Taking to the Streets

By Margaret E. Keck

This post and its companion piece by Rebecca Abers draw heavily upon an ongoing email conversation about the Brazilian protests between Rebecca Abers, Kathryn Hochstetler, Margaret Keck, and Marisa von Bülow, and these essays have benefited from all of their suggestions.

At its height, the surprising wave of street demonstrations that rocked Brazil in June reached over 100 cities and involved well over a million people.   Among foreign observers, it seemed to invite comparison with the almost concurrent demonstrations in Turkey, triggered by urban renewal plans for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, the Occupy movement in the US, Chilean student protests, and Argentina’s gigantic panelaços, to say nothing of the Arab Spring.  In almost all of these protest events, young people played a prominent—even predominant—role, and social media was widely used to mobilize people to come out onto the streets and provide information and images.  There has clearly been diffusion of symbols, styles, and to some extent a rejection of traditional rally repertoires involving podiums, speakers, loudspeakers, and the like.  On a host of social network sites, participants have condemned leaders and hierarchy, embraced horizontality and self-representation, and disavowed representative institutions and organizations.

Nonetheless, similarities in style of public protest among young people can and do coexist with a great deal of variation in the origins and implications of these events, and of the political processes of which they are a part.  Transnationalization of new repertoires of youth protest is worthy of study in its own right, but is not the subject of the current essay.  Here, I trace the bare outlines of the June protests in Brazil, focusing on their particular triggers and general elements of their context.

The recent protests represent the first national protest wave since 1992, when huge demonstrations called for impeachment of President Fernando Collor, the first popularly elected president after Brazil’s long military dictatorship, embroiled in a major corruption scandal.  After Collor left office, replaced by his vice president Itamar Franco, Brazil has enjoyed a succession of regularly elected presidents and an unusually high level of policy continuity.  Among other things, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s presidency (1995-2002) kept the lid on inflation, implemented quite far reaching decentralization efforts in health care and education, shifting the government’s attention in the latter area to the abysmal state of public primary schools.  During the two-term presidency of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), Brazil began to enjoy a level of economic growth not seen in decades and increased its international stature as an emerging power.  At the same time, income transfer policies lifted an unprecedented number of Brazilians out of abject poverty, turning them into consumers and stimulating further growth.

The immense popularity of Lula’s presidency (he left office with an approval rating of around 80 percent, and succeeded in getting his chosen successor elected) seemed a remarkable achievement for Brazil’s democratic left.  Furthermore, during the two previous decades a plethora of experiments in participatory governance had expanded the access of citizens to state decision making, at local and sometimes at other levels as well.  In a parallel posting, Rebecca Abers contemplates the meaning of the June protests in light of this recent history.

As more people gained access to the formal economy and aspired to enter the middle class, demands for basic public services far outpaced the quantity and quality of their supply.   Congested, crime-ridden, and expensive, Brazilian cities did not make social mobility (or any kind of mobility) easy.  By 2013, a slowing economy seemed to stand in stark contrast with burgeoning cost overruns on new infrastructure being built in anticipation of Brazil’s upcoming role as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The June protests began with a series of initially small but growing demonstrations, called by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement) a loosely federated national group that has arisen in a decade of struggles over the quality and price of public transportation in Brazilian cities.  Stalled and unsafe transit (both public and private) has come to epitomize in many respects the appalling condition of Brazil’s urban infrastructure—something that helps to explain the widespread support the June protests received.  Transit fare protests notably had paralyzed Salvador, Bahia in 2003; a public explosion in 2012 in Natal over fare hikes and municipal corruption won comparison with Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s Indignados.  Similar protests forced rollbacks of transit fare increases in a number of Brazilian cities between March and May, 2013.  In response to an announced fare increase scheduled to take effect on June 2 in São Paulo, the MPL organized a series of protests starting on May 27.  The protests grew, and by June 6, when several thousand protesters blocked major intersections, state governor Geraldo Alckmin mandated an unexpectedly harsh response by the military police, who unleashed a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets that hit bystanders and journalists as well as protesters.  As cell phone videos of protests went viral on you tube and social media sites, tens—then hundreds—of thousands joined, and the protests spread to other Brazilian cities, eventually reaching over a hundred of them.  Dissatisfaction with urban transport and other public services converged with public anger about the egregious cost of new infrastructure being erected at taxpayer expense in anticipation of the upcoming international athletic events.  (This parallels similar protest organization prior to the World Cup in South Africa).  The timing was fortuitous: the FIFA Confederations Cup soccer matches were to be played beginning June 18 in six major Brazilian cities.  Sympathizers of the movement protesting the gigantic expenditures on new stadiums also took to the streets, swelling the crowds of young protesters, further inflamed as clearly unprepared police continued to react intemperately to provocative behavior.

As the protests grew and spread, so did the issues raised and the variety of participants.  The causes were as multiple as the assortment of hand-lettered signs that participants carried, protesting the abysmal quality of transportation, health, education, and policing, high taxes, government corruption, absence of personal security, and misplaced focus on infrastructure for international sporting events.  Although media attention went disproportionally to violent episodes of provocation or police repression, some of which were significant, for much of the time the events had a festive air, and demonstrator after demonstrator commented on feeling pride in speaking out.  Although data is still somewhat scattered, it seems that many of them were taking part in a public protest for the first time.

Eschewing leaders and embracing horizontality and nonpartisanship, participants in principle welcomed all comers, a commitment to inclusiveness that made it hard to prevent the action of provocateurs or even outright vandalism.  There was also some dissention when organized groups showed up displaying party banners.    The mixing of messages grew sufficiently complicated that the Free Pass Movement decided on the 21st to stop calling for demonstrations until some of these contradictions were sorted out.

At least for the moment, the June demonstrations offer the potential to be a point of inflection—a moment where apparently settled relationships become unsettled—and reconfigured.  No one is certain how.  Polls indicate massive popular support for the protests.  Politicians reacted.  São Paulo’s bus fare increases were rescinded on June 18 (though no one knows how needed improvements in the system might be funded in another way).  A congressional bill intended to weaken the investigative power of the Ministério Público, opposed by protesters, was quickly defeated in a congressional vote, despite good prospects of passage not long before.  President Rousseff, whose early response to the protests (unlike that of the São Paulo governor) had referred to them as a sign of a healthy democracy, took them seriously, cancelling a presidential visit to Tokyo and making an address to the nation on June 24 in which she spoke of holding a plebiscite on political reform; she pledged to fight corruption, dedicate petroleum revenues to education, and recruit thousands of new doctors, from abroad if necessary, for underserved areas.  Her ability to follow through on these promises is rather dubious, and her approval rating has not recovered from the nosedive it took as a result of the protests.

Although large demonstrations have dissipated in most places (with smaller ones continuing, especially in Rio de Janeiro), their long-term significance for Brazilian politics, policy, and social movements, remains very hard to read, and most analysts I know are mulling it over.  What kinds of new social actors are constructing / being constructed through/ social media?  What kinds of transnational influences are we seeing, and how are they disseminated?  To what extent does our traditional focus on demands, organizations, coalitions, opportunities, and even social mechanisms capture—or fail to capture—the fluidity and rhizomatic quality of these events?  Does their fluidity add to or detract from their resilience?

I don’t know.  I’m only here to raise questions.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

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