Resounding with chants of “the people are awake” and “come to the street,” Brazil witnessed the largest and most powerful public demonstrations since the struggle to end military dictatorship in the mid-80s. More than 200,000 people protested in capital cities across my country against social problems and deeply flawed institutions.
I was in Porto Alegre on June 17, where thousands marched toward the headquarters of Zero Hora, one of the most powerful newspapers in the country. Walking amid peaceful protestors near the front, I was suddenly hit with tear gas. No one knew why or how we were stopped. In the end we didn’t make it to Zero Hora; the riot police stopped us from getting to what, ironically, turned out to be a better protected site than the National Congress in Brasilia, where people climbed, danced, and chanted atop the modernist building. Police violence against this huge uprising of Brazilian people has been in the headlines of all newspapers, and has shaped political debates since June 13, when a protest in São Paulo left one hundred people injured and two hundred people arrested.
There are many causes for the protests. The most evident is the rise of bus fares in São Paulo. This particular fare hike followed one in Porto Alegre in early April, when a city government decision caused the first wave of major unrest. To everyone’s surprise, the protests in Porto Alegre led to the lowering of transportation fares back to their original cost. When São Paulo raised transportaton fares in early June, the first posters of “let’s repeat Porto Alegre” appeared in the streets, and spurred a national debate.
The demonstrations also call attention to the flawed decision-making process and high costs of building infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The negotiations surrounding building contracts for these events are rooted in Brazil’s tradition of benefiting businessmen, corporations, and corrupt politicians at the expense of the public.
Then there is the broad public discomfort with media outlets. There is a reason why protesters in Porto Alegre targeted the headquarters of Zero Hora. Since April, the most important media networks have portrayed protesters as vandals who want to disrupt public peace. Demonstrators have not forgotten that Brazil’s media was built up in the 60s and has deep roots and alliances with the oligarchies and politicians connected to the military coup.
In some ways, the protests are forcing media outlets to reshape themselves, to realign, and to choose their allies more carefully. Their own journalists are suffering from police violence.
June 13 was a critical moment in this shifting conversation. The police were told to repress all protesters. As a result, a journalist was arrested and detained for more than two hours for carrying a bottle of vinegar. It is no accident that we have come up with the term “Vinegar Revolt”—the widespread use of tear gas has made this common kitchen product the most reliable shield protesters can carry. The brutal tactics of the police that day created a wave of resentment in the population and changed the behavior of the police in later protests.
It took a brutal attack on a journalist for the media to begin changing its tune as well. Brazil’s most influential newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, published an editorial claiming that the protests were not justifiable or legitimate, that the rise in transportation fares was below inflation, that the protests were frustrating daily life in the city, and that the military police must put an end to it. When the protest started that same evening, a young female reporter of Folha was struck in the eye by a rubber bullet fired by riot police who aimed the gun at her face while she was covering the events. There were many similar cases that night, and the press woke up with a different perspective on the following day.
What is happening in Brazil right now is one of those historic moments in which a society bends to new social variables of differing importance. Today we have 40 million fewer people in poverty, a stronger middle-class, more universities, and a better quality of life. But we are still greatly dissatisfied with Brazil’s most persistent and formative social problem: the precariousness of our public institutions and the fragility of our condition as citizens in a country where the government persists in treating the public sphere as its own personal property—throughout history, Brazil’s indigenous elite have never stopped treating the country as a colony to be exploited.
On Monday, when we were stopped by the riot police and pushed back violently by loud rockets and tear gas, the anger and frustration at being denied basic civil rights was too great. When we were pushed back to side streets, we left the front lines to masked anarchists fighting back with sticks—they seemed heroic at the time. It wasn’t long before we heard that a bus was set on fire. Until then, the protest had been peaceful. We chanted “no violence” every five minutes, and policed each other so that not even a trashcan was overturned. Very few protesters were there to be violent. After that peaceful climate, however, the bus on fire seemed like a logical conclusion.
A kid next to me sprayed painted “democracy is a farce” on a wall. A girl then yelled at him for defacing public property. We all yelled back at her, because at that moment, democracy did feel like a farce, and the public sphere merely an illusion. Our acts, and the kid with the spray paint, were creating a new, real, public space. And this is achieved through reform of political institutions and a serious discussion of the role of the media; a way to effectively reflect upon, neutralize, and overcome the vicious ways of our colonial past.
One of the most famous signs of the protest read: “We apologize for the inconvenience, we’re rebuilding Brazil.” And that is what is happening here. Over two weeks, people in the streets lowered transportation fares that were considered unchangeable, transformed the behavior of the police, made politicians give their support for the protests, and shamed conservative journalists and intellectuals who undermined the protests and offended the people who were a part of them. I’d say we are on the right track.
Marina Araujo is a Brazilian historian and Fulbright scholar who researches American poetry during the 60s. She also writes about experimental poetry and counter-culture in Brazil, and is interested in politics and social change in contemporary literature and its connections with pop culture. A former teacher of cultural history and sociology in Brazil, she currently teaches at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in pursuit of her PhD
PUBLISHED ON JUNE 19, 2013 at PEN America.