Brazil: Middle School Students take Government to Commission for Violence During Protests
Last October I was blown away by images of students between the ages of 11–18 occupying their schools in São Paulo to protest a “restructuring plan” announced unexpectedly by the state governor. The plan, pushed forth without dialogue or participation of students, would close down 94 public schools and negatively impact over 300,000 middle and high school students.
What started with one school in São Paulo quickly became a beautiful wave of grassroots organizing as students in different cities rose up and occupied more than 200 public schools across the state. As the occupations grew, students shared solidarity videos with one another on Facebook and used WhatsApp to circulate an 8-page manual called How to Occupy Your School (based on a manual created by Chilean student protesters during the Penguin Revolution years earlier).
The demand was simple: that students’ voices be taken into account and a public consultation be held with students and parents before any unilateral “restructuring” take place.
The government’s response to the students’ peaceful protests was disastrous. First it sent the Military Police armed with rifles to surround the occupied schools, resulting in threats, intimidation and violence against students. Then it gathered its supporters to outline a “war strategy” to disqualify the students (in a private conversation that leaked to journalists and was shared online).
Students fought back with their cellphones and cameras, using video to document the peaceful nature of their protests, encourage other students to fight for their schools by joining the movement and capture undeniable proof of police terror and abuse. They also schooled the mainstream media whenever necessary, like in this video that never fails to bring a smile to my face!
The students’ mobilization led to two important victories: the resignation of the Secretary of Education (the architect of the plan) and the suspension of the restructuring proposal (later reinforced by courts). After the governor promised to include the students in the discussions of other alternatives in 2016, the students agreed to end the occupations.
But no one was held to account for the violence that students, parents, and journalists suffered at the hands of the Police during the protests, so the students joined forces lawyers and a group of parents (the Comitê de Mães e Pais em Luta) to document and compile the incidents of violence into an 80-page report. Then, they partnered with Article 19 to file a petition at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). After the request for a thematic hearing was accepted, the students organized a crowdfunding campaign to fund their travel costs and, two weeks ago, they arrived in Washington DC to bring their case before the Commission.
These hearings are not exactly known for their excitement, but this one was different. The students began their initial presentation with a video that powerfully countered the governor’s idyllic discourse of well-trained police with the brutal images of students being beat and assaulted on many different occasions. Here it is (in Portuguese and Spanish only):
Then they spoke about their experiences firsthand, including a mother who shared an emotional testimony of watching her son be assaulted and arrested on live TV simply for attending a protest.
The São Paulo government, represented by São Paulo State Attorney General Elival da Silva Ramos, spoke next. He showed powerpoint slides boasting the Police’s human rights training and said the lack of dialogue with students was “subjective.” As someone sitting in the audience, it was hard to refrain from heckling, I admit.
But his words didn’t stand a chance when delivered alongside the testimonies from the students and the videos they showed.
So when the Commission spoke, something pretty special happened. In unusually direct language, the Commission confronted the state: wouldn’t it have been better to talk to the children, instead of sending weapons and heavily armed police? What actions have been taken to hold accountable those (police) responsible for this violence? You must remember that all your agents, at all times, have the duty to act in the best interests of your children.
This validation from the Commission was beautiful to witness, and students left the hearing feeling energized and heard. Back in Brazil, many students gathered together to watch the livestream of the hearing together. And later that evening, many more learned about it on the news outlets that covered it, including BBC Brasil, Le Monde Diplomatique, Opera Mundi, and others.
We had a workshop planned with the students right after the hearing to talk about how these used video during the occupations and share guidance around filming police safely for documentation and evidence. But the hearing went so well we decided to postpone that plan and refocus our workshop on creating a video together to highlight the most important moments of the hearing.
Together, we crafted a video aiming to summarize the 4 most embarrassing moments of the hearing for the São Paulo state government. Here it is:
The students will use this video in the ongoing fight against police abuse during protests and also to continue pressuring authorities for improvements in their schools. Their example has already inspired new waves of school occupations that are now beginning to take off in other Brazilian states like Rio de Janeiro, Goiás, Pará and Rio Grande do Sul. Go students!
Priscila Neri is a Senior Program Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Originally published at blog.witness.org on April 20, 2016.