Brazil’s protests reveal the tension of a people moving ahead of their country

Protecting police above citizens.
Protecting police above citizens.
Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
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Anyone who still thinks the revolution will not be televised isn’t paying attention to Brazil.

The recent and ongoing mass protests in Brazil over political corruption, poor public services, and police brutality are all online, all the time. The protestors are hyperwired, constantly shooting, posting, tweeting, TwitCasting, and connecting (in Portuguese). Every video of a protest is a film of many films (in Portuguese), dotted with the thousand points of light of protestors’ cellphones, set to record.

In Brazil, as in many sites of Arab spring uprisings, technology served a critical organizing purpose. Yet there is more to the story in Brazil, which already had the largest number of Facebook and YouTube users outside the US (as per the WSJ), with 85,962 Facebook posts monthly. The protests themselves have prompted Brazilians to go online. From the first days of the marches in June, the issue exploded onto social media. According to the digital agency Today, on June 16th alone, 548,944 posts, including comments, photos, and videos, reached the principal social network sites.

The marches swelled in part due to terrible police overreaction to peaceful demonstrations. Police brutality has been highlighted in one of the protests’ central slogans, “Where is Amarildo?” The chant demands that government produce the bricklayer Amarildo de Souza, who disappeared from a Rio de Janeiro favela after a wrongful arrest. Adding injury to injury, a local police commissioner later directed the preventative detention of de Souza’s wife (or widow, as the case certainly may be).  Even the police commissioner now in charge has pointed out that the excuse given for the arrests was cooked: “It is odd to see how much effort was spent to link the couple to criminal activity,” he commented, when “in no previous report do the pair even appear as suspects.” The protests have lent the tragedy national visibility as an irrefutable example of the government’s willingness not only to torture and kill, but to intimidate and criminalize victims and their families.

Police and other forms of state violence are stunning in Brazil. Brazilian military police, among the world’s most violent, enjoy the protection of a bizarre juridical precept created during the military regime. The “auto-de-resistência,” or “act of resistance,” preserves police who kill in the line of action, free from criminal charges or investigation. This provision, and Brazilian society’s tolerance for repressive violence, have allowed over one million people to be assassinated in Brazil over the last 30 years. In Rio de Janeiro state alone, the year the sociologist Michel Misse studied the question, 1,400 people were killed while allegedly resisting the police. (Misse’s complete report in pdf, along with other research-related documents, can be found on the website of the Núcleo de Estudos da Cidadania, Conflito e Violência Urbana, the Citizenship, Conflict and Urban Violence Project of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Indeed, a number of petition campaigns in Brazil, Amnesty International, the UN, and even the US Department of State have proposed the end of the “auto-de-resistência” law and the demilitarization of Brazilian police.

Sadly, these fateful numbers have accrued in the period in which Brazil has moved towards political democracy, after the end of the military dictatorship that governed Brazil into the mid-1980s. The contradictions are excruciating. It has been during democratization that the number of homicides per year has grown 127%. Under formal democracy, for the poor, the state of exception is the rule. Favelas and peripheral neighborhoods suffer curfews, extrajudicial executions, home invasions, and bans on cultural activities such as funk music parties. Homes there are invaded without warrants or with “collective” warrants, and the state kidnaps and kills with impunity.

Certainly in some ways Brazil, in all its tension and tragedy, is no more than this season’s most visible microcosm of the stratifications afflicting the planet—one nation’s 99%. And the high-tech engagements of the protestors may also be no more than that of their counterparts in Tahrir Square or on Wall Street. But Brazil’s contradictions throw this iteration of global protest into high relief, because the police brutality and state violence trouble Brazil’s international image of cordial civility and racial harmony.

The explosion of decentralized social media in Brazil also runs counter to the nation’s reputation as a source of communications mega-conglomerates—think Globo, of course, or Record (of the Universal Church). From some perspectives the Brazilian public sphere, dominated by these massive networks, is fracturing and losing credibility as social media succeed in making angry noise around police violence, political corruption, and the failures of public services. Perhaps this viral, virtual mobilization—including thousands of young people using lan houses in favelas—will succeed in shifting the social landscape. Perhaps it can challenge the juxtapositions of high technology and social inequity, of state terror amidst democratization. If so, it would be about time, as these are pieces of a long-lived national paradox. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously observed of São Paulo’s modernization amidst unimpeded poverty and exclusion, “everything looks like it’s under construction and already in ruins.” The protests have done a striking job of juxtaposing the construction of World Cup stadia with decimated public schools and hospitals. The nation and the world would do well to heed their signs. What Brazil needs now is not sports complexes, but careful attention to its ruins.