Brazil’s June Days and their Aftermath: Tectonic Shifts in Brazilian Politics?

By John Burdick

It has by now become commonplace to interpret the June Days of Brazil (the surprisingly massive mobilizations that occurred in over a hundred cities between June 6 and July 1, 2013 to protest government failure and fraud, and to call upon the state to fix Brazil’s broken public services), as an expression of deep-seated dissatisfaction on the part of the new middle class, fruit of the PT’s policies over the past decade,  now paying up to a quarter of their income in taxes, with the sorry state of their nation’s public services. It has also been common to point to the horrifically wasteful sums of public monies being spent on the mega-sporting events of the World Cup and Olympics as triggers for these mobilizations. While I think these interpretations are basically correct, I want to focus in what follows less on what prompted the mobilizations, and more on what they may mean for the future. I have just returned from two weeks in Rio de Janeiro, where I conducted sixteen interviews with people who had participated in the June Days, some of whom are still mobilized and on the streets, some of whom are not. I also participated in a march against police misconduct, government fraud, and for better public services, that mobilized over two thousand people on the evening of August 8th, and ended in the occupation of the Municipal Assembly building in downtown Rio, an occupation which is still ongoing. My remarks are based on these interviews and this participant observation, as well as familiarity with various media outlets’ reporting on these events and processes. This is therefore not an exercise in systematic social science; it is, rather, an exploratory essay that seeks to raise questions for further investigation.

A first general observation I’d like to make is that, while there can be no doubt that a major segment of the large June mobilizations (as well as the smaller ones in July and August) was made up of the “middle class” — including the new middle class (people who rose out of poverty under PT governments), students, intellectuals, and professionals – it would be a mistake to see the protests as exclusively or even primarily a middle-class phenomenon.  In fact, it is pretty clear they were quite diverse from a class standpoint, with residents of shantytowns (favelas), the poor, and workers participating in large numbers alongside the middle classes. Through the month of June there were news reports of “people coming down from the favelas”, but such reports do not, I think, do justice to the extent of the cross-class composition of the marches. All sixteen people I interviewed testified to seeing workers and middle class folks marching and chanting side by side. “It was not just one class,” said Wanderléia, a seamstress who lives in a favela, “It was not just the middle class, or university students. It was mixed. It was workers, mothers, housewives, bus drivers, bus fare-takers, mothers whose kids study in private schools, and people like me, whose kids go to public school.” Rosângela, a middle class woman who runs her own small Internet business, said: “It was a real mix of classes – all the people was there.  People of the middle and upper class were in the movement.”

Now this class diversity was and is, I think, pregnant with political possibility. To grasp this potential it is worth remembering that Brazil is still an intensely class-conscious society, in which street marches tend to be limited to one class at a time. The marches for the impeachment of President Collor in 1992, for example, were peopled almost entirely by middle class university students; meanwhile, over the past thirty years, demonstrations by landless workers, labor unions, and favela neighborhood associations, have been quite class-specific and concentrated on class-specific issues. Given this context, I want to suggest that it is potentially quite significant that many of my middle-class interviewees commented on how the experience of marching side by side with the poor, and facing the police together, raised their awareness of the police abuse the poor face on an everyday basis. One older middle class woman – a housewife in a nice neighborhood, married to a civil servant – said she was “shocked by what I saw. I had never marched before, and I saw police hit unarmed protestors who just wanted their rights.” A young university student from a middle-class family told me, “I had heard about, and even seen on TV, the invasions [of favelas], how police don’t distinguish between bandidos and residents. But I never really understood this until I saw them [the police] stopping, and swearing, and hitting people just because they were marching.” Carlos, a professor at a public school, and president of the school’s parent-teacher association, tried to sum the matter up: “The experience of many of the middle class people I know, on the street, was a revelation. They had never seen up close the repression of the police. That shocked them. The poor see this every day, but the middle class is pretty much insulated from this. So all of a sudden they were seeing what the poor go through every day.”

