Everything is so strange, and there’s a reason why
One take on the recent demonstrations in Brazil, by Marília Moschkovic.
Let me begin by explaining that I wasn’t going to post this text on the Internet. Out of fear. It might appear silly, but my instincts were telling me that a print edition would be better. Print would improve the odds of people reading all of it and decrease the odds that they would copy isolated fragments and thus destroy the entire line of reasoning.
As a form of communication, text demands a linearity which is difficult. It is difficult to transform the facts, the things the I saw and lived in the past days, into a text. I’m speaking here about the streets of São Paulo and about the difference between what I see happening and what is being propagated in the media and even in some blogs.
Maybe I can see that dimension of the issue because I really know a lot of people, from many different circles; maybe because I’ve always been involved in political activism, ever since adolescence; maybe because I was able to go out to the streets; maybe because I was connected most of the time. I don’t know. But I would like to share with you.
When you get to the end, I hope you’ll tell me I’m crazy. I honestly hope I am, because my impression is that everything is much more serious than it appears.
I tried to write this text more or less in chronological order. If it wasn’t a good strategy, please let me know and I’ll figure out a better way to tell the story. I ask for patience. The text is long.
1. Context is good and helps clarify the agenda
Today is June 18, 2013. A week ago, on the 10th, around 5,000 people were violently repressed by São Paulo’s Military Police on the Avenida Paulista, symbol of the city of São Paulo. As the horrors committed by the MP were relayed over the internet, many mobilized to participate in the second demonstration, which would take place on the 13th. The demand on our agenda was that the increase in bus fares be cancelled, since the fares are already expensive and deprive many citizens of their right to get around in their own city.
So, on the 13th, the first strange thing happened, which set off a little yellow warning light (with an orange tinge so that it was almost red) in my mind: the editorials in two newspapers, the Folha de São Paulo and the Estadão, approved of what the MP had done on June 10 and, moreover, encouraged the MP to act violently “in the name of transit” (by the way, can somebody make a sensationalist documentary with that title for me, please?). Remember this information.
By the end of the day, the MP had violently put down around 20,000 people. I watched everything on TV, from another city. In the first hour after the protesters had assembled, 70 people were arrested for intent to protest. The MP identified that intent using the now famous standard of “possession of vinegar” (since vinegar atenuates the effects of tear gas). Many will end up injured on this day and, as the horrors are reported again — though this time also by the largest forms of media, including the newspapers running that morning’s editorials, whose teams of reporters were gravely injured — many mobilized for the next demonstration.
2. Nonsense overflowing
On the very evening of the 13th, the second “strange thing” happened. It was later, as the violence on the Avenida Paulista was ending that we knew that the next demonstration would be on Monday, June 17. I was included in a Facebook event with exactly the same name as the Free Fare Movement events: the same images, flags, etc. Except that the event was scheduled for the following day, Friday. I clicked on “OK” and joined the event, and I started to notice some very (I mean very) strange posts. Banners that didn’t belong to the FFM (which I have known since my adolescence) and very right wing opinions, among other things. What I saw there was not an undertaking of the city and the country that I defend or that the FFM defends.
I looked closer; there were three people who had created the event. I poked around what little there was that was public in each of their profiles. I didn’t find a single post about a single political cause — just posts about other issues. At the bottom of one of their profiles, however, I found a post with a group of people who had participated in some of these anti-corruption marches. Something with the word “youth,” I don’t remember exactly. It was clear that this had nothing to do with the FFM and that, even worse, these people were trying to pass themselves off as the FFM.
One of them poked me and I noticed that the group description laid out the trajectory of the march (which the FFM has, so far, been wise enough not to do). In addition to that, in the description there were proposals such as “go to the Rede Globo building” and “sing the national anthem,” “everybody dressed in white.” The red alert went up again in my head. The national anthem is for nationalists, for fascists. Dressing in white is something you find in movements which are in general mostly or totally depoliticized. It only takes a minimum of historical perspective to figure out. So yeah.
