Rocking São Paulo

São Paulo.

Last Thursday, June 13th, I was crossing a bridge on foot in the center of São Paulo with my wife after doing some shopping when the military police stopped us and asked us to open our bags. “What do you have in here? Are there any rocks?” One of the policemen examined a plastic bottle of sparkling water and sniffed the contents before returning it to my wife. When they’d finished, we continued on to the Municipal Theater, the meeting point for the next round of protests that had been rocking the city.

I’d always heard that Brazilians were unusually passive when it comes to politics. My friends lament that theirs is a country where soccer and carnival reign and education languishes. There is a sense that once elected, politicians are indifferent to the demands of the public, irresponsible with their money and unaccountable for their actions.

Paulo Maluf, a former mayor of São Paulo (the largest city in Latin America) and governor of São Paulo (state), wanted by Interpol for conspiracy to commit grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property, is currently serving as a federal deputy (an elected representative to the lower chamber of congress). Fernando Collor de Mello, a former president of Brazil who had resigned and was subsequently impeached on corruption charges and banned from politics for eight years, is currently serving as a senator from the Northeastern state of Alagoas. The Federation of State Industries of São Paulo, estimates that about 25 billion dollars (US) are embezzled from government coffers every year. Another São Paulo federal deputy, Marco Feliciano, who has made disparaging comments against Africans, gays and women, is the recently elected president of the lower chamber’s Commission on Human Rights and Minorities.

For the World Cup in 2014, the government is spending about $15 billion, much of that for building stadiums that are frequently over budget and behind schedule. Multiple stadiums are located in cities, which will never be able to fill the seats once the tournament ends. In addition, the government canceled or pushed back until after the World Cup many of the promised expansions in public transportation for the tournament, expansions which in most cases are desperately needed. In São Paulo, the subway trains are unbearably packed during a rush hour that never seems to end, and the trains come to many frequent unplanned stops.

More troubling, economic growth in the country slowed to a growth rate of 0.9% in 2012, coinciding with a decrease in demand for commodities in China. I couldn’t blame my Brazilian friends for their pessimistic take on politics.

But when the city of São Paulo raised subway and bus fares by ten cents to $1.60 (the minimum wage in the state is about 375 dollars per month before taxes), the pent up frustration of the city’s residents appeared to burst, at least by Brazilian standards. Three protests occurred in less than a week starting on the sixth of June, and the last had seen at least 10,000 protestors. There were similar protests in Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre among other cities.

On June 13th, the planned date of the fourth protest, I decided to attend, curious to see what could have brought so many of the seemingly lethargic paulistanos (as inhabitants of the city are called) out into the streets. Was this naïve idealism, violent delinquency or something else?

It started out like a rally before a soccer game. Protestors on the steps of the theater shouted slogans, others held up banners and posters, a few beat drums and cymbals. I saw children with mothers, university students, blue class workers, punks, card carrying members of various political parties and a few individuals who appeared to be in their fifties or sixties. Everybody was friendly. It felt like a party.

As the march started, residents cheered from their windows and held up signs of support, a few even tossed white confetti out of their offices. The protestors chanted, “São Paulo has awoken.” A few smiling individuals turned around to take pictures with their phones of the mass of people advancing behind them.

I never saw anyone with stones or Molotov cocktails, although I did occasionally detect a whiff of freshly drying spray paint. In general I noticed few acts of destruction. Protestors shouted down an individual who threw a glass bottle on the ground. I did notice many people with flowers and cameras though.

As the protestors headed up a street, they stopped near a gas station. I saw a young man in a yellow shirt talking to a colonel of the military police surrounded by the press. I would later learn that the young man was explaining to the colonel the route of the rest of the protest. The colonel congratulated him on the peacefulness of the protest, and asked the protestors to break for a short time.

About fifteen minutes later, I heard shots fired. The police were using tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and smoke bombs. I couldn’t understand what had happened.

