Even at Brazil’s football match against Mexico they were there, holding up placards saying “this protest is not against the team, it is against corruption. The giant has woken” – a reference to the line in the national anthem, which talks of Brazil as “the sleeping giant, lying in its splendid cradle ”.
The national anthem itself has become a protest song – shouted by demonstrators as they face the police, chanted emotionally by crowds of thousands as they march, and at the game, where FIFA rules dictate a shortened version, defiantly sung, or rather roared, to its full length by the capacity crowd.
For once football and protest have become inextricably linked. When Pele and Ronaldo, the stars of yesterday, were roped in to tell everyone to calm down and let the Confederations Cup take place in peace, two of today’s stars, Neymar and Hulk, instead tweeted their support for the movement.
For a movement which seemed to have erupted overnight,, taking everyone by surprise, it has already been astonishingly successful, forcing dozens of cities to reduce their fares, including Rio and Sao Paulo. But having acquired a taste for the streets, the protesters are not about to pack up and go home. They want more, much more. The floodgates of pent up protest have been opened, and demands are pouring out. Better health and education services instead of expensive, overpriced World Cup stadiums. An end to corruption, a clean up of politics – “no party represents me” was written on placards held by many.
“ No to PEC 37” , another sign, was a reference to a constitutional amendment being considered by congress which would strip public prosecutors of their powers to investigate crimes , including political crimes, leaving only the police, notably more corrupt.
“We want to change the country” said many signs. For the moment they have – major cities have been brought to a standstill, day after day, as rivers, in some cases seas, of people have cascaded down avenues, poured over road bridges and flooded into squares and public places, joyfully singing, shouting, chanting. They surged up the ramp and on to the roof of the congress in Brasilia, they surrounded the legislative assembly in Rio, they stormed the governor’s palace and the Mayor’s town Hall in São Paulo. There was a whiff of the French Revolution –unconsciously aided by the descendent of Brazil’s Royal Family, who criticised the protestors. He might as well have said “no paozinho? Then let them eat rocambole”.
The violence of small groups of vandals and looters has marred the protests and led the foreign press to talk about riots. But the vast majority of the demonstrators are peaceful and determined to keep it that way. The early violence of the police, shooting and gassing demonstrators, press photographers and bystanders indiscriminately, which provoked outrage and swelled the ranks of the protestors, has given way in many places, but not all, to a less aggressive, unarmed police presence. Some even sat down to talk to the protestors.
Who are the demonstrators? At the beginning they were almost all young students, not necessarily users of public transport themselves. But now there are people of all ages and backgrounds, people who remember marching for direct elections in 1984 and for the impeachment of President Collor in 1992. But for most of them, it is their first ever mass demonstration. Many, maybe most, voted for the PT, for Lula in 2002 and 2006, for Dilma in 2010. They expected Brazil by now to be a better, fairer place. They expected a leftwing government to have improved the public services, raised teachers’ pay, and cut out the corruption which thrives at every level of government and among private companies and contractors.
They like the idea of hosting the World Cup and the Olympic Games, but not at the cost of the forced removal of thousands of families, the inflated cost of the overpriced tickets, the spending of millions of dollars on brand new stadiums, many of which will be white elephants afterwards. They want politicians with principles, defending the public interest, not lining their own pockets and voting themselves more perks, rolling back progressive laws, blackmailing the government to pass retrograde laws that destroy the environment and ignore the rights of indigenous peoples.
They have a president who is said to listen to no one, ignores the social movements, rules over an inflated ministry of mediocrities, and has climbed into bed with all the PT`s old enemies, the right-wing parties, the parties of Paulo Maluf, wanted by Interpol for stealing huge sums of public money when Mayor of Sao Paulo, of Senator Katia Abreu, leader of the landowners` lobby, accused of environmental crimes in her home state of Tocantins, of José Sarney, owner of most of Maranhão, the state with the worst social indicators in Brazil.
They see a government which, instead of improving public transport and therefore mobility in the cities, has given huge tax incentives to the car industry and subsidised petrol prices to hold down inflation, so that the cities are now choked with cars - 7 million in SP alone. They see local governments which instead of creating more parks and public spaces, have torn up building codes and allowed tower blocks to mushroom everywhere and anywhere.
The analysts and commentators are now asking where now? The protestors reject the political parties, but how will they achieve reforms unless through the political process? Elections, both presidential, congressional and for state assemblies and governors are due next year. Will the momentum of the protests last until then? Will, as they say in Brazil and so often happens, it all end in pizza? Or will the movement, which took everyone by surprise, also surprise by lasting and influencing the elections?