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Fear and loathing in São Paulo

Por frombrazil
14/06/13 17:33

Claire Rigby describes the nightmare scenes she lived through in last night’s protest, as well as a society grappling with the idea of protest itself. Above, Folha’s own Giuliana Vallone, shot in the face with a rubber bullet.

By Claire Rigby

I took my press card to the demonstration in São Paulo last night, seeing a row of people handcuffed on the TV as I left, and hearing news of mass arrests before the demonstration had even begun. I thought if I got into trouble, it might just help. I needn’t have taken it: it wouldn’t have helped.

As I left the house, a reporter from the magazine Carta Capital had already been arrested arbitrarily along with dozens of other people. By the end of the night, the fourth in a series of escalating protests over an increase in public transport fares here in Brazil, around 200 people had been arrested and dozens of people injured by police, who shot repeatedly and indiscriminately into the peacefully protesting crowd with smoke bombs, tear gas and rubber bullets, chasing protesters through the streets for miles, and striking fear and loathing into those who witnessed their actions. Among the injured were 7 journalists from this newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, two of whom were shot in the face with rubber bullets. And me. I was shot in the hand with a canister of either smoke or teargas at Praça Roosevelt, minutes after joining the demonstration. (My eye-witness account of police brutality and bullying of protestors is below.)

In the wake of a week of fierce debate in São Paulo, in workplaces, homes, cafés, bars and on Facebook, following Tuesday night’s demonstrations, which ended in disorder and clashes with police on Avenida Paulista, the story that quickly unfolded last night was one of reckless, unprovoked police violence against peaceful demonstrators. It has caused widespread revolt, further polarising the already vehement debate taking place here on the rightness or wrongness of taking to the streets, who is entitled to do it, on whose behalf protesters act, and what they are entitled to do when they get there.

Images and testimonies of police beating and firing on demonstrators; of people kneeling in the street, hands up in supplication, then being fired on at close range; and of bloodstained and bruised protestors and passersby (a Tumblr page has been set up to register injuries), tell the story of a night of mayhem – not at the hands of the protestors, but at the hands of the military police. Giuliana Vallone, a Folha reporter, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, as was another reporter, Fábio Braga. A hairdresser, Valdenice de Brito, who witnessed Vallone being shot on Rua Augusta said, “She told me that I should get out of there because of the tumult, and just as she said it, a police officer looked at her and cowardly shot her.”

“People should be protesting against corruption or out demonstrating against violent crime – these are all troublemakers/vandals/students/iPhone-owners/unionists. It’s only a 20¢ rise,” is a fairly representative sample of the “against” refrains I’ve heard over and over this week regarding the fare hike protests, generally voiced loudest by those who can measure their salaries in multiple minimum wages – a common way of comparing levels of income here. But the disproportionately high cost of public transport even before the price rise (from R$3 to R$3.20), felt most keenly by the millions of workers who live in São Paulo’s vast periphery, is a source of shame and frustration even for well-off Paulistanos when they choose to consider it.

Journeys to work of two to three hours are commonplace, in packed and outdated buses; and for workers earning the minimum wage (R$755 in São Paulo, against R$678 elsewhere) or close to it, the cost of getting to work and back can account for more than a quarter of their income.

Yet the protests, organized by a non-affiliated single-issue group, Passe Livre São Paulo, have been about far more than the price of a bus fare, even if, as the debate continues to rage and as hundreds and thousands of articles and posts are published and devoured on blogs, sites and social media, the arguments and indeed, the movement, are still being articulated. The extremely high cost of living in SP is a frequent and growing complaint, coupled with anger at the quality of public transport and public services. Multiply that by frustration with the system’s endemic corruption, exasperation with the political class, and perhaps deep down, a recognition that the immense gap in income between the poor and the well-off in Brazil creates scandalous, unsustainable levels of inequality.

An apparently in-built reluctance to protest here in Brazil is also being called into question: Can people take to the streets, and even win concessions? Do you have to be a minimum-wage worker, forced to spend 4-6 hours a day on buses and paying through the nose for it, to be outraged by that?

