From the Favelas

Pedro Peres, Fascinação (1902)

A report from the demonstrations and demonstrators of Rio de Janeiro 

One autumn night in São Paulo, Brazil a police officer dressed like Robocop sprayed tear gas into a small crowd of chanting protesters and they all dispersed. A bystander took a video and uploaded it to the website LiveLeak. For years, middle class students have been organizing to protest city bus fares, but their movement suddenly became a national force when legislatures around the country, under the guidance of the federal government, elected to impose a nine-cent increase in cities that would host the 2014 World Cup. On June 11, the demonstrations turned especially violent. A group of protesters in São Paulo burned busses and damaged a subway station. Riot police appeared and made dozens of arrests.

Several days later, someone posted a link to the LiveLeak video on Facebook and tagged Zoe Roller, a 26 year old American who has been living and working for two years in one of Rio de Janeiro’s thousands of favelas, poorer neighborhoods with improvised infrastructure that sit outside the city’s normal zoning. Below the link a friend, referring to the protests in Gezi Park 6000 miles away, commented, “I am with you, and with Turkey!” Facebook pages started to appear, created by members of existing activist groups like Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), calling for more protests.

Zoe heard there would be major protests the following Monday, June 17, so she waited around in downtown Rio after work. When the bus fare raise was announced at the beginning of the month she, like many in Brazil, expected some resistance but assumed it would taper off into resignation as it had after the last fare increase. However, protests at Maracanã stadium the day before had been met with brutal police response. And as the protests that raged throughout June showed, something bigger is afoot.

The largest country in South America by land mass, population, and GDP, is renewing its sense of itself as a nation. Because of its untapped economic potential, Brazil used to be known as “the sleeping giant of Latin America.” After years of focusing on mainly local and state issues, the protest is waking a different giant to federal concerns like healthcare, education, and high-level corruption. But this new body politic is having trouble articulating itself through normal means. The Brazilian electorate is inundated by a multitude of undifferentiated coalitions, widely viewed as corrupt and rife with cronyism. The protests have formed, in part, to voice demands that the inchoate political parties do not express.

In Rio, the streets began to fill with people carrying Guy Fawkes masks and wearing Brazilian flags as capes. Zoe trailed after them to a brown colonial era church, where she met up with her friend Edson Moura, a 25 year old accountant who lives in a favela in the west zone of the city.

Within a few hours a hundred thousand people had gathered, filling Presidente Vargas Avenue, a main artery in central Rio. They chanted, “There won’t be a World Cup,” and held signs with slogans like “We’re Off Facebook” and “The Giant is Awake.” They learned from relatives following the news on TV that protesters in the capital had surrounded the congressional building and were now casually standing on the roof. Inspired, the Rio demonstrators marched to the state legislature. Someone set a car on fire and the police began launching tear gas bombs, scattering the crowd. Zoe’s eyes watered from a chemical like the one she had seen used in the LiveLeak video. Someone handed her a bottle of vinegar to soak her bandanna. “Don’t run away!” a protester shouted. The police closed in on all sides. The car exploded.

Eventually, the police retreated, perhaps because they ran out of tear gas. Some protesters stole into bank lobbies and dragged the furniture outside to make bonfires. Edson watched as homeless children and teenagers knocked the locks off the metal grates that protected shop fronts and ran off with flip-flops and bottles of alcohol. As a group of protesters charged up the steps in an attempt to break down the doors of the legislature, others spray painted “BRASIL” on its neo-classical columns. “We were being treated like animals,” Edson recalls, “so some people rebelled against this by smashing everything that symbolizes power.”

Like Zoe, that night was Edson’s first protest. “When I decided to go I thought it was just about the bus fare, but when I saw the variety of posters, and heard that mass of people singing the national anthem, it was magnificent.” Cristiano Souza, a 31 year old motorcycle taxi driver and Jiu jitsu fighter who lives in a small favela, echoed Edson’s amazement at a protest that weekend in Copacabana: “I’m really happy right now because I never could have predicted this, you know what I mean? Fuck, I’m 31 years old and I’ve never seen a protest like this. I thought only like 60 year olds had seen this. So I was really moved. Maybe there is hope for Brazil.”

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Sentiment in the favelas of Rio offers a good view of the challenge facing the organizers of Brazil’s protests, which have ebbed in frequency over the past months but promise to make a lasting impact. Like the Occupy protests in the US, inclusivity is one of the Brazilian demonstrators’ biggest challenges.  Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. Although the situation has improved over the last decade, the contrast between rich and poor remains stark, especially in Rio, where underdeveloped favelas sit side by side with opulently wealthy neighborhoods. Security policy has historically been driven by the middle and upper classes’ fear of the lower classes, culminating in events like the Candelaria massacre in 1993, when off-duty police officers killed eight homeless youths. Police response to the protests this winter reinforced the divide; a cartoon circulating around the Internet depicts one rifle firing rubber bullets in downtown Rio and another using live rounds in the favelas.