The importance of such experiences for Brazilian politics is of course hard to fully evaluate as of yet. Still, there are glimmers of a shift. For many decades, and increasingly in the past several years, Rio’s military police have been notorious for meting out wild justice, arresting and disappearing many (often young and black) men and women. This is a justice that has been widely tolerated, even embraced by the middle class. Yet after the June days, something seems to have shifted – even if only in a minor way. One example is particularly revealing. Amarildo Dias de Souza, a bricklayers’ assistant, disappeared inexplicably on July 14, after having been detained by military police in the favela of Rocinha.  A year ago, it is probable that Amarildo’s case would have been lost to the same oblivion as the myriad other similar cases over the decades. Yet in the space of a few short days, Amarildo’s case was taken up not only by favela-based organizations, but by thousands of middle class people communicating by Facebook, by students, and by artists and celebrities not normally involved in such matters. “In the days before the June days,” declared Carlos, “this kind of disappearance happened all the time, without a peep from middle class people. What would they care? But I tell you, it has been astonishing to see the involvement of middle class people alongside the poor in calling for an inquiry into this, in wearing ‘Cadê Amarildo?’ [“Where is Amarildo?”] T-shirts, and showing their anger against the police.” In response, the state governor of Rio quickly pledged a full investigation.

A second general observation is that the mobilizations may have prompted participants to start using the Internet to develop new kinds of consciousness, one based on comparative knowledge. The Internet allowed members of the middle class, for example, to compare their situation quickly, visually, and densely with middle class people in other cities and countries, thereby fueling and informing their involvement in the struggle. Several middle class interviewees pointed out that the Internet was crucial in getting them to understand both that the broken schools and hospitals of Rio were a nationwide problem, and that they did not have to be this way. “On the Internet you can learn an enormous amount very quickly, it is perfect for learning as you get involved in struggles,” said Carlos. “Logging on you can see schools and hospitals in other countries, and you see how much is being spent on such and such a stadium here, and you immediately can see and know how absurd this all is.” What was true for middle-class Internet users was also true for the working class.[1]  Many of my working-class interviewees reported having visited web-pages that compared minimum salaries across different countries, and that compared the bite taken out of those salaries by expenditures on public transportation: they thus quickly learned that they spent a larger proportion of their income on public transport than poor people in most other countries in the world.[2] As Wanderléia said, “You did not have to guess, or think this might be so – there were the facts, right there. When more people see this and know this, I tell you, it makes you angry.”

Interestingly, the Internet may have had a special importance for working class women who wanted to contribute to the protests. Single mothers who worked at home could find in the Internet not only virtual access to the streets, but opportunities to develop writing skills, analytical capacities, and broader knowledge. Mariana’s story echoes the tales of several of the women I interviewed. A single mother in her thirties, she lived in a very modest house in a favela, and worked as a seamstress at home. “I wanted to support the movement,” she explained, “but I have three children, I worried about bringing them into the streets, and in any case I needed to keep working.” For her, the Internet was a life-line to the struggle. “I was angry about how horrible the public school is for my kids”, she said. “So I started participating on a Facebook page, to raise the consciousness of others, saying that these marches were good, that they were our right, to demand better schools for our children.” She began to read the news voraciously, passing along the best stories, and making acerbic commentaries. “On my Facebook page I tried to make people aware of what reality was.” Immersed in Internet news and analysis, Mariana was exposed to other contributors who pushed her to think beyond the issues of schools. “On the Internet I met all sorts of people who thought a lot and got me thinking. I entered because I wanted better schools for my kids, but I think we cannot stop just with the rights to school, my rights and those of my kids; it is the right of the country as a whole. I met people who were involved in the environment. So I started looking at the website of Greenpeace. It is like going to a university!” Reading the cases published on Greenpeace’s website, Mariana started “thinking about the rights of people in general, of humanity.”

