Brazil's protests have subsided - for now

The nationwide protests of the summer have mostly petered out, but Brazil's police and government still have a lot to answer for.

At the end of August, as Brazil’s population reportedly passed the 200-million mark, the hashtag #OGiganteAcordou (“the giant has awoken”), used during June’s wave of protests, flickered briefly to life again online. The tag, a reference to the national anthem, in which Brazil is imagined as a colossus reclined on a tropical shore, was the strapline of a striking 2011 Johnnie Walker TV ad, in which Rio’s dark coastal mountains stirred into life and rose up to form a giant.

Over two months on from the protests, the suggestion that Brazil's historically placid population was finally stirring into action now seems hopelessly optimistic: less an insurrectionary “Brazilian spring” than an ephemeral June bug. Small, sporadic protests smoulder on, including a spate of actions by a newly emerged anarchist black bloc, but the majority of June’s protesters have now dispersed.

Despite historic inequality, Brazilians have tended towards non-confrontation. It’s one of the things that makes Brazil such a thoroughly pleasant country to live in; but it also means that in the years since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship, although smaller, under-reported protests over issues such as police violence, indigenous rights and housing have been a fact of life in the country's marginalised periphery, the social peace has mostly remained undisturbed.

The last time Brazilians took to the streets in large numbers was in 1992, when thousands marched against President Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned as his trial for corruption was about to commence. Corruption was again an issue this June, as the protests’ initial focus on the cost of public transport broadened to include it along with such things as perceived over-spending on the 2014 football World Cup.

Corruption is a sensitive subject in Brazilian politics, since it apparently touches every party. In the “mensalão” trial currently taking place in the Supreme Court, a string of leaders from the governing Workers Party (PT) has been convicted of paying monthly bribes to opposition Congress members, in return for support for Lula's government. Politicians routinely appear to close ranks to protect their own. In a secret ballot held on 28 August, Congress voted against impeaching the incarcerated congressman Natan Donadon, notwithstanding his 13-year sentence for stealing £2.6m in public funds. (A week later, Brazil’s lower house, assailed by criticism after the Donadon vote, rushed through a proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban secret ballots in government. The amendment will now make its way through the Senate.)

In the Senate, Renan Calheiros currently presides as leader of the house, despite his forced 2007 resignation in a corruption scandal. And at state level, in July, a multimillion-dollar racket came to light when the German company Siemens provided details of its part in a 20-year price-fixing scheme around contracts for metro construction, supply and maintenance. Those implicated include the powerful current and former governors of the state of São Paulo.

A nationwide day of action against corruption and impunity in public office was called for Brazil’s Independence Day, on 7 September. But low turnouts on the day, despite a blast of sound and fury from the black bloc protestors, seemed to confirm that it will take more than corruption to stir Brazilians back to the level of outrage that fuelled June’s largest protests. Those were triggered by a night of ill-judged police violence against a peaceful demo on 13 June, which burst onto TV screens and Facebook, scandalising the watching multitude. While the usual victims of police violence - a problem throughout Brazil - tend to be the poor, the difference this time was that many protesters were better off, well-educated and media-savvy.

The protesters were widely described by international as well as local media as being mainly “middle-class” Brazilians - and many of them were, in the sense of the term as most often used in Britain and other rich societies. Yet these people should not be confused with Brazil’s much-feted “new middle class” - workers who have recently emerged from poverty and gained access to credit, a slightly higher income, or a job in the formal economy. Although their prospects have improved as Brazil’s economy has grown, they do not benefit from access to a decent education (in Brazil, private schooling) and the kind of well-connected background that gives access to the best jobs.

Such people are Brazil's real “sleeping giant”, but it remains to be seen whether  the effects of the current economic slowdown will finally bring them on to the streets. It might. A rampant crime rate and sharp rises in the cost of living  affect those at the lower end of the income scale most acutely, and if something has changed since June, it's a new sense that street protest is valid, possible behaviour for ordinary citizens. And more than ever it is being reported, including by a flourishing new strata of independent media collectives such as Mídia Ninja, whose members routinely make their way to places such as Grajaú, an immense neighbourhood on São Paulo’s periphery that is currently experiencing a wave of occupations and protests.

The government, under the leadership of Dilma Rousseff, has kept a relatively low profile since the start of the protests. This stance, coming from a nominally  left-wing administration, has made it look increasingly out of touch. In an interview published in Folha de S.Paulo last week, the head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, Paulo Leme, raised concerns about serious problems in the Brazilian economy - and about the government’s ability, political capital o r will to tackle them: “It’s not hard to conclude,” said Leme, “in the light of the protests, that orthodox economic adjustment would not be a welcome sight on people’s TVs on the eight o’clock news.”

Demonstrators protest in Rio de Janeiro during the national strike day this summer. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.