Zero Hour on the Popular Clock

(A longer version of this essay was published originally in Portuguese on Zero Hora, July 29, 2013.)  

Brazilian society took to the streets and took as its own the title that had cost it billions of dollars, and through autocratic decisions would exclude it: the great event. Hundreds of thousands of people brought the soccer pitch into the middle of the street, assuming an historic stance of protagonism. Public interest had been confiscated by technocracy, ally to contractors and subservient to FIFA’s arrogant (and voracious) tutelage. The so-called "great events” have served to justify extraordinary profits and a festival of real-estate speculation, falling back on the rhetoric of social legacy, even while urban mobility has increasingly become an oxymoron. The masses have confounded expectations and broken a tradition of apathy, inventing a movement that with its lessons and effects will be a true legacy for future generations. The narrative came to be written in the streets and online networks by millions of hands and voices, desires and protests, placing its authors on the world scene in dialogue with other squares, other multitudes, other struggles. Society has turned the tables.

The earth is shaking because the country has progressed and inequality, though still immense, has been significantly reduced. The demonstrations are not symptomatic of decline, but an affirmation of strength and faith in the future, even if they are turned inside out, in other words expressed as indignant protest against what has, in contrast with the progress - and even after having been naturalized for decades—now become unacceptable. Misery and social vulnerability only lead to a reiteration of impotence. Those who rebel have something to lose, have achieved progress, feel their own strength, and are a threat. Brazilian society has learned to value citizenship.

These actors gathered in the street, the majority of them young, are very diverse, come from different backgrounds, speak every possible ideological language and voice a wide variety of complaints and demands. It would be artificial and against the spirit of the demonstrations to submit this choir of contrary arguments to an orthopedically neat single voice. Nevertheless, there is consensus on one thing: political representation has fallen to ruin. This is not new, but it is only now that street-corner derision, disgust with the political world, which used to be limited to everyday conversations, has taken on new body and visibility, as millions of citizens have earned visibility and recognition, united as they are by resentment; feeling disrespected on a daily basis by authorities, institutions, public transportation, Police, Justice, healthcare conditions and education. The collapse of political representation means a divorce between the State and Society.

Now let us conduct an imaginary consultation of the diffuse feelings and perceptions of the poorest youths, who live with police brutality on a daily basis. It’s not difficult to understand the intensity of the rage. It will be enough to consider one case. I will use as an example what happened a few weeks ago in the Maré favela, in Rio de Janeiro: the BOPE (SWAT) police invaded homes, breaking down doors without a warrant, destroying household appliances, humiliating, attacking and threatening residents in their own homes. Ten people died during the operation: one police officer, seven considered to be suspects in drug trafficking, and two who have officially been regarded as innocent bystanders. Now let's take a moment to contemplate other recurring events in Rio de Janeiro and other states: massacres perpetrated by the police, militia members tyrannizing communities, arms and drugs apprehended at all costs during bellicose incursions that injure and kill innocent bystanders but are soon returned through negotiations with local dealers or rival factions in broad daylight, right in front of the community. The authorities promise full investigation—and do not change police action protocols. The Public Ministry is responsible for external control of police activity, but it has been absent, with full consent from the court system and judges, except praiseworthy people like the late Judge Patrícia Acioli—assassinated with 21 shots fired by police officers. How many professionals from the police involved in massacres in the wake of 2006 attacks by the PCC (a Brazilian criminal organization) in São Paulo were punished? How many have been investigated and punished in Rio de Janeiro, where 9,646 deaths have been caused by police action between 2003 and 2012? This data helps us understand the source of furious indignation of those who depredate. This is not an attempt to justify the violence, but to understand its roots and above all explain why the masses consider a media focus on the action of so-called “vandals” as hypocritical. Before the demonstrations, there was no order or normality, there was ongoing vandalism practiced by state apparatuses against many, on the periphery, all across Brazil. There is a lack of equal treatment by the state and media. The order taken as being natural before the demonstrations broke out was not less destructive than the disorder promoted by some demonstrators.

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UPP Police in Favela da Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Luiz Roberto Lima/Futura Press.

Taking part in the demonstrations, the middle class has discovered the police brutality that poor and black people have always endured. The police have become one of the key subjects in the street. The crowd posed a question: why did the political leaders neglect the debate regarding changes to the policing model, which involve demilitarization and have been postponed continually since the transition to democracy (formally concluded in 1988, when the new Constitution was promulgated)? Extending this transition to the realm of public security is urgently important. Official silence has been an accomplice to thousands of extrajudicial executions, torture, daily violations of rights, including those against police officers themselves.

The following are some of the key messages sent by the demonstrations: Brazilian democracy will not deserve its title as long as Criminal Justice and the Police continue reproducing racism and structural inequalities. Democracy will not be experienced as such by society while political institutions keep playing their autonomous games, indifferent to the abyss between the Constitution’s words and everyday practice.