Confronting disorder in Brazil

Let’s try to define vandalism. Vandalism is the act of destroying what is important and valuable for the culture and history of a nation. So it is quite clear to me who is actually doing vandalism here.

Betty Martins
19 June 2013

Protestors march in Brazil, June 2013.

I am originally from Sao Paulo, the world’d seventh largest city. London is still for me a village, where I can enjoy my freedom in coming and going as I please (of course there are several other issues with the politics in the UK, but those are not the focus of this article). I really do feel free here in my every day life.

Brazilian culture, by contrast is steeped in corruption, violence, in all its different forms. It is so embedded in our consciousness: it is so active in our every day life that it has become mundane, dangerously normal. Also circulating in Brazil’s cultural memory are certain traces of colonialism, which most of the time paralyse people into what Paulo Freire (the Brazilian educator and philosopher) designated the culture of silence.

Well, we did have an educational system, not so long ago introduced into our schools (and of course reflected overall in the media) called MEC-USAID - which primarily served a North American interest. This lasted from 1964 until 1985. I was 4 years old when the break was made with that system (of course the after-effects from those educational methodologies do not disappear just like that.). A culture of silence does not think for itself: it does not produce. A culture of silence consumes everything in its path and reproduces the same effects over and over again.

When from a distance I see Brazilians on such a huge scale in the streets fighting for a cause, it makes me very happy. Of course there are activist old-timers who have been fighting for years, and I am lucky to know some of them. But this is something different. Perhaps now a new generation is finally breaking with those traces of colonialism. Maybe these younger generations are freer than mine was. Maybe it is the social networking the de-centralised new social media which has been at least until now, controlled by the people themselves which has made the difference. Yes, we can be watched, but we can also intervene as well. It is the negotiation with power perhaps that we need now to learn how to handle. And it seems to me that we are handling it pretty well so far. Yes we have #NSA, but we have all the springs from the Arab to the European to the Turkish , the North America and the  Latin American, and the collective acts that are generate global social awareness and change.

But then I also see the Brazil I remember, the old Brazil, still with its traditional military tactics. Oh, and the old Brazil, not only the police but the worst, most dangerous militaristic of tools, its mainstream media. As in Turkey, the accusation that appears quite constantly in the news headlines is: vandalism. The media, as usual, is really successful at what it does best, dividing public opinion along partisan lines. We begin now to  see some people's comments online of how angry they are with the vandalism which of course for them, begins to overshadow the real issues at stake. And they say upper middle class Brazilians, who live in a totally different universe (in Brazil, the gap between classes is stark: a middle class person would never contemplate using public transport in a million years) are full of condemnation for those who are protesting against the 0.20 cents increase in the cost of everyday public transport.

Social change is happening as it should happen, reflecting the natural shift in society. The technologies are changing, people’s mentalities and behaviours will then change as well. And of course as usual, this is scary for those who want to maintain their control. They too are also very well prepared. They have made their calculations and they have their own technologies to hand

I have talked to people who have joined these protests:

“We were about 15000, and not 5000 as the mainstream media reports.”

“Since the beginning of the manifestation there has been tension in the air. The centre of the city was occupied by the police, we knew that repression could happened at any time, as it has done.”

“We were ready for an attack from the police, yes. The majority of us had scarves for our faces with vinegar to protect us from the effects of the gas canisters.”

“At the very moment that we stopped in Roosevelt Square to wait for those who were lagging behind us, and to ask those who were in front of us to wait for us, the police moved in behind our backs, the riot police, they came from behind, throwing plumes of teargas, and shooting rubber bullets. This started a panic: people were pushing each other because those coming up behind them were running away from the police…. Everyone wanted to prevent any activity that could justify any repression from the police. But it was clear from the outset that the police were predisposed to repress us whatever we did anyway. When the protest reached Roosevelt Square the police started to beat people up violently and indiscriminately, without any pretext.”

"The media tries to criminalise the protesters. But this time it was just that  bit harder for them as we had the internet/social network sites to tell our side of the story.... I noticed from the word go that all the TV broadcasters were simultaneously attacking the protesters as vandals. Only when they couldn't sustain this position anymore as a lot of journalists were being set upon - did they start to talk about the truculent behaviour of the police. "

Well, let’s try to define vandalism. Vandalism is the act of destroying what is important and valuable for the culture and history of a nation. So it is quite clear to me that who is actually doing vandalism here  -  the ones who are attacking the most precious patrimony of all, which abides with the Brazilian people, which is their democracy.

“We are carrying vinegar with us to protect us from the teargas. During the protests they arrested people simply because they were carrying vinegar. What is the explanation for this? Vinegar is not an illegal drug. The social networks are full of jokes about this, as there is no logic to it. They didn’t have any reason to arrest the people, so they created one!”

What Brazilians are doing goes beyond the simple activity of not accepting the rise in the tariff for public transport (although this is already itself a legitimate and justifiable reason for protesting as the Brazilian economy is in a ridiculous state which does not accord with the realities of the people on the ground). This is an activism that does not accept normality, that is going against the mundane, against all the media coverage of these events and the cultural memory instilled in Brazilians. And barely have we accustomed ourselves to this upheaval, than we are into a breathless new stage…

Suddenly, in the last few days, the mainstream media has changed its tune. (A lot of journalists were attacked by the police, so of course this could only help broadcast what was really going on). Now they make noises approving the protests, which generates a certain anxiety among those especially who have been fighting the longest. What could be possibly be the interests, the intentions behind this? To be politicized is to be always vigilant regarding the technologies which mediate mass information.  

Saying as much, social media has also played a key role, and Brazilians are very virtually active. They couldn’t sustain the “vandalism” discourse of the protests, as Brazilians were active in social media, posting what was really happening at the local level. Proper use of the technology was being made, photos, videos, realtime streams. People were discussing it in detail, rejecting the mainstream media and their representatives. Mainstream media reporters now have to hide from the protesters who have taken to verbally castigating them for their misrepresentations during the manifestations.

Now that the protests have become more widespread, there is great concern emerging with regard to the political differences between various parties to the campaign. Although the protests started with manifestants from the left, now the right is raising its flag as well in the same demonstrations. This of course raises some fundamental questions. Can this divert interest from the original cause? Avaaz already has an online petition for Dilma’s impeachment. But is this what we want?

We should act together and refuse any diversionary proposals (which paralyse us collectively), but we should focus on what was the initial problem: the rising costs of public transport which is a state problem, not a federal challenge. And then see how it goes. It is important to have some kind of strategic goal, and not surprising that those who have been active in the fight from the beginning are unimpressed by the vague slogan which has emerged, of WAKE UP BRAZIL. 

A broader front, with more people involved, is stronger but can also lose its political focus. Therefore we need to work through an open dialogue, and be careful not to alienate each other through our narratives. Any splits among the protesters seems like a huge mistake to me. I stand side by side with the people who are there, fighting and rebelling. I am with the people in Brazil who I have always been so proud to tell the British people about, the Brazilians who care about their community, who act collectively, who aim for a common good, regardless of their social, religious, or cultural background. 



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