I helped to spread the word about the dishonesty of whoever was organizing this and my alert reached one of the individuals who, it appears, was involved in this organization (or knew who was). This person, whom I share a mutual acquaintance with, used totally depoliticized language. They spoke of “peace,” “corruption” and other empty terms that represented no concrete demand whatsoever, much less any project for society or for the city of São Paulo. But with a little historical perspective, we understand where words and demands of such an empty and arbitrary nature lead. After this brief mobilization on the internet with several other individuals, they wound up changing the name and picture of the event, to the 13th, in the middle of the night. On the subsequent day, they changed it again to Monday, June 17, “to join forces,” they said.
3. And the referee blows the whistle! Play ball!
What followed was an extremely violent weekend in various segments of the country. It was the beginning of the FIFA Confederations Cup and many went to protest for their rights to protest. What happened in São Paulo demonstrated that this right was in jeopardy. Furthermore, with the “law of the cup,” provisional legislation which lasts during the FIFA events, in some public areas it was prohibited to engage in any kind of political demonstration whatsoever. In other words, one more threat to that right so fundamental in a (supposed) democracy.
The protests over the weekend weren’t so big, and yet what happened in at least three cities was significant: Belo Horizonte, Brasília and Rio de Janeiro. In the Federal District and Rio de Janeiro, the Military Police followed the formula from São Paulo and were extremely violent. What happened with the police in Belo Horizonte, however, was a model of citizen involvement, which we shared and supported in social networks here around the southeast.
I don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was in an interval between some of these events that I noticed a third “strange thing.” A bit after the massacre in the area around the Avenida Paulista, and a bit after the weekend of horrors, yet another sign: we found out that a distant acquaintance of ours, after the 13th, took a bus to Rio de Janeiro. She told us that the MP stopped the bus in the street, just before leaving the state of São Paulo. The passengers were ordered to get off the bus and the police entered the vehicle. When the passengers boarded again, all of their stuff — purses, suitcases, backpacks — had been rifled through. The policewoman asked our friend if she had participated in any of the protests. The officer asked to see her cell phone and checked to see if there were videos, photos, etc.
Not coincidentally, in the same “atmosphere,” I will relate the fourth “strange thing” to you: we found out that, after the demonstration in Belo Horizonte, a boy identified as one of the political leaders of the area was arrested, in his home. It seems that our “exemplary” police force wasn’t so exemplary after all, but this was an event nobody was talking about. Similar things happened in Brasília, even before the protests started.
4. Did they hijack our movement?
So Monday came. June 17, 2013. Yesterday. Lots of people were getting ready to protest, safety guides were being shared on the web, people were arranging meeting places, etc. A genuine mobilization for lots of people to take part in. We were optimistic.
Curiously, the same conservative media that encouraged the MP’s violence on the previous Wednesday morning (the 13th), were now saying in their publications that people should in fact take to the streets. Just under different banners. It wouldn’t be a problem if people hadn’t actually taken to the streets with the very banners being pushed by these political groups (represented by their media outlets). The mood, on Monday, was different than before. It was as if the protest weren’t even political, as if it weren’t happening on the same planet that I live on. My optimism began to wane.
The movement was being hijacked by the same people who were, a few days earlier, condemning the protesters for having stopped transit and who are part of the social groups that always criminalize social movements (represented by a segment of the political class which is statistically more corrupt — no, no, not from the W[orkers’] P[arty] — and by the media that benefits from a policy of concessions held over from the dictatorship). Suddenly, there was talk of impeaching the president. People were wearing the Brazilian flag and painting themselves green and yellow as ordered by the powerful figures of mass media, extremely populist and conservative newspaper columnists.
The reactions of activists to this phenomenon were varied. There were those who thought it was nice, on balance — at least the people were in the streets. There were those who were suspicious. There were those who fiercely rejected it. There were those who, of all possible emotions, felt totally confused. Any popular uprising for which the agenda isn’t well defined creates a situation of political instability that can turn into anything. We saw that at the beginning of the Estado Novo [regime of Getúlio Vargas’s] and in the coup in 1964, both of which were extremely fascist. That doesn’t mean that this time it will be the same, but history was telling me to stay alert.
