- “Come to the Street!”:Urban Protest, Brazil 2013
When street demonstrations overtook Brazilian cities in June, critics from Left to Right were quick to assert what they were not: they were not organized by recognizable, tried-and-true forms of social protest (social movements, political parties, labor unions, churches, professional associations, human rights groups, NGOs); they were leaderless; they lacked political articulation; they had no consolidated agenda; they refused the Press; they disdained elected politicians and rejected a decade of ruling Workers’ Party (PT) megapublicity about Brazilian successes. In short, they were splintered, anarchic, unrepresentative, unverifiable, ungrateful, and apolitical. Yet, by mid-June, more than a million people were participating in street demonstrations, clearly mobilized by something rather than nothing. Their sustained force rendered the regularlyconsulted media pundits, politicians, and political scientists, usually so confident, shocked if not clueless. Every day and night massive numbers of citizens in all of Brazil’s major cities and many smaller ones accepted the riotous invitation “Vem pra rua!” (Come to the street!) that was distributed through social media, held high on cardboard posters, and stamped on t-shirts (Figure 1). Often emblazoned on a clenched fist, the invitation became a hortatory “take the street” that individuals felt compelled to extend and multitudes to heed.
Given this massive response, the call for insurgence, though suddenly answered, could only have developed out of a deep popular sense of what and how to protest. To find this “sense of the people,” one needs to [End Page 887] look at the street itself as the domain of urban insurgence. As in Occupy and Indignado movements elsewhere, the Brazilian protesters voiced their grievances under a tide of posters, overwhelmingly handwritten and individually carried, rather than collective banners or flags of political parties (the latter often aggressively repressed by the protestors themselves). The initial spark was a 20-cent fare increase (approximately $0.10 USD) for public buses in a number of cities. The Movimento Passe Livre (the Free Fare Movement, MPL) called for a protest march in São Paulo on June 6, 2013. Founded in 2003 to challenge a fare increase in Salvador, Bahia, MPL has ever since demanded that public transportation be considered a fundamental constitutional right, campaigned for massive investments, and developed economic models to justify its battle cry—“tarifa zero” or “zero fare”—as a radical measure to address Brazil’s public transportation nightmare.
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The first march in São Paulo mobilized around 6,000 protestors focused on public transportation. Their marching chant was “if the fare doesn’t go down, the city will stop” (which rhymes in Portuguese and challenges the famous slogan “São Paulo never stops”). By the sixth march on June 20, many cities including São Paulo had indeed stopped, as a million and more people took to the streets of Brazil to publicize their revulsion at current conditions (Figure 2). Many were moved initially to protest the [End Page 888] egregious police violence against demonstrators in São Paulo. By mid-June, their anger had mushroomed far beyond “20 cents” to target a hive of issues displayed individually, brilliantly, countlessly on posters: “stop police violence; urban mobility is a right; a teacher is worth more than [soccer star] Neymar; if there is money for the World Cup, there is money for health and education; housing is a right—stop evictions; the vandals are the politicians; freedom of expression; say no to the ‘gay cure’; justice delayed is justice denied; where is Amarildo? [who disappeared while in police custody]; and so on and on. Transportation, infrastructure, health, education, housing, women-gay-indigenous-black-citizen rights, corruption, political reform (parties, elections, congress), justice, security, environment, specific legislation, energy (nuclear, hydro, oil), and violence.
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Many posters advanced moral positions. Some appealed to principles such as “for a life without turnstiles; ideas are more lethal than guns; don’t accept what bothers you...