"We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore": Rio's rude awakening

The protests in Brazil began as a demand for cheap public transport, but are now so much more.

Sem violência. No violence. This was what protestors were chanting as police charged them in São Paolo, firing tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, and rubber bullets.

Caught in the middle of this, Paula Martinelli found a hiding place by the São Paolo Museum of Art. A few days later she wrote to me via e-mail:

The Tropa de Choque [riot police] had closed both directions of the avenue and surveyed it periodically – filling the lanes with their vehicles, trucks, motorcycles, shields and bombs. Between breaks in the police checks, people left their hiding places in order to return to the march – our safety spot was an atrium between two buildings, until the moment we were found by a policeman who, as if we were in a video game, aimed his gun toward us and fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protest had been organized in part by the MPL – Movimento Passe Libre, the Free Pass Movement – which seeks to make public transport free through subsidies to transport companies. After the State of São Paolo raised fares in early June from R$3.00 to R$3.20, people acted on calls to join demonstrations on the streets. The first passed peacefully on 6 June. By the third demonstration on 13 June, the mood had changed. The Government attempted to quell the growing movement, and police responded to protestors with heavy force, as Paula confirms.

If the protests were just about transport fares, few would be taking notice. But the fare increase was merely the last straw –the most recent of many injustices committed by politicians against the Brazilian people. Indeed, speaking to Brazilians reveals anger with a litany of grievances which have been long embedded in Brazil’s political and economic establishment. In a message to me, Sikander Santos, who has been involved in the Rio protests, explained that, “There are so many things which have outraged the Brazilians that it would be impossible to identify one single reason for the current events.” Nonetheless, he listed a few key points which have contributed heavily towards what he termed the “dissatisfaction and total disbelief in politicians.”

Government corruption is perhaps the central point from which all other problems arise. It has existed for many years, and this has meant that the political establishment long ago lost the respect of the population. As Sikander says, “Politicians act on their own account, only defending their own interests and receiving huge salaries, wasting public funds and unlawfully enriching themselves.”

Having won bids to host the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics, Brazilian politicians have already spent billions of dollars of public money to build stadiums while the country’s wider infrastructure deteriorates. Hospitals, schools, airports, and public transport are all well below standard despite the country’s wealth and high tax rates, resulting in relatively high infant mortality, ongoing rates of around 12 per cent illiteracy, crammed public transport, and traffic-choked roads.

Outrage has also been directed towards the fact that Brazilian politicians commonly commit nepotism, and pay themselves up to R$26,700 (£7807) per month while the police are known to be equally as corrupt. President of the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities Marco Feliciano is known to be a racist homophobe, while the PEC37 constitutional amendment seeks to allow only the Federal and Civil Police to investigate crimes, excluding the Public Ministry which has been key in some important recent investigations. This is an invitation to corruption. Along with this, drug trafficking, gangs, and gun crime are widespread and poorly dealt with, being effectively swept under the carpet when officials from FIFA or the Olympics visit cities like Rio.

But according to Sikander, “The scrapping of hospitals, education, public schools, and universities, along with the dismantling of the public security system is notorious. Daily news stories of fraud, corruption, impunity, and all sorts of problems are common. It is scary and that is what the politicians want. Poverty and insecurity are part of the game – the exploitation of fear that stifles the courage of the people and prevents them from acting politically.”

Prior to 13 June, “The governor had tried to discredit the movement, saying it was formed by a small minority of vandals – we knew it was not true and had to prove it to everybody: society and the press,” Paula told me. “So we went to the streets that day trying to have a peaceful march to legitimize our requests and our movement. The government also knew this and decided to go for all or nothing – to muffle the popular clamour once and for all, or eventually have to deal with something bigger.” They chose the former.

In Franklin Roosevelt square, Paula wrote that there were “hundreds of police surrounding us. The cavalry also approached. When we were surrounded, tear gas bombs and rubber bullets began to be shot towards the crowd. Many of those peaceful protesters were trampled. I ran to the door of the church, believing that there I would be spared – bombs and rubber bullets were thrown in my direction, violently hitting the doors of the church.”