5. Oh no, they hijacked the demonstration!
The march on Monday the 17th was to start at the Largo da Batata, near one end of the Avenida Faria Lima. It was unclear what we would do after assembling — no decision had been made yet. To those who don’t understand, not clearly defining a trajectory is very justifiable on the basis of two observations: (i) it’s easy to arrange a repressive ambush when the trajectory is disseminated, and (ii) more importantly, the people demonstrating on the street should be the ones who decide what to do when the time comes. (And here, if you’re smart, you’ll see exactly where I contradict myself — which I don’t deny, it confuses me too.)
The demonstration seemed like the celebration after the World Cup finals. Ironic, right? We began to theorize (without much theory) that maybe this was the only reference for mass demonstrations that the people had: soccer. What people shouted, what they chanted — it was the same as what they shouted and chanted at soccer games. Lots of the T-shirts people were wearing were also soccer T-shirts. There were even some idiots setting off fireworks — not very smart since it could create panic, especially considering that, just a few days before, many of the protesters had been bombarded with tear gas. People were playing with fire. (remember this information about fire, too)
Now let’s pause: you remember the second strange fact? The fake event on Facebook? Well, the trajectory of that fake event included the Avenida Berrini, the suspension bridge, and the Palácio dos Bandeirantes, seat of the São Paulo state government. Take note of this.
When the march reached the intersection of Faria Lima and Juscelino, we were pretty much pushed to the right. At the time, we found it very strange. In our heads, the only thing that made sense was to go to the Avenida Paulista, which we had been forbidden to go into a few days earlier. It was a question of honor, of symbols, of everything. We decided to stop to see if there were people going in the opposite direction, up the Avenida Brigadeiro to the Avenida Paulista. Some of my friends said they were at the mouth of the tunnel. I warned them not to go through the tunnel because it had been blocked off. Then they said they were following the march over the bridge, crossing the Marginal Pinheiros highway.
We waited a bit to see, already preparing to go home feeling defeated, if there were people going up the other side, people going to the left. That was where we wanted to be. We found a group of acquaintances and friends and continued along together. The chants didn’t change. They were the same everywhere. People were just repeating random, unsophisticated soundbites in an acritical way, without thinking about what they were saying. It must have been the “bandwagon” effect.
The chants made me very uncomfortable. Not a word about the governor who had ordered the MP to let loose on people with bullets, clubs, and gas just a few days earlier. The one who undersigns the genocide of black youth in this city every day, going on 20 years now. Not a single word. The guilty parties for all of the problems in the world, for the green-yellow-flag-anthem people, were the mayor and the president. Either these people are ignorant or they’re extremely dishonest.
We didn’t make it to the Avenida Paulista, irritated as we were with the chanting. We went home feeling very strange. It was then we finally realized that the people behind the fake event on Facebook had managed somehow to misdirect a large part of the people who had come out to protest. Lack of information is what gave this group power at this particular moment. But who was this group? I don’t know exactly. But I was bothered.
6. The center in flames
Who would have known that that bizarre, nameless feeling on Monday would make all the sense in the world on the following day? Unfortunately, that’s how it played out. The following day, “today,” June 18, 2013, would be decisive. We would see if people demobilized, if the movement to revoke the increase [in transit fares] would grow stronger. This was my hope which, unfortunately, was not realized. From here on, all facts are recent; as I write them down, I will try to explain them in chronological order. I warn you that it only began to make sense bit by bit, as we went along talking to people, hearing stories, discovering new information. This is my attempt to relate what I saw, what I experienced.
At the end of the afternoon, we got onto a packed subway car at Faria Lima, a bit after the protest was scheduled. I asked on the internet, on various social networks, if the march had stopped and the people were gathering somewhere or if it was moving along, and if so, to where. I just wanted to know which stop to get off at. They told me, referencing what they had heard on television (which was the only possible source of information since there wasn’t a single official communication from the FFM anywhere) that the demonstration was at the Prefecture. Remember this information.
