The Jan. 8 riots

Bolsonaro’s rioting supporters appropriated Brazil’s yellow-and-green jersey as their uniform

Thousands of protesters who stormed Brazil’s democratic institutions were clad in emblems of national unity

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A wave of canarinhos.
A wave of canarinhos.
Photo: Adriano Machado/Reuters (Reuters)

Supporters of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace yesterday (Jan. 8).

Pictures from the scene brought to mind the US Jan. 6 riots of 2021, when thousands of Donald Trump supporters attacked the country’s legislative assembly. But instead of the myriad of insurrectionist symbols on display in Washington DC, rioters in Brazil’s capital Brasilia were mostly clad in the country’s Auriverde flag and the national football team’s jerseys—two emblems of national unity becoming symbols of division.

Outside the country, the iconic jersey reminds people of football legends like Pele, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo. At home, though, supporters of far-right leader Bolsonaro have co-opted the sports jersey as their uniform.

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President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (simply known as “Lula”), who has been urging all citizens to claim back the attire, is launching a widespread probe into the security lapses leading to the insurrection.

The Bolsonaro protesters’ rioting, by the digits

3: Hours the ransacking of the political buildings lasted

24: Hours the capital was shut down for following the insurrection

40: Buses used to transport protestors seizes

400: People arrested so far, according to Federal District governor Ibaneis Rocha’s tweet. Rocha, a long-time aide of Bolsonaro, was suspended for 90 days by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes shortly after for being “painfully silent” during Sunday’s violence.

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The politicization of the canarinho–Brazil’s football jersey

Until the 1950 World Cup, Brazil’s football uniform was white and blue. But it was deemed not patriotic enough. Rio-based newspaper Correio da Manhã ran a competition for new kit ideas and a 19-year-old kid’s design beat out 300-odd entries. The new canary yellow and green outfit, dubbed the canarinho, became a symbol of unity and optimism.

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But when Bolsonaro started telling people to wear “yellow” and vote, the jersey came to be seen as a symbol of political allegiances. The association between Bolsonaro’s tribe and the jersey is so strong that several fans from the football-crazed nation ditched it during the recent World Cup in Qatar. Progressive Brazilians who did want to flaunt the uniform went for alternative versions that included progressive symbols like the red star of Lula’s Workers’ party or the LGBTQ flag.

Bolsonaro’s supporters aren’t the first to use the jersey as a political muse. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, the military “used these symbols as a way of showing patriotism, and the people who were against this were seen as enemies of the state,” according to Carolina Botelho, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies. Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has seemingly taken a page out of their playbook.

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What’s behind the Bolsonaro supporters’ insurgency?

In October, incumbent Bolsonaro narrowly lost to Lula in the second round of the presidential election. The left-wing leader was sworn in on Jan. 1, returning to a role he held from 2003 to 2010. During the ceremony, he lamented the damage his far-right predecessor had done during his term.

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Bolsonaro’s office has been cooperating with the transition but the former president, who cast doubt on the integrity of the elections, did not openly concede his loss. Two days before Lula took office, Bolsonaro reportedly flew to Florida—which is where he was when the violence broke out.

Bolsonaro isn’t known as the Trump of the Tropics for no reason. Like his US counterpart, he is accused of badly botching the country’s covid-19 response, fanning a dangerous gun culture, and a disregard for climate change concerns—the destruction of the Amazon rainforest worsened under his term.

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Like Trump in 2021, Bolsonaro also issued a comment on the rioting that stopped short of condemning his supporters. Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter that while peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy, “depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escape the rule.

While Bolsonaro seeks to distance himself from the rioting, Lula holds him responsible for feeding voters baseless election fraud stories that have fueled the risk of political violence. Last week, Bolsonaro distanced himself from a foiled bomb plot but the cops believe the culprit was inspired by the former leader’s call to arms.

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Quotable: Brazil didn’t learn from the US

“Brazilian authorities had two years to learn the lessons from the Capitol invasion and to prepare themselves for something similar in Brazil. Local security forces in Brasilia failed in a systematic way to prevent and to respond to extremist actions in the city. And the new federal authorities, such as the ministers of justice and of defense, were not able to act in a decisive way.” —Maurício Santoro, political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told the Associated Press

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What happens to Bolsonaro now?

As Brazil investigates the events leading to the insurrection, Bolsonaro’s presence in the US puts a spotlight on the White House. Democratic congresspeople Joaquin Castro and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, among others, are calling for US president Joe Biden to remove Bolsonaro from his self-imposed exile in suburban Orlando.

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If the US does revoke his visa and allow for extradition, Bolsonaro, without his presidential immunity, will be the subject of several probes.

The Biden administration predictably condemned the Jan. 8 insurrection. In tweets, both White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the attack for undermining Brazil’s democracy. Biden, who is touring the US-Mexico border, called it an “assault on democracy,” labeling the situation “outrageous.” So far, it’s unclear whether the US will take any further action.

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Person of interest: Anderson Torres

Brasilia’s recently-fired former head of public security, Anderson Torres, is one of the public officials that faces an arrest warrant over “acts and omissions” leading to the insurrection. Torres, Bolsonaro’s former minister of justice, is also reportedly in the US, as the Associated Press reported, citing local media.