Street protests in Brazil take on different tone a year later

(USA Today) RIO DE JANEIRO – A year ago, Carol Bertoni, 23, watched thousands of demonstrators occupy the modernist saucer-shaped Congress in Brasília, so determined that they got onto its roof and marked its curved edges above them with their shadowy silhouettes.

Popular street demonstrations unlike anything Brazil had seen in two decades was all the country could talk about, and Bertoni said she felt like a "patriot" who would be able to change her nation for the better.

In early protests, demonstrators gave flowers to the police sent to control the event and a young female protester even grabbed and gave a friendly kiss to an officer in Rio. Demonstrators in green-and-yellow gleefully shouted nationalistic chants like, "I am Brazilian, with lots of love and pride!" Bertoni, a receptionist, was full of ideas and went to demonstrations with signs promoting political reform and impeachment of corrupt officials.

"Everything I complained about on the internet I could take to the street to make myself heard," she said at a Friday protest in Rio de Janeiro. "But they don't actually hear you. They beat you," she added in a disenchanted tone now after a year of attending what she said was "every" protest in the city. "Now the only ones who are left are the ones who are really in it," she added.

She motioned to the approximately 300 demonstrators out Friday evening to commemorate the anniversary of the largest demonstration last year. Many of those on Friday wore helmets and, as Bertoni pointed out, didn't even carry signs, since they were instead carrying cameras to film police confrontations for evidence of abuse and were ready to run at any moment.

Her change in tone underscores the dramatic shift in the character of Brazil's street protests, which during the World Cup have generally attracted only a few hundred and routinely involve arrests, tear gas, molotov cocktails, rubber bullets and, during Rio de Janeiro's opening match in Maracanã on June 15, even real bullets from police.

The movement peaked when an estimated million Brazilians came to the streets to protest in more than 350 cities on June 20 last year. The rise in bus fares in several cities served as the initial spark for protests, but by that date, local governments had already promised to reverse the fares and found themselves panicking over how to pacify the movement.

Protesters complaints by then were varied, from repudiating so-called "gay cure" legislation in Congress that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disease, a proposed constitutional amendment that would inhibit prosecutors' ability to investigate government corruption, and lavish expenditures of public funds on hosting the World Cup and 2016 Olympics when public services were far from satisfactory.

After the June 20 protests, President Dilma Rousseff – who is up for reelection this October – met with demonstrators from the bus fare movement and announced five "pacts," including increased investment in transportation, health and education and political reform proposals meant to tamp down government corruption.

Having seen the successes of the June demonstrations, more diverse protests later arose. Public school teachers on strike staged dramatic protests in several cities, and in Rio camped in front of the city hall during September, where they were dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. In January of this year, large numbers of black youth, often from favelas, staged "rolezinhos" ("little strolls") in shopping malls across the country, with the intent of provoking mall-goers to question why youth of color may make them feel uneasy.

But incidents of violence also grew during the protests. A Brazilian photographer lost his eye after being hit by a rubber bullet in São Paulo last June. In February, a local TV cameraman was killed in Rio by a firecracker launched during the demonstrations. Two young protesters were arrested for the crime and await trial. Scenes of protesters breaking bank windows and public utilities like bus stops and trash cans became routine. At least two deaths have been reported associated with inhalation of tear gas from the police.

Seeing the violence in protests "really intimidates someone who is not in the demonstration to not participate," said Renata Neder, a human rights counselor with Amnesty International. Amnesty has documented diverse cases of excesses by police in demonstrations, including what the NGO said was indiscriminate use of less-lethal weapons against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests.

Neder added that she had already been surprised by the heavy repression of demonstrations early in the World Cup, given that the use of force against protesters last year often garnered negative media attention abroad and the sporting event has brought an even larger number of journalists to Brazil.

Just minutes after it began, the first protest of the World Cup on June 12 was dispersed by crowd control police who used tear gas and stun bombs against the dozens of demonstrators who had shown up in São Paulo. A CNN producer was injured and underwent surgery after the incident.

Even as the demonstrators have chosen the World Cup as a target for protests, singing anthems like "FIFA go home!" and "While the ball rolls in the stadium, we don't have health care, transportation nor education," protesters have found allies in an unlikely place: Brazil's national team. Former World Cup star Romário, now a congressman, has become an outspoken critic of hosting the event. Striker Fred said in a recent interview with the Guardian that players during last year's Confederations Cup talked about how they wanted to join the protests. "99 percent of the players know from experience how people in this country suffer unless they are among the minority who have money," he told the paper.

Bertoni, the receptionist, said a year after protests began over the bus fare, not even public transit had improved in Rio. "We wake up early to get our terrible salaries. The cost of living is terrible in Rio," she said. "And you're going to be packed in like a sardine to get there."

She added she was "sad" to see that last year's protesters who had complained about lavish expenditures of public funds on hosting the World Cup had given up on the demonstrations. She put the blame for that on both police and on demonstrators who are increasingly agitated and go to the events expecting confrontation. "The people who yelled, 'There will be no World Cup!' are now at home watching the game," she said.


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