By late last night, the city’s mayor, Fernando Haddad, was talking about a “possible excessive use of force” by the police, and promising an investigation. Along with thousands of others, I witnessed and experienced it first hand and was shocked by the nature of the sudden, indiscriminate and prolonged attacks on the crowd by the military police (see my testimony, below). “Historically unprepared to deal with dissent and opposition and untrained to meet the demands of a democratic society,” as my colleague Andrew Downie wrote last night, MPs are also accused of carrying out executions and acting in the form of death squads. I wrote about that here on From Brazil in January. Many have called for the disbandment of the service, created during the dictatorship.

The protests, mirrored in cities all over Brazil, including large demonstrations in Rio and Porto Alegre amongst others, have grown rapidly, and in SP, another, even bigger protest is expected on Monday night. It feels like a tipping-point moment that has subverted a frequent observation amongst foreigners living here: the glaring absence of protests and demonstrations, and the discrepancy between the scale of Brazil’s social inequality, and class antagonism. Accustomed to cordial interaction and minimal conflict – stemming, many Brazilians will tell you, from a long dictatorship and before that, master–slave social relations that never really went away – protest isn’t the done thing here. More common is an uncomfortable shrug, and a “Fazer o que?”, a “Muita calma nessa hora”, or even a “Vai dar tudo certo.” (What can you do? Everybody calm down. It’ll all work out in the end.) And at the other end of the same spectrum, “Troublemakers. Provocateurs. Vandals. They got what was coming to them.”

An epidemic of Facebook shares of images and texts from Taksim Square, Istanbul were satirised by a reader, writing in the Letters page of Folha de S.Paulo yesterday, who compared the newspaper headline’s characterising of the previous protests as “vandalism”, while classifying the Taksim square movement as “resistance”. Indeed, both Folha and its rival, Estado de S.Paulo, ran leaders supporting firm action on the part of the police in advance of the demonstration, and have often caricatured the mainly peaceful demonstrations as “vandalism”, whereas only a tiny minority carry out acts of vandalism, as I saw last night.

Distasteful as it might be to some, and frightening as it might be to witness, there’s a price to be paid for living in a free, peaceful society. For some, it’s the minor inconvenience caused by mass street protests on their way home from work. For others, or for the same people at different times, it involves taking to the streets in acts of civil disobedience, risking repression and possibly arrest, arbitrary or otherwise. But for still others, it means giving the police free rein to stamp out protest and the possibility of protest with a dose of state terror, and perhaps even a dash of wistful nostalgia for the good old days of the dictatorship.

As Rogério Leão Zagallo, a prosecutor and professor of law at SP’s prestigious Mackenzie University, put it last Thursday night, posting on his personal Facebook while he was stuck in traffic for two hours due to the protests, “Please, somebody inform the [military police] shock troops that this region comes under my jurisdiction, and that if they kill these sons of bitches I will bury the inquiry. … Oh, for the days when this kind of problem could be resolved with a round of rubber bullets in the back.” Zagallo got that wish, or part of it, but is reported to have been relieved of his duties at Mackenzie.

*****************************

AT THE PROTEST LAST NIGHT – MY ACCOUNT

Arriving at Praça Roosevelt in downtown São Paulo at 7.20pm last night, I joined the back end of a large, peaceful march that had started at the Teatro Municipal, and was now spanning most of the wide Rua da Consolação, moving up the road in the direction of Avenida Paulista. As I walked into the crowd, I could see teargas or smoke bombs rising at the head of the march, uphill, and I heard gas cannisters being fired with bangs that sounded like small bombs. On the steps overlooking the street from the square, two girls in black, with their faces covered, were spray painting the steps – “R$3.20 NÃO.” Just then, some 200 demonstrators who were standing on those steps at the bottom of the square, observing the march, moved into the street, joining the thousands-strong crowd, part of which had begun to turn and move back towards Avenida Ipiranga, in the direction from which it had come.

