In Brazil, unrest is simmering again.
By Dom Phillips - January 12
RIO DE JANEIRO — At 9 p.m. Friday night, on a dark, cobbled street in the city center, the violence that had been threatening to break out finally spluttered. Amid chants of “fascist!” two riot police in full armor were cornered in an alleyway. Something was thrown, glass shattered. The boom and hiss of a tear gas grenade sent the crowd running. Then it fizzled out.
The protest was over a bus fare increase. In its last hours, tension had flared — and damped — again and again. As many as 2,000 demonstrators had passed by Rio’s Central Station, where in February 2014 a cameraman, Santiago Andrade, was killed by a flare fired by a protester. Inside the station concourse, a troupe of clowns in black and white face paint and anarchist insignia beat out frenzied rhythms on tin cans while masked youth leapt up and down, taunting a line of riot police with the chant of “Look at me, here again!”
In São Paulo the same night, more violence flared toward the end of a bigger march of between 5,000 and 10,000 people; 51 were arrested. Banks and shop windows were broken, tear gas and rubber bullets fired. Local media reported bystanders taking shelter in bars and shops. Demonstrators’ videos showed passers-by injured in the crossfire.
These were echoes of a recent past, of the demonstrations that sent hundreds of thousands Brazilians onto city streets in June 2013. With the economy struggling and Rio’s 2016 Olympics looming, unrest is beginning to spit and fizzle again. There have also been small, localized protests in Salvador, Belo Horizonte — even smaller towns like Osasco.
The bus and train fare rises that sparked the 2013 protests, and were then cancelled, were introduced again on Jan. 3. The increases are even higher: 16.6 percent in São Paulo, 13.3 percent in Rio. As then, Friday’s marches were organized by the Free Pass Movement – a non-party organization that plans more “acts” next Friday.
“You can’t move around without the bus,” said Erika Zordan, 22, marching in Rio. “It should be free.”
On Jan. 5, Col. Fábio de Souza, the police officer who in June 2013 was in charge of the Rio police riot squad — the “Shock Battalion” — was suspended for propagating Nazi ideology and violence against protesters in cellphone texts to fellow officers.
At the peak of those demonstrations, on June 20 2013, half a million people flooded central Rio. When scuffles broke out at the front of the march, Colonel Souza’s officers indiscriminately fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, causing fear and panic, and clearing streets in just a couple of hours. Nothing of that size has been seen since. Smaller, increasingly violent protests continued until last year’s World Cup, following a repetitive script that is now being repeated: the same chants, locations, and conflicts.
Right-wing news weekly Veja revealed Souza had swapped thousands of messages on the cellphone text-chat service Whatsapp with fellow officers “revealing clear admiration for Nazi philosophy.” In one text he celebrated firing a tear gas canister into the back of a protester from the “Black Bloc” anarchist group, at just 30 yards.
“What pride!” he texted.
“I was horrified,” said Rio’s state security secretary, José Beltrame.
A new target
Last December, demonstrators selected a new target: golf, due to return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. Since Dec. 6 a dozen or so have formed the core of Occupy Golf — a makeshift camp on a highway median beside the site where the Olympic golf course is being constructed.
On Jan. 6, Municipal Guards — an unarmed city police force — came to dismantle a homemade shelter the demonstrators had built. A tug-of-war developed as protesters clung onto it. During the scuffles, a student, Elson Soares Jr., 30, was handcuffed and forced into a police car where he was repeatedly hit in the face with a baton by a female guard, who broke his tooth. At one point, a rubber bullet was fired.
Soares said by phone that the female guard continued hitting him in the genital area and his legs as he was driven to a police station. “I thought it was a heavy torture,” he said .
The protesters filmed the attack and put the footage on their facebook page. The guards ransacked their camp.
“We only managed to save two guitars, a cool box and a generator,” said Bernardo Nadal, 19. He was one of 12 protesters lounging under a tree on rugs and sheets of cardboard at the camp the following afternoon. Passing cars beeped support occasionally. Others delivered supplies.
The golf course is built in what both protesters and Rio state prosecutors argue is an environmentally protected area in the upmarket Rio beach suburb of Barra de Tijuca. Dubbed Rio’s Miami Beach, it is a real estate hotspot of condominiums and shopping malls where the main Olympic Park and the Olympic Village are also located.
The demonstrators said the golf course is damaging wildlife and was unnecessary because Rio already has two golf courses. The camp is in front of a showroom for the Riserva Golf luxury apartment complex being built in front of the course.
Rio state prosecutors are engaged in an ongoing legal battle with the golf course developers and the city of Rio over environmental concerns.
“We are in favor of the games,” said prosecutor Marcus Leal. “But it cannot impact on the environment of our city.”
A spokeswoman for the city of Rio said in an e-mail that more than 14 acres appropriated from a municipal ecological park to build the course will be compensated by a new park that has been created alongside, that municipal laws allow human use of the environmental protection area and that much of area was degraded and is now being restored. Biologist Marcello Mello said the golf course threatened endangered species that lived on the reserve — including a white sand lizard, a species of cactus and a beach butterfly — and that the grass being planted for the course is causing more damage.
“We think the impact of the golf course is positive, even in the environmental aspect,” said Mario Andrada, communications director for Rio 2016, at a briefing last week.
As the golf course and bus fare controversies demonstrate, Brazilian protesters are not short of targets. Their protests are limited in numbers and the violence involved may dissuade ordinary Brazilians from joining in. But they are a sign of the discontent that exists in Brazil — likely to increase now that newly reelected President Dilma Rousseff has started introducing budget cuts that economists say are needed but ordinary Brazilians are unlikely to welcome. More cities plan bus fare hikes.
“This is just the beginning of what will come this year,” said Bernardo Nadal, after Friday’s march in Rio. He and his comrades headed off to the Shock Battalion headquarters to protest the arrest of a demonstrator. It may not be the last time they will do so.