28 June 2013 | By Ana Rocha
Last week, I joined thousands on the streets of São Paulo to protest against the brutality used by Brazil’s military police as they confronted students demonstrating against rising bus fares. Thousands joined us across the world in support – 2,000 marched in Dublin, 600 in Berlin, as well as many more in other cities.
Protests throughout Brazil
The initial protests, which began peacefully in São Paulo, quickly escalated, spreading to other cities across the country following a flurry of images and videos of violent police repression that were quickly shared through social media.
The demonstrations have since grown into a general expression of frustration and dissatisfaction with the country’s leaders, fuelled by the opposition parties.
On Wednesday 19 June, another 50,000 took to the streets, just in São Paulo. People have continued to join the protests in over 100 cities across the country, leading to President Dilma Rousseff calling an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the unrest.
People demand decent and affordable accommodation in São Paolo. The sign reads 'As long as housing is a privilege, occupation is a right'.
World Cup and Olympics spending
The Confederations Cup, the FIFA football tournament between national teams that started a week ago, was supposed to celebrate Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup next year.
Instead, it has turned into an opportunity for the people of Brazil to voice their anger at the amount of money being spent on both the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, instead of essential services such as health, education and transport.
Although Brazil’s GDP these days is on a par with that of the UK, recent research by CEBRAP (the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning) commissioned by Christian Aid revealed that it remains among the top 10 countries in the world for income inequality.
About 40 per cent of the population lack access to rights, quality social policies or decent levels of employment, with 21.4 per cent living below the World Bank’s national poverty line.
Demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia urged football fans to boycott next year’s games unless the government carries out urgent social reform.
Relations between FIFA and Brazil are already tense and unlikely to improve, especially with protestors demonstrating inside the stadiums.
Police reaction to protests
During most of the protests, police reacted violently. Hundreds of men, paid by the state, who have military training and are supposed to have a constitutional duty to protect citizens, attacked people indiscriminately, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful participants, and targeting journalists.
In the most recent protests, there have been numerous accounts of undercover policemen actually sparking the vandalism and violence.
Yet this isn’t a new phenomenon. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement in January calling on the Brazilian Government 'to take all necessary measures to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly; to prevent the disproportionate use of force during protests; to conduct prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into reported excessive force'.
The latest Human Rights Watch report on Brazil also has a strong focus on public security and police conduct.
But still the use of force by the police continues, a reminder of the days of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. There is now a very real fear that if they are not reined in, violence could spiral out of control.
Christian Aid’s Brazilian partner organisations CONIC, MAB, MST and Gaspar Garcia have all condemned the police response and the apparent unwillingness of the authorities to enter into any kind of dialogue with the protesters.
It seems that repression is once again becoming standard in Brazilian society, with the claims of civil society met now with violence.
Brazil has enjoyed constitutional rule for more than 25 years but, when the right to demonstrate is an alien concept to the forces of law and order, it is clear that democracy is not yet consolidated.
A bigger issue than a 20 cents bus fare increase
This protest, which started over a bus fare increase of 20 cents, is not just about the money involved - it is also about the rights generally of ordinary citizens. The right of access to health, for instance, depends on access to transportation, as well as education and decent housing.
The fare increase has since been revoked, but with warnings other areas will suffer the consequences of the extra expenditure.
As well as celebrating that small victory over public transport, the continuing protests are an attempt to transform democratic practices and guarantee further dialogue over the public sector.
When was the population asked?
As Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, asked last week: ‘When was the population of São Paulo asked to decide if the subsidies for bus companies should be enlarged or resources invested in another area?
‘When was the population asked to share decisions about the investments in the city? This is a debate that the people want to engage in.’
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Ana's blog also appeared on The Independent website.