Moments later, I heard a series of explosions, very close, and the running began. I looked back over the heads of the people nearest me, and saw plumes of gas rising from canisters as they hit the road, 10 metres away. I could smell and taste the teargas and saw people covering their nose and mouths as they ran. I covered mine too. To cries of “Calma,” and “Don’t run, be careful,” the packed crowd was forced up into the square (Praça Roosevelt), into a bottleneck escape route complicated by pedestrian walkways that snake back and forth. Hands reached down, pulling people up over the rails. Gas, close behind and more canisters being fired. People trying not to panic, helping each other, but running, trying not to push.

I ran up a flight of steps to one side of the walkways, and up into the main part of the square. Making my way to the railing to one side of the running crowd, past groups of friends grasping at each other’s hands, trying to stay together as they ran, I found a vantage point and stopped to look back and try and understand the scene behind me: cannisters of gas still being fired in showers of sparks, plumes of gas rising, and people still running. I noticed a line of police officers, in helmets and riot gear, just below the railing and about 20 metres away from me. As I leaned over the railing, trying to see up Rua da Consolação, I felt a sudden hard impact smash against my hand, against a large silver ring I was wearing, and saw a small shower of sparks explode above me. I looked down and saw a black smear across my knuckles, and realised I had been clipped in the hand by a cannister of gas, leaving my knuckle bruised, black and red, and swollen. I feel almost certain I must have been fired upon on purpose, exposed, leaning over, absorbed in looking this way and that.

Up until this point, to my knowledge, the demonstration had been entirely peaceful.

I made my way across the square and onto Rua Augusta, where more gas was being fired, forcing groups of people this way and that, and splitting the crowd into smaller and smaller parts. Some people who had inhaled teargas called for vinegar to pour onto scarves and inhale, in an attempt to counter the effects. Someone in an apartment building overhead dropped a large bag of water onto the heads of a group of people standing near me. The police fired again and again, teargas floating towards us, and charged with motorbikes to push people down Martinho Prado and into the back streets between Augusta and 9 de Julho. For the next hour, I walked along street after street with the demonstrators, on my own but staying close to a group of first 100, then 50, then 25, then 20, as we were repeatedly charged from behind and scattered.

Time after time and apparently no matter how small the group, the police chased us, charging up on us and keeping us running, first with a column of about 7 powerful motorbikes, riding up onto the pavement and weaving between cars, forcing people to scatter. Bars and businesses we passed were rolling down their blinds quickly. At Praça Quatorze-Bis, an ugly traffic intersection below the 9 de Julho flyover, I started walking up towards the neighbourhood of Bixiga, still in a group of around 25 demonstrators, when a convoy of about five 4×4 police vehicles zoomed up behind us with an almighty vrooom, pulling up alongside us suddenly. Helmeted police leapt out, wading towards us and shoving people, pushing one boy up against the wall, corralling the group. I managed to slip between two officers and away as one snatched something from the boy’s hand, pushing him backwards and indicating he had to turn out his pockets. Further up the hill, now down to about 10-15 stragglers, they kept on coming, and as we turned into Rua Itapeva, they jumped out of the cars again and started firing cannisters of gas or smoke (the latter known as “bombas de efeito moral”- I’m translating that as shock and awe bombs, or morale-draining bombs).

Exhausted and coughing from the running and the smoke, I looked for a doorway or alley to take shelter in, but SP doors and alleys are well protected, sealed off with railings and blinds. I saw an open gate and ran inside, hiding behind a bush and watching the police march past, uphill, followed by the cars.

Tear gas from last night. Turns out it expired in 2010

Making my way home up Rua Pamplona and over Avenida Paulista, I saw more police charges, saw groups of protestors regrouping and chanting the chant of the evening, “Sem violência!” (no violence), and saw and heard more gas and smoke bombs. I was caught up in a charge one more time as I walked down Rua Pamplona. The tweets I sent during the course of the night are here.

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