But as the protest movement evolves, issues facing favela residents and the lower class have come to the fore. Protests cropped up in poorer neighborhoods; most notably on June 25th in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. Some of the protesters’ laments echoed their middle class counterparts’, but many were unique. Holding signs saying “We Pay Taxes, Too!” the demonstrators called for better sanitation infrastructure. They also protested against the illegal evictions and fatal police operations that the government has been carrying out in order to make Rio better suited for tourists and construction projects.

Natan Zeichner, a New York University PhD candidate who has been collecting interviews in São Paulo for his dissertation on the history of leftist politics in Brazil, suggested that the leaders of the Free Fare Movement, who many see as the leaders of the protests, want to expand the demographics of their movement. In São Paulo, he said, “you could see a very clear change. At the beginning people were calling the kids bourgeois,” but a week and a half later, “the classist discourse ceased to be a part of it.” This desire to crossover was clear in Rio, too.

On Thursday, July 4, Zoe, Edson, and Cristiano met up in Leblon, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Latin America. Protesters had gathered in front of the house of Sérgio Cabral, Rio de Janeiro’s controversial governor (he has been accused of running illegal protections militias). Along with the usual students and anarchists, the crowd now contained a mixture of upper class locals, residents of nearby favelas, and a few homeless kids. Edson noticed signs referencing police brutality that had taken place the previous week. Military police invaded Maré, one of the largest favelas in the city, in response to a robbery in a neighboring commercial district. They threw tear gas bombs indiscriminately and opened fire.

According to a local NGO, thirteen people were killed; mainstream news reported nine deaths, including a military police officer and several civilians. Five-thousand stunned Maré residents took to the streets on July 2, holding signs reading “End the class dictatorship” and “Stop massacres in favelas.” Now, two days later, in wealthy Leblon, Edson saw locals carry signs outside the governor’s house that said “Hey Cabral, get out of Leblon and go live in Maré!” and “Cabral doesn’t throw bombs in his neighborhood!” As if to disprove this last point, the police began lobbing tear gas bombs into the crowd and 250 officers surrounded Cabral’s house, backed up by the threat of a water cannon mounted on an armored vehicle. Instead of dispersing, the crowd regrouped a block away, where more elderly, well-heeled neighbors emerged from their houses to join them. Zoe asked Edson if he had ever seen people from outside favelas protesting issues that affected him: “That was the first time.”

Violent police repression may well have achieved what simple activism could not: upper and middle class solidarity with the poor. One sign at a recent protest read: “FIFA and the government never imagined that they were constructing the perfect showcase for a demonstration of the Brazilian people’s indignation.”  A middle-aged neighbor of Cabral’s told Zoe that she initially supported Cabral as governor because she approved of his law enforcement policies. Then, at a protest on June 20, military police harassed her daughter and sprayed her with tear gas. Soon after that incident, she took to the streets herself. Another neighbor was outraged by the rumor that agent provocateurs lurked in the crowd. “I think this is fascist, like a dictatorship. The people need to have the right to express themselves.”

As misfortune turned into unity, the shape of the demonstrations unsettled some Brazilians. Disillusioned with the recent corruption of the ruling Worker’s Party, and in the absence of any other significant ideological institutions, many groups of protesters fall back on nationalism to cohere a variety of frustrations. Often, when confronted with a line of riot police, they sink to the ground, raise their flags, and sing Brazil’s national anthem. A 31 year old political science grad student named Isaías Albertin de Moraes, told me that, while he supports the protests generally, he’s uncomfortable with the violence and the nationalist tenor present in some of the demonstrations. He worries the recent political scandals, the excessive spending on enormous stadiums for the World Cup, and the tragic state of many basic services will convince people to give up on the mediocrity of having democratically elected officials. “There will not be saviors of the nation,” he said, “but there are well-consolidated democratic institutions.”

But Brazil’s democratic institutions are, at very least, full of bad actors. Legislatures and presidential cabinets are only instruments until they are filled with intent, and without a broad-based national imagination that parties can represent, that intent cannot be realized. As Benedict Anderson argued in his groundbreaking work Imagined Communities, nations and nationalism rely upon people who can conjure up the idea that they have some connection to people they have never met. Favela residents and wealthy protesters are experimenting with a similar feat of imagination, and, hopefully, they may be able to achieve something better than nationalism. As in other countries, technology has played a part in making this broader, imagined consciousness a reality. Cristiano noted that protesters on social media websites, “share a lot more information about corruption on a national level. Nothing is isolated. People see the connections between things.”

Zoe asked Edson about the fragility of his nascent democracy. He thought for a moment and then said, “For a long time we were paralyzed and deluded into thinking we were really being represented by good people. Now we’re tired of being tricked by the media and politicians who only come to the favela and make promises during elections about change and quality of life. Then, once they’re elected, they either ignore favelas or tear people’s houses down and leave them on the streets. Our democracy might be on the rise right now, but there’s still a lot to be done to make it even stronger. In a way, I feel like I am a part of this.”