A final broad observation is that the mass mobilizations of June, and their aftermath, may be helping to define new ways for Brazilians to think of themselves as “citizens”. I heard more talk about “cidadania” than I have in the nearly thirty years I have been visiting Brazil: the word seemed to come more naturally and sincerely to people’s lips — both working-class and middle-class lips – than ever before. I have already noted earlier the common view that it was partly the new middle class’s growing encounter with a sizeable tax burden that led them to rise up against the shoddy state of public services. While basically correct, this view fails fully to appreciate how the experience of taxes is connected to a deeper sentiment of citizenship. Several of my middle class interviewees made the connection clearly. Rosângela, the small businesswoman I quoted earlier, put the connection eloquently: “If I am paying so much of my income in taxes, it is because I am contributing to the public good. I am being a good citizen, I am doing my part, right? That is a sacrifice!” This sense of finally having the wherewithal to help forge the nation, to contribute one’s part, through the division of growing wealth, is, I believe, a new force on the Brazilian political scene. But, crucially, it is not limited to the new middle class. Indeed, 2013 was the first time I heard poor and working class people talk so vigorously about the taxes they paid. Even for people who have not exited the working class under the PT governments, there has been a tangible improvement in the standard of living and minimum wage. In the urban periphery, an area I have been visiting regularly for the past thirty years, I have witnessed the rapid improvement of working-class houses since the early 2000s. Workers are buying property and cars, and many are starting small businesses. Many workers too, then, have begun in the past decade to experience a significant increase in income and property taxes. There can be no doubt that this has helped forge a sense of rights to demand better services from government. “I pay the simple tax,” explained Wanderléia, “for micro-entrepreneurs, paid to CEBRAE. I pay a monthly rate. Every month I pay. I also pay a tax on my house. And then of course on consumption. So I pay lots of taxes. And if I am paying taxes, then I have rights to demand and expect the best from this government. Those are my rights as a citizen. Because health and education are primordial, they are not charity, I am paying those taxes! I am a citizen! Like public transport – this is something that is ours – why can’t we have good transport, since we are paying so much?”

But there is another experiential layer of the idea of citizenship, I believe, that has developed through these protests, a layer that lies even deeper than the sense of rights born of a growing material capacity to contribute to the commonwealth. What I am referring to is a widespread visceral feeling that is hard to name, but that I became aware of little by little over the two weeks I spent talking with people. The best way to convey it is as a readiness, willingness, even eagerness, to return – when and if the call comes – to the streets. I asked everyone I met whether the fact that the demonstrations had declined in size meant that the movement had ended. Everyone, of all class positions, denied this in vigorous, unequivocal terms, and declared, as did Rosângela, “No, it is not over! It is just beginning. A giant has awakened. Many of my friends, and I, are waiting to see what the government will do next. We are ready, as necessary, to return to the streets.” We are in the presence here, I suggest, of an new emotional layer of what it means to Brazilians to be a “cidadão”.  For what I heard from all my interviewees, working and middle class alike,  was that this readiness to return to the streets was based, not simply on feelings of resentment and grievance, but on a sense of pride in having “stood up”, and having won from the state very concrete – though still insufficient – gains. “It is a matter of pride,” said Carlos. “As a Brazilian, I can now say that I have stood up and not just been a subject.” This is, I submit, one of the deepest feelings of citizenship. “It is now a matter of honor,” said Carlos. “We are citizens now, we have power, and we will be heard.” Or as Rosângela put it, “This cannot be lost. We have stood up, we have pushed the government into backing down. We have tasted victory. I tell you, we are giving them some time, but that taste will now never leave us. I now know what it means to be a citizen.” The ruling elites of Brazil, I suggest, ignore this new sense of citizenship at their peril.


[1] The Internet in Brazil has expanded dramatically in the past decade, such that large segments of the working class now have access to it. See for example Terossi, et al 2013. “Qual comunicação? Uma reflexão sobre cidadania e novas”

2 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

2 responses to “Brazil’s June Days and their Aftermath: Tectonic Shifts in Brazilian Politics?

  1. Pingback: RIO: GUERRA CONTRA O TRÁFICO | mundão de DEUS

  2. crisp ethnographic account of the Brazilian protests. My impression is São Paulo during June was a bit different in terms of class. Overall, great article. I also think we need more discussion on the manipulation of the protests by Globo and by right-wing political parties and special interest groups. It must be said that one of the initial groups, Passe Livre, withdrew their formal involvement in the protests once their demands regarding public transportation price hikes were met. The spokesperson (his name escapes me) was very articulate in an interview aired on Globo explaining that the group had noticed certain manipulation by groups that were anti-PT and looking to take advantage of the moment. Kudos to them and to John Burdick for shedding more light on the scene.

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