So we went to the República metro stop. A number of helicopters were flying over the plaza and I noticed the fifth “strange thing”: there were hardly any cops. I think we saw three or four who were, curiously, checking people at the ENTRANCE to the subway and not at the exit... That is, you had more of a chance to be stopped if you were going into the subway than if you were leaving it, unlike on the 13th.
The protest was passing by there and we followed along until we realized the Prefecture was on the other side. Where were those people going? We didn’t know, but judging by the chants, by the cheering you would hear at a soccer game, we knew that we didn’t want to go along, we didn’t want to endorse something we didn’t believe in even a little bit and that we had already deemed to be kind of dangerous. When we walked past the City Council, the entire mass of protesters started hissing and cursing. Well, weren’t they the ones who had filled the council with its representatives? History shows us that this language of being “apolitical” or “against” the political class only serves one group’s interests: the conservatives’, so that they can continue to play the social structure, as injust as it is, with no major changes. Well, this was the kind of language being repeated at the protest.
We decided at this point to go down Jandaia Street and to try to get back to the Sé district because, as we read on the social networks, the real manifestation, the FFM’s, was in Dom Pedro Park. There we went, since that made a lot more sense than a group of really strange people, with bizarre posters, going up to the Avenida Paulista.
Another strange fact, number six: in the middle of Jandaia Street, in a location visible to any passerby on one of the overpasses in the city center, there was a burning mattress. The protest hadn’t even gone through there. A deserted street and a mattress in flames. Why? What kind of signal was it? Being sent by whom? To whom? We held onto our masks, afraid of being held responsible for something when we didn’t even know where it came from, and we walked quickly down the street.
We encountered the same march further on that had come from the district just below the Sé, but we didn’t yet know exactly from which part. Behind the cathedral, we waited for some friends. One friend said her husband was annoyed because he hadn’t managed to get the train at Vila Olímpia. We thought that was normal; sometimes the S[ão] P[aulo] M[etropolitan] T[rain] C[ompany] really comes to a halt, which is why there was all this crap about the fares and protests, etc. in the first place. Remember this information.
A friend called saying she was close to the Municipal Theater and to Vale do Anhangabaú, which was “on fire.” I feel so stupid now, but at the time I thought she was saying it was full of people, fun, cool. (How stupid I was!) I asked if it was the FFM’s doing, if it had their hallmarks. She said it was and it did, but I was skeptical. We decided to go see.
(From here on out, all the facts are “strange.” Really strange.)
The mood in the center was really tense when we arrived. It wasn’t that tense anywhere else. Everything was pretty strange but we couldn’t really say why. The people who lived on this street weren’t acting like people act in their own neighborhoods. They were alert, gathering in street corners, in groups. Few people seemed to be asleep. It seemed like a special operation night for the MP (those who really circulate through São Paulo, and don’t just stay in their own neighborhoods, know what it’s like among neighbors on the same street).
Except for the fact that, stranger still, there were no police out. There were no police in the center of São Paulo at night. In the middle of that mass of people. There wasn’t one single cop. Not the slightest hint of one anywhere.
In Sé, we sort of found our way and we were sort of walking near other people. A group of Franciscans was walking near us too. We saw black smoke. Fire. A LOT of fire. Very high. The city center in flames.
We tried to get closer to see. There were people who had climbed up construction sites with spray cans while others were shouting, circling around that burning thing that we didn’t manage to identify. Another mattress? Left by the same people who left the burning mattress on Jandaia Street? But who were they?
Suddenly, people began screaming and we, along with some others and even with the Franciscans, went running, thinking that maybe the alarm at what was happening had started to spread. After all, it was obvious that the police were going to bludgeon whoever had started that bonfire (that is, was it possible that the police had only just seen it now, had just realized how big it was?). But it didn’t happen like that.
As we were running, we found out it was the team from TV Record. They were running from the scene — the throng about trampling them — after getting their news van set on fire. No, it wasn’t a mattress. It was the news van of a television station. I was moved by the look on the reporter’s face. She, like us, couldn’t seem to find much meaning in what was happening. Next to where we were talking were several military police. Standing there. Watching the fire, as the news team was being chased… We’re not stupid, so we decided to hightail it. There was something really, I mean really wrong (and strange) going on there.