Chaos ensued. Panicking protestors ran in all directions. A few shouted to stick together: smaller groups would make easier targets for the police. Many started to chant “No violence!” My wife and I followed a large group up another street until we noticed a formation of heavily armored and masked policeman coming in the opposite direction. Bar and restaurant owners scrambled to close their doors. We turned. A canister landed not far from us. We headed up an apparently empty street only to encounter more police. Turning back and cutting across streets, we finally managed to reach a metro stop and catch a train away from the action. Others weren’t so lucky.

The UN Human Rights Council recommended in 2012 that Brazil disband its military police because of their chronic use of excessive force. Their indiscriminate attempts to suppress the protest seemed to confirm why. They had fired into a subway station, into a passing car, into an apartment building where someone was filming, and into a crowd of journalists who screamed that they were members of the press. In all they had injured at least fifteen journalists. One photographer will likely go blind because of his injuries.

They also detained two other journalists for several hours, one for carrying vinegar, which is supposed to diminish the effects of tear gas. They shot a teacher with a rubber bullet, who was on her way home from church. Several hours after everything had calmed down, they pulled a couple who had participated in the protest, out of a bar and started beating them up. One policeman broke a window of his own vehicle. In order to prevent the protestors from interrupting traffic in one of the main arteries of the city, they had completely shut it down. Accounts of their excesses flooded the internet.

However, the reaction of various government officials and several outlets of the mainstream media demonstrated how out of touch they are. A prosecutor, Rogério Leão Zagallo, wrote on his Facebook after one of the protests that the police should have killed the protestors who slowed down his commute, since he could have taken care of any potential criminal charges that followed. The governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, whose name has been associated with at least two corruption scandals, one of which involves the bribery of state government officials in exchange for government contracts for subway trains for the city of São Paulo, said that the state had the best police in the country and that the protestors, whom he considers most likely part of some political movement, were responsible for a majority of the violence, and that any police excess was rare and isolated. The national minister of justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, promised that the federal government would be willing to help the government of São Paulo in any way it could. The neighboring state of Minas Gerais made any protests that block traffic illegal during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament. Rede Globo, the largest television network in Brazil and one of the largest in the world, focused its coverage almost exclusively on acts of vandalism.

The next march in São Paulo occurred on Monday, June 17th. Estimates for the protest in São Paulo on Monday ranged anywhere from 65,000 to 250,000. The march was marked by an absence of violence. At one point the police even sat down in the street together with the protestors.

Over one hundred other Brazilian cities have organized similar protests, and more than fifty cities across Europe, Latin America, the US, Canada, and Japan have organized protests in solidarity with the Brazilian protestors. Governor Alckmin wrote a note recognizing the “national dimensions” of the movement and praising its leaders. President Dilma defended their legitimacy. On Tuesday, June 18th, another protest movement in São Paulo ended in an invasion of city hall and looting of nearby stores. On Wednesday, June 19th, Governor Alckmin and the Mayor of São Paulo made a joint statement saying that they would be lowering the fare of the city back to $1.50. Mayor Haddad, who had previously argued that lowering the fare wasn’t financially possible, added that society would now need to have a peaceful debate over how to redo the city’s budget. Protestors will hold a celebratory march on Thursday. The city of Rio de Janeiro also lowered its fares.

This past week I’ve heard many people say that they feel proud to be Brazilians for the first time in their lives. But the big question is what comes next. As groups jockey to take control of the movement, proposed protests have included everything from preventing the constitutional amendment, PEC 37, which would make the police the only organ allowed to investigate crime, and Deputy Feliciano’s Commission on Human Rights’ recently approved proposal that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality, to vaguer anti-corruption movements, to the impeachment of the governor or the president or even in a few extreme cases, calls for a return to the military dictatorship. The sleeping giant has awoken. It remains to be seen where its wrath will be directed now.

Brendan Levy lives in Brazil.