During this protest, police were indiscriminate in their attacks, hurling tear gas bombs into the middle of traffic jams, hurting many who weren’t involved in the demonstration – women, children, and the elderly. The rubber bullets smashed windows and property, the damage of which was then blamed on protesters. Dozens of people were arrested just for bringing vinegar, which helps counteract the effects of tear gas.

Following these events, however, Brazil saw a change in attitude towards the protests, with the movement after 13 June becoming more diverse and attracting many more people. Despite this, it didn’t stop the establishment continuing to try and silence the demands of the people.

On 17 June Sikander took part in the march in Rio from Candelária to Cinelândia along the Avenida Rio Branco with around 200 000 others. “The people of Rio have a lot of humor, they like to sing and dance, and did so for most of the march,” said Sikander. This went on for a few hours, but then when the demonstration had almost reached Cinelândia “a gang of thugs armed with shirts covering their faces went ahead of the people and attacked a group of police officers who ran to the safety of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro (ALERJ)."

Soon, molotov cocktails were exploding on the steps, and ATMs were smashed. But Sikander believes this was a pre-planned action: “There were more than 100 rioters against 40 unarmed police officers.” They had no weapons, which is strange in such a situation. Sikander wonders if they had been ordered by superiors to leave their weapons behind. As the attacks continued, reinforcements were called, “…but they did not come. There were no police to defend the police. The dreaded Tropa de Choque arrived almost two hours after the start of the conflict. It seems strange, that delay – very strange. But not for me. The State Security is run by the Governor [Sergio Cabral]. The same corrupt Governor hated by the middle class – the middle class that is now mostly in the demonstrations. Such planned actions expose the entire criminal scheme of this government.” Sikander stated that, “the order was to allow the conflict so that the demonstration could be dispersed…Several videos posted show police shooting upwards. It was a kind of theater…staged with the sound of gunfire to intimidate.”

Over the past week Brazilian politicians have slowly begun to comprehend the force of this movement, but despite reversing the public transportation fare increases in a number of cities, protests have not ceased. In fact, they are spreading across the country and are meeting further violent suppression by the police. Cutting R$0.20 from transport fares will not stop Government corruption, and Brazilians remain extremely angry with how much money is being spent on the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. At the same time, inflation is rising while wages are not, meaning many millions of Brazilians are affected by the increasingly high cost of living, drawing stark attention to the fact that Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Many people in Brazil fought against the military government from 1964-85, which was involved in numerous assassinations, disappearances, cases of torture, and false imprisonment. Today, as Sikander told me, Brazilians along with many others across the world, are fighting to liberate themselves from “capitalist fascism, corruption, and inequality”. Though perhaps the movement is too disparate and idealistic for politicians to be able to cater to every participant’s demands, they must nonetheless make a real effort to free their country from corruption and prioritise effective public spending above the short-term greed of private enterprise.

Another particpant in the São Paolo protests, Paula Valério, wrote to me that these protests mark a critical point. “Although I love my country, I have always been a harsh critic of Brazil and Brazilian culture – for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I do not believe in a future without education, and we, as a nation, never truly invested in it, so I saw no real way of changing things. I felt powerless. Now, these movements have opened a door for change – they are making me hopeful and proud!

“Everybody is in the streets. We all want changes. But there’s no real leadership. The Movimento Passe Libre will not be a leader for all the changes, and I don’t think they should be. So there are two great dangers. The first is that it will all just fade away, because we won’t be able to organize ourselves. The second is, if people find a leader, what kind of leader will it be?”

Brazilians have accepted "bread and circuses" in favour of substantive democracy for too long. “We are a peaceful people indeed, [but] this has also caused us to passively accept a lot of absurd political decisions,” said Paula Martinelli. Democracy is more than just elections, and with these protests, Brazilians are showing they have the power to demand that politicians deliver on their promises. “The spectacle of growth is a fraud. The World Cup spending has not improved the infrastructure. These twenty cents represent yet another cost for the people who already have one of the world's highest tax burdens. It is no wonder that the slogan of the movement is ‘the people have woken up.’ We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore.”

Names have been changed to protect identities

A demonstrator holds a road name sign during clashes in downtown Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt