took to the streets of São Paulo, and 100,000 in Rio de Janeiro. But everything changed again. Acts of vandalism spread throughout the country. While the protests used to be left-leaning, they became ideologically confused. Elements like those from the London riots—masses of poor youth excluded from the consumer world, firing on shops—began to attack. Middle-class leftists lost control of the protests.
And then bus fares were reduced in several cities. It was a victory that tasted like failure. Why did Brazilian social movements need to get so many people in the streets to win something as small as a slight rate reduction? Things got even worse for the original protesters when right-wing protesters took over the demonstrations.
The great masses who are on the streets today are groups who no longer believe in the structure of political parties. Some of the more organized right-wing groups appeared in a few isolated parts of the demonstrations, and they were willing to adopt the masses of young, vaguely nationalist, and conservative protesters who lack defined political ideologies. This mass of newcomers to politics does not accept the presence of parties, organizations, or labor unions. They adhere to advertising slogans like "come to the street" (taken from a Fiat commercial) and "the giant awoke" (taken from a Johnnie Walker commercial) and to pop symbols like the mask from "V for Vendetta."
The left asked people to take to the streets and they did, but now they have no clue of what to do with so many lost and confused people. Youth with no experience in protesting and who never organized politically were mobilized by the Internet and the media's change in opinion. They adopted a nationalistic tone, because they think this is a neutral position. They created a dichotomy between political parties and the country itself.
Now the left is trying to unite around a central agenda. They don’t really know what to ask for next. They don’t really know if anyone is in the position to ask for anything. Why would the government give you something without any guarantee that in exchange, people will calm down? The truth is that it would look bad for the left to demobilize the population after these massive demonstrations. People in the streets: isn't that what they always wanted? In this case, I think it would be appropriate to recall the famous saying: O desejo é ouro, a posse é prata. Desire is gold, but possession is silver. Or in English, be careful what you wish for.
Juliana Cunha, 25, is a Brazilian reporter.
Creepy image via social media.