We walked really quickly back to Sé, where the locals were still on guard, and the Franciscans were trying to gather up the belongings of theirs that had fallen on the ground when they fled so they could organize themselves andcontinue on their mission. We weren’t quite so brave and decided to go home.
7. Prelude to a… coup?
A notice up at the subway: train stations are closed. Well yeah, just like we were saying before. We had just gotten home, but an acquaintance posted on Facebook that her friend had gotten stuck because some people invaded the SPMTC tracks and several trains were stopped, stations closed. It wasn’t the SPMTC’s “normal” chaos or even the “technical” problems that the girl on the intercom always announced. It was on purpose. Could it be the same people with the mattress, with the TV Record van?
We read, later, on the social networks, that people were looting shops and ravaging banks in the center. We knew it was the same people. I heard a story about an area occupied by some homeless people that was the attempted (?) target of larceny. At that moment we knew that, whoever was behind the “chaos” in the center, whoever had destroyed that bus in front of the Palácio dos Bandeirantes the day before, whoever had tried to create chaos at the Prefecture, etc. wasn’t the FFM. We also knew that it wasn’t any group on the left: people on the left don’t want to exterminate the homeless. These plans were from another group, the group that has kept the MP working for the last 20 years with the same structure it had during the military dictatorship.
Some time later, another piece of news: in Belo Horizonte, where there is already talk of calling the National [Public Security] Force and where the protests were really violent on Monday, the same thing had happened: total devastation of the center of the city without any police on hand. Not a single one. Very strange.
At this time I was already convinced that we were facing a very serious attempt at a coup, invocation of a state of exception, or something of the kind. Very serious. Very, very, very serious. I posted some stuff on Facebook, saw that there were people with the same feelings about it. Especially people who had been out in the streets today.
A bit later, more news: the new US ambassador to Brazil is the same person who was working in Paraguay when there was a coup d’état against Fernando Lugo.
I was asked and I didn’t know how to answer: what coup? why? But if the debate over the demilitarization of the police and doing away with the MP seems to have finally gone beyond the doors of the U[niversity of] S[ão] P[aulo], that would be a great reason. A coup isn’t even always a coup d’état. In 1989, we experienced a media coup of public opinion, for example. Maybe we’re facing another one. That’s the impression that I get when I connect the dots.
I’ve already been told that if people think there’s a coup going on, they “demobilize,” they stay at home, afraid. Not at all. A “coup” doesn’t mean an army pressing its way into a city. Not necessarily. A “coup” can be based on the erroneous idea that we should support any and all forms of indignation just because “it’s so nice that people are in the streets!”
Oddly enough, when I talked about the protest on the 13th with my students, on the 14th, several of them asked me if it was possible there would be military coups, seizures of power, new dictatorships. I only had one answer, which I still hold to, regarding this possible coup of public/ media opinion: in any attempt at a coup, what makes it a success or not is how the people respond to the attack. In 1964, the response was one of support and we wound up living in a dictatorship. In the 2000s, the response of the Venezuelan people to the attempted coup on Chávez was one of rejection and democracy was reestablished.
The point is that it depends on us. It depends on whether we’re in the street holding up the right banners (and there are other people mobilizing to divulge, in real time and in an effective manner, where the demonstration against the fare hikes is, because we can no longer say it’s just “one” movement as Haddad did in his collective interview). It depends on whether we refuse to buy information. It depends on us getting out and going to see what’s happening with our own eyes.
(Update: I wrote a bit better about how I think this “coup” is being sketched out; adding a few pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, read here if you’re interested.)
If this sequence of facts makes sense to you, please read and circulate the essay. Make a copy. Keep it. Share it. I only ask that you be careful to always share it in its entirety. Any ill-willed person can use things I say to other ends. I don’t want that.
I only want you to follow my line of reasoning and to tell me: are we really facing the imminent possibility of a coup?
Am I crazy? I sincerely hope I am. But I don’t think so.