Sue Branford in Brazil. Post 1. Rio, 5 September 2013
Back in Brazil after a year’s absence, I can feel immediately a new political atmosphere. From outside the country, it may seem as if all the excitement of the huge wave of protests in June has died down, but when you arrive in Rio de Janeiro it’s soon apparent that change is in the air. There are small-scale protests going on all over the city.
One – a semi-permanent one – is happening outside the Câmara Municipal, the headquarters of the city government. A small group of protesters has been camping here since 9 August. They are demanding a proper enquiry into the city’s bus service, claiming that a business cartel is fixing the fares and carving up lucrative deals between the main bus operators. An enquiry of sorts is already happening, but the protesters say too much of it is taking place behind closed doors.
Not far away, protesters wearing masks are gathered outside the Legislative Assembly, the seat of the state government. They are demonstrating against planned new legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to wear a mask during a demonstration. Leading activists say that they wear masks because they want to remain anonymous and to stop the press turning them into ‘leaders’, but the government claims that such disguises enable ‘violent elements’ to infiltrate the demos.
Today’s protests are small, involving at most a few dozen or a few hundred people, far short of the million that took to the streets on 20 June. But the protesters aren’t worried by the decline in numbers. “Wait until 7 September”, one said. “It’s Independence Day in Brazil and protests will occur all over the country. We are getting better at working together. We are gaining momentum, not losing it.”
I’m not sure that the protests this coming Saturday will be very large. Many people I spoke to said they would not be going out on the streets because they are afraid of clashes with the army and the police, which will both be out in force. Even so, it’s hard not to feel that, after decades of inertia brought about by the co-option of social movements by the PT (Workers’ Party), the country is coming alive again.
This time young people are in the driving seat, young people who categorically reject institutionalised politics and speak as if they have just invented protest. For them political struggle began in 2013, much as for Philip Larkin sex began in 1963.
Time and again young activists looked at me blankly when I told them that today’s effervescence reminds me of the excitement we felt back in the mid-1970s when we first heard Lula address a huge crowd of workers in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo. Nor do they feel any affinity with the idealists who helped to set up the PT in the early 1980s, nor with the MST, Brazil’s Landless Movement. All of that is a foreign country for them.
So what are today’s activists like? As I say, they vehemently reject the old forms of political organisation. “We have no leaders”, said a young activist at the Câmara Municipal camp, who told me that his name was Amarildo. “That’s why I am wearing a mask and won’t let you take a picture of me. I don’t want to be identified as a leader. And that’s why I said my name was Amarildo. We all call ourselves Amarildo. It’s a homage to an unskilled worker who was taken off in a police car more than a month ago and has not been seen since. That’s the system we’re fighting against.”
Unlike the militants of the 1960s, they don’t have a political programme or a political strategy, just a vague commitment “to change Brazil”. And modern technology plays a big role. They are all skilled users of social media, and it is this that has allowed them to develop a new and highly effective weapon of political struggle. At the forefront of this new development is Mídia Ninja, a group I plan to say more about in a future post.