Brazilian protests explained — it’s not the economy, stupid

brazilianpoliceinactionBrazil isn’t for beginners. No matter if you are a Brazilian or not, it takes a long time to understand how such a self-centered country works.

I can’t say I do, but as a former student in a state school who had his mother working as a maid, I have explored a part of the Brazilian society which is not popular among the middle class I now belong to. The same middle class that has (poorly) projected our country abroad and is gradually changing. So let me go back in time to try to address the mindset behind the protests that are now rocking the streets of major cities back home.

Violent protests always lose in Brazil. It is just like our politics: if you are too hard on your opponent, no matter how right you are, you will lose.

If you are violent in Brazil you write a blank check for the police to do whatever it wants. It isn’t right, but it is what it is. Until last Thursday the movement for free fares in public transport was losing. Badly. They started winning when they proved the violence was coming from the police. That is the main reason more and more people are supporting it. Other topics are surely in debate, but the main one, no doubt, is the police.

An important reminder: one can’t look at Brazil as if we were Europe or the United States, where merit is above everything else. In Brazil, if you speak too much to the mind and nothing to heart, you lose. Violence always puts you away from the hearts, because we have already taken too much of it.

That is why big peaceful demonstrations are always powerful there and they are the ones that really work. They controversially worked in 1964 to pressure a president who was leaning to the left so he would leave his office. They worked to show dissatisfaction in 1984 so the dictatorship would end a few months later. They put Congress on its way to impeach president Fernando Collor in 1992.

All were big, peaceful and cooked for very long. When protests weren’t big enough or embodied a few vandals, police would act just to make them stop.

It is in their DNA, which is tainted by various accusations of abuses by national and international NGOs in the last decades.

From 1964 to 1985, police were even more feared than criminals. They were probably more violent — drug gangs weren’t big then. Such violence is particularly true in the military police — which learned its lessons from the vicious School of the Americas, a place where pro-US Latin American dictators learned how to tame their peoples. Not only military police were taught repression, but they also learned torture.

They are trained to obey at all costs and are much different from the civil branch police or the federal police. If you speak Portuguese, a good book to know more about them is Rota 66, by Caco Barcelos. There you will see the most deadly killers in the military police got great jobs because… they were great killers. Some of them are city Councillors, State Congressmen and secretaries in important administrations today. 

Brazilian political parties: the main losers after first massive protests
The day the politics of no transformed Brazilian protests in riots

In censorship times, military police would do whatever they wanted. When democracy was restored, they formed death squads to kill alleged criminals in poor areas. They hid evidence against themselves. They had no ombudsman to address their excesses and were seen by authorities as a necessary evil. Poor Brazilians feared them, but as crime grew they learned how to tolerate police excesses. Some learned to love them. And politicians who were friends with them got more and more popular. But people never stopped worrying about the police. All they wanted was that they took on only “the bad guys”, not them. They were also afraid of the police. In Brazil boundaries are that thin.

Downtown the police have always acted pretty much like on Thursday. When they had to stop protests on Sao Paulo’s main road, they would be violent, but rarely as lethal as in the poor areas. Protests by teachers, unions and others were repressed alike. The excuses were very similar. “Vandals”, “they are blocking the road” or “they attacked officers”. Back then, though, there were no cameras, social media and international interest in a country that wasn’t doing economically well and wasn’t hosting any big sporting events any time soon.

Back then there weren’t a Confederations Cup bringing attention, a movement that defended something dear to the poorest and — above all — a repression that took on even people who had nothing to do with the demonstrations.

People that were leaving their jobs. People that were at home. People who were having a nice time at a pub. People that, in other times, might have been thrilled to see the police go after “the vandals”. Since the police had no self control and took on everyone, the fear was gone — because they hit everyone, regardless of that they were doing during that night downtown Sao Paulo. Even sexual abuses were reported by women.

To make it even worse for themselves, military police deliberately attacked the press. They hate the media they used to censor and think only a few journalists (the tamed ones) know how to deal with them — those being reporters who talk about their need for more power. That is not something I heard about — I saw it myself in the many times I followed my police reporter uncle to work. One of the things I saw them do as a 15-year-old reporter wannabe was to bribe friendly journalists with items they had confiscated. The best gifts always went to TV reporters. Those who live in Brazil know exactly what that means; big ratings, exclusive interviews