São Paulo: the city and its protest

While the recent protests in São Paulo are made up of a cross-section of Paulite society 'waking up' to social injustice, it is young people from the urban periphery, those which have 'never slept' who dominate the demonstrations, demanding access, freedom and a new kind of urban living.

Teresa Caldeira
11 July 2013

In June 2013, a series of large demonstrations throughout Brazil have shaken its main cities and political landscape.  They have also perplexed politicians and analysts alike, many of whom found themselves without solid references to interpret the novelty and oscillated between silence and old discourses.  It is always risky to interpret emerging processes. Minimally, we risk following secondary paths or, even worst, framing new events with the vocabulary made available by old interpretative models, exactly the ones that the new events are trying to displace. However, in order to reveal what is emerging it is necessary to risk, search for new hints, and follow signs already available.  Several references that can guide us to interpret the June events have been around for quite a while; others are new, but we can trace their lineage and contextualize them. 

Global footprints

The demonstrations in Brazil share some characteristics with others around the globe in recent times. Analyses of movements such as those of the Arabic Spring, Occupy, the Indignados of Spain, and more recently the protests in Istanbul have already revealed features that point to the existence of a new type of public mobilization.  They include:  a symbiotic relationship with the internet and the social media; the diffused and spontaneous organization around networks; the capacity of attracting thousands of participants in a short period of time; the heterogeneity of the participants, who may or may not form coalitions; the hand-made quality of posters and banners; a high participation of young people.  The demonstrations also disregard established political institutions such as political parties and unions and clearly indicate a shift in the way in which political languages are produced, circulate, and guide practices.  They reveal that previous monopolies in the production of information and forms of organization have broken down.

The role of the internet is evident.  It gives to all and everyone – and not only to those who control institutionalized means of expression and organization – the autonomy to formulate and distribute messages and interpretations, to select and distribute information, and to form networks.  It also accustoms its users to political criticism and engagement, making the signing of petitions, for example, a frequent tool of protest. But the internet’s power also crystallizes on the streets, where those who Brazilians call internautas (internauts) congregated carrying posters with sayings and ideas that have been in the making and circulating in social media and blogs for quite a while.  Moreover, from the streets participants feed back the social media, describing, documenting, interpreting, and thus amplifying the events and re-articulating networks.  This exchange between the internet and the streets was palpable in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities, where events such as police repression were posted and reproduced immediately in Twitter and Facebook, convincing many who had stayed at home to join the crowds. 

The city and its segregation

Issues related to the city and its quality of life also framed the protests. There is a global dimension to this.  Movements demanding rights to the city are nowadays articulated in the most diverse cities around the world and their experiences are exchanged frequently through networks of activists.  It is also probably meaningful that São Paulo’s demonstrations have started just after those in Istanbul, which clearly articulated the issue of rights to the city. "Turkey is here" was a huge banner in the streets of São Paulo.  

But it is obvious that there is also a local history to this.  The demonstrations started in São Paulo triggered by an increase in R$0.20 (US$ 0.10) in the fare of public transportation.  It did not take long for protesters to insist that the demonstrations were not only about the 20 cents and for a long list of demands to appear on the streets.  Moreover, the demonstrations persisted after the increase was cancelled.  Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the city itself, its pattern of spatial segregation, and especially its everyday dynamics of stalled traffic and eternal difficulties of moving around are at the core of the protests.

São Paulo is a dispersed city in which long distances separate the centre from the peripheries, workers from their jobs. As in many other metropolises in the global south, migrants who arrived by the hundreds of thousands a year to work on what was becoming an important industrial centre could not find housing. They have thus relied on auto-construction. Starting in the 1940s, they bought cheap pieces of land in non-urbanized areas in distant peripheries and then started a long-term process of building and expanding their residences, transforming them year after year until it would become a nice house of their own. This process typically takes one to two decades to complete and simultaneously urbanizes the city.

As a consequence of this process, however, by the 1970s São Paulo was clearly segregated according to a center-periphery pattern. The better-off lived in well urbanized and equipped central areas of high population density, while the working poor inhabited the precarious, distant and low density peripheries that they had built on their own. The provision of infrastructure under this pattern was difficult and very expensive. But by the 1980s, it started to arrive.  Crucial for this to happen, was the action of urban social movements, which spread throughout the peripheries claiming rights to the city they had built and in which they paid taxes. These movements helped to democratize Brazilian society and to significantly transform the quality of the urban space and of the public services in the peripheries.

In sum, São Paulo was urbanized by its citizens through a process that generated deep inequalities, long distances, high expectations of consumption, and a process of democratization that formed citizens and accustomed them to demand the improvement of their spaces and their participation in the polity.  If in the past water, electricity, and sewage were the catalysts of social movements, now circulation becomes a core issue. Mobility through the immense metropolitan region has not improved, but rather worsened continuously over the last decades.  The frustrations and indignities of the everyday life in a congested city in which people have to travel long distances found expression in the June demonstrations.  However, they have been expressed in the internet, in new forms of political movements, and in the cultural production from the peripheries for quite a while. 

The right to move around

The experience of moving around in traffic is painful for all, and the indignities of using absolutely packed public transportation -- buses, vans, and subway -- are a constant complaint of the millions who commute everyday. The internet has been functioning for a long time as the space to express and spread the feelings of irritation.  Anyone who follows Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis knows that people sitting in the immense traffic jams use their cell phones to post messages such us:  "in the damn bus:  stopped for 15 minutes!"; "Will be late for work AGAIN;" "Oh no!  Now it stopped to get a handicapped person:  will be even more delayed."  And so it goes, a breeding site for frustrations and a space for the expression of prejudices and intolerance, some times in cruel and vulgar terms. 

Traffic is also associated with an intensified consumerism and with the fact that the government has chosen to emphasize it as a mode of promoting the social mobility of the poor. The individual automobile is central to this policy.  Instead of developing public policies that could ameliorate the quality of life in cities by improving urban infrastructure and investing in public transportation, the Brazilian government, especially under the PT, has opted to subsidize the acquisition of individual automobiles.  As a result, São Paulo, a city of around 11 million inhabitants, had in 2011 more than 7 million registered vehicles, 5 million of them automobiles.  The inevitable outcome is a permanently congested city.

Traffic and mobility are at the core of the new type of social movement that made the call to the streets in June: the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL or Free Fare Movement). It describes itself as "an autonomous, a-political (a-party), horizontal, and independent movement, which fights for true public transportation, free for all, and away from the private initiative."  It is not a new movement, since it was founded in 2005, but it had not been taken seriously by the instituted political organizations.  It is a movement that knew how to articulate the everyday frustrations of the city and the aspirations of its young people, and that dared to look for democratic and radical alternatives for the problem of urban mobility – such as the notion of zero fare, a proposal it has supported with studies of alternative modes of taxation able to finance a free public transportation of quality for all.

For years, the motto of the movement has been:  "a city only exists for those who can move around it". This is a demand for a fundamental right to the city.  In this regard, it is meaningful to notice that São Paulo's demonstrations have been mobile and occupied simultaneously several spaces of the city, instead of being identified with a fixed territory, such as Taksim Square or Tahrir Square.  The demonstrations exercised the right to circulate throughout several parts of the city, including some where usually people don't walk, such as expressways.  They have congregated both in the centre and the peripheries and, symbolically, largely bypassed Praça da Sé, the central square that has been the iconic space of protests and political gatherings during the democratization process in the 1980s.

But to affirm that a city only exists for those who can move around it is more than a demand for a fundamental right to the city.  This affirmation also expresses the practice and the values of an immense number of young people and of an intense cultural and artistic production that proliferates especially in the peripheries.  In São Paulo, the majority of the participants in this production were born in the peripheries and are the children or grandchildren of the migrants who first moved to the middle of nowhere to build their houses. However, there is a striking generational difference in their ways to look at the city.  When the young cultural producers were born, the social movements were already fading away and the spaces of their neighborhoods had improved considerably. They grew up in a world of democracy, NGOs, relative access to education, and increasing availability of technologies of communication. In spite of their poverty, the young artists from the peripheries are plugged into globalized circuits of youth culture, whose styles they reinterpret and adopt, and into an equally globalized and quite expanded consumption market.

By contrast, the generation that built the peripheries had one central project of consumption and social mobility:  their houses and their appliances.  For this they made incredible sacrifices and accepted a significant immobility in the city. Today the new generation are either less interested in owning a house of their own or believe it to be untenable. Instead, they value the possession of a large range of items, from clothes to the cell phones, all electronic and communication-related items, and motorcycles and cars.  They want to move around the whole city and to do so in a fashionable way.  Their artistic production and their practices of circulation express clearly this desire, either through graffiti, pixação (São Paulo's style of tagging), rap, break dancing, skating, parkour, or literary events.

But this production also expresses their indignation toward the difficulties they face to use the city and its resources.  Some of their production aggressively tries to take over the city.  Pixação, São Paulo's style of tagging, is the most evident and transgressive of them. For over a decade, pixadores have inscribed all types of spaces and articulated the desire for mobility and visibility of young men from the peripheries. A city in which pixação is omnipresent should have already understood both these desires, the aggressiveness of the interventions that attempt to materialize them, and the mounting indignation associated with the continuous difficulties to move around and become part of the whole city.

But this new cultural production expresses several other indignations related to everyday life in the city, most importantly the anger toward a police force which has never refrained from using violence in the peripheries.  It is not surprising, thus, that social media exploded and the streets became full of people as soon as the demonstrations in mid-June started to be treated with an unusual level of police violence (tear gas and rubber bullets shot at the crowd, plus beating).  It should also not be a surprise that posters incessantly reproduced on Facebook remarked: "The PM (Military Police) is doing on Paulista (a central avenue) what they have never stopped doing in the peripheries".

The class tension that marks the city and that is expressed by its spatial segregation became palpable in social media as the protest unfolded.  An image that went viral juxtaposed two photographs:  on one side, a middle-class young man held a poster with the words "The people woke up"; on the other side, a bus burning in some area of the periphery with the saying "I'll tell you a secret:  the periphery has never slept."  Posters indicating the peripheries' sharp awareness abounded.  Thus, those who had been articulating new imaginaries and a deep indignation in alternative spaces for quite a while finally arrived to the streets and made sure to attribute any feelings of surprise to others. They knew.  They have long understood and experienced injustice; it was the others who were finally waking up and experiencing surprise. These included the political parties that have not listened to them, the governments that have disrespected them continuously, and the middle classes that arrived late to the streets to join in the indignation.

Thus, in the same way as the spontaneity of the demonstrations and the new format of the MPL indicate a break from monopolies, authorities, and modes of political organization, the new cultural production of the peripheries and its circulation via internet or via the walls and streets of the city have been breaking monopolies in the production of representations and interpretations and displacing authorships and authorities.  This disperse cultural production does not conceive itself in terms of political movements, but has certainly been producing new imaginaries that circulate in autonomous and non-regulated ways.  Imaginaries that crystallized on the streets and that express some of the great inequalities and social tensions that constitute the metropolis. 

Beyond the city: democracy

But it is obvious that this was not the only thing that crystallized on the streets and that participants in the protests were not only young people from the peripheries.  After the demonstrations exploded, all manner of simmering irritations and anger from across all social groups found their expression on the streets, most notably: the exasperation with politicians and their corruption; frustration with government at all levels and branches, whose buildings were attacked in several cities; the sense of absurdity of the expense of mega-events such as the World Cup contrasted with the disregard of basic social rights such as education and health (we want "Fifa standard" schools and clinics, said the posters);  annoyance with political parties (the PT flags were burned on the streets); perplexity with the attempt of some in Congress to undermine LGBT rights; and the revolt at continuous police violence.  This proliferation of protests on the streets, preceded by exchanges on the internet and years of cultural production and interventions into the space of the city, indicate the incapacity of established organizations and institutions to maintain a hegemony in the production of interpretations and practices.  This can be very positive and liberating, opening new paths, breaking old monopolies, and revealing new articulations.  But it also indicates risks and the need for a new democratic articulation that may go beyond posters, hash-tags, and inscriptions on the walls; an articulation able to contain authoritarian and violent impulses and create alternative political spaces without losing novelty.

This article appeared in a previous form at


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData