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São Paulo protests - what do they mean?

Por Vincent Bevins
14/06/13 17:47

Brazil-watchers have all seen that protests exploded into violence last night, and that the police handled the situation horribly and perhaps even maliciously, over-reacting, letting the situation get out of control, and committing shocking acts of violence.

None of that is actually in dispute anymore. Claire Rigby described the tension and fear last night excellently on this blog. Mayor Haddad now says the night was marked by ‘police violence’ and Brazil Justice Minister went as far to call it ‘extreme police violence.’ Investigations are underway.

What I want to do is try to think about where the protests come from, what they mean, and what they could mean for the future. It can be easy to overestimate the importance of the protest’s ‘leadership’ or the people on the ground, and far too easy to connect the phenomena primarily to the other big headlines in Brazil at the moment – slowing growth, inflation, crime, Dilma, etc.

Very briefly, I think a better explanation is that a small group of committed activists have tapped into an issue most Paulistanos can get behind them on (poor public services, especially public transportation, and now, the police), and that the combination of a new middle class and a new generation of students mean more people feel empowered to make demands on the state. Even before last night’s debacle, a small majority of Paulistanos supported the protests.

The other more obvious lesson is that the São Paulo military police have no idea how to deal with protests. But first, a quick history of a very unexpected clash.

Movimento Passe Livre

The “Free Pass Movement” or “No fare movement” is a relatively radical group, heavy on students, that has long been staging protests demanding that all public transportation be free. In a country like Brazil, this in itself strikes me as Utopian at best, and absolute nonsense at worst. Unless we achieve some kind of anarcho-communist golden future, someone will have to pay for the buses and trains, and it makes sense that those who use them should pay more than those who don’t.

It’s clear by the page’s aesthetics that there are some extreme elements to the group, and this video shows they’ve long liked to get right to direct action tactics, being willing to shut down the metro last year for a cause few had heard of at the time. I’m not making a judgment on this strategy one way or another at the moment, but this is surely a long way from the more generally supported protest movement we have now.

Then, last week, the bus fare here rose from 3 reais to 3.20, and they organized protests specifically against that rise. Their slogan was the not-so-flexible “If the fare doesn’t come down, we’ll shut the city down.” At the time, I personally wasn’t very sympathetic to this.

On Tuesday, those protests got out of hand, the police seemed to have lost total control, property was destroyed and people, including officers, were hurt.

The response from the media and the police was uniform. These people are vandals and need to be taken care of. Both of São Paulo’s main newspapers called for a police crackdown, and police promised one. This was not a good sign, and I was worried.

The issue

But the thing is, there are few things Paulistanos agree on more than the obvious fact that transportation is a nightmare, and has not seen improvements commensurate with the rise in demand and incomes here over the last decade. In a city with many problems, getting back and forth can be one of the biggest.

This was now a specific issue that lots of people could get behind. Twenty centavos is nothing for most, yes, but:

1. It was the symbolic last straw for many 2. Lots of others said they wouldn’t mind price hikes if the services actually improved and 3. For lots of Brazilians, 6.40 a day on bus fare is a lot of money. If you make minimum wage (755 a month) and take two buses a day, that means you’re spending a whopping 26 per cent of your income just on getting around. Brazil has come forward a lot in the last decade, but the little man still always gets screwed. But maybe now he’s more willing to stand up for himself.

Asking for free transport is a bit unrealistic, but asking for better and more accessible public transportation seems a no-brainer. Even though survey respondents said they generally thought the protesters went too far, most supported the protests themselves. It seems the media may have gotten something else wrong. Lots of people really don’t like the police here. In 2012 the PM were credibly accused, many times, of brutal executions in the city’s poor periphery, and plenty were not inclined to see Tuesday’s clashes just as acts of one-sided vandalism.

The protest

At least, there was enough of those combined elements to get 5,000 people together last night. It was a mix of left-wing groups, regular citizens in favor of better transportation, those protesting police violence (and not just from Tuesday) and a small minority of some masked anarchist types that were obviously bent on making trouble, which they did.

5000 is not very many in a city of nearly 20 million. And quite a few of these people would have been protesting no matter what. But until the police started firing, people in nearby buildings or stuck in traffic were just as likely to express solidarity with the crowds as they were to complain.

Far more important than the 5,000 protesters are the opinions of everyone else, like these bus riders affected by tear gas. Surprisingly, most support the protest movement.

Of course, I do not discount the notion that a general malaise stemming from the fear of inflation, less optimism about the economy, and perhaps even an uptick in crime have made people more likely to revolt or support a revolt. More directly, people last night complained about investments in the World Cup and Olympics while public services for Brazilians lag.

But as I said on this radio show today, perhaps counter-intuitively, I think this has to do as much with economic growth in the last decade as it does with stagnation in the last year. Sociologists have argued that the new ‘middle class,’ long excluded entirely from economic or political participation, have been becoming consumers over the last decade, and that a realization of consumer rights may lead to demanding their full rights as citizens.

Of course, a lot of these kids were left-wing students, not exactly the working poor. But this is also a new generation. These kids have grown up with no memories of the repressive dictatorship, and for 10 years have been under an openly progressive government that is supposed to be responsive to their demands. Public services should be getting better. So a small group of them wasn’t afraid to go ask for it, and they got lucky, tapping a nerve with the public. And the police probably helped their cause last night. We’ll see Monday what happens, when the next protest takes place.

Post-script 1: Politics and the Press

Just as background: The mayor of São Paulo is newly elected Fernando Haddad, of Dilma’s left-leaning Worker’s Party. He is in charge of the buses. The governor, Geraldo Alckmin, is  from the opposition PSDB, to the right of center, and is in charge of the police, the metro and trains. As I’ve said before, almost all of the major press here leans in Alckmin’s direction. Keep all of this in mind as it unravels.

Post-script 2: Turkey

Last night I tweeted that the crowds had chanted “The love is over, Turkey is right here” as they were tear gassed. This was re-tweeted about a billion more times than I expected, to the point that people in Turkey are now reaching out to me about the situation here. I suppose the parallels are clear: protesters tear gassed who had been dismissed by the media at first as vandals. They seemed be saying: why does our press/government praise them over there, but when we do it here, it’s not allowed?

But I want to make clear that I personally think there are far more differences between the two cases than similarities. The national government here is still extremely popular, and most of the protesters are broadly on Dilma’s side. This is a much more specific protest. But if protesters in Brazil and Turkey want to reach out to each other, that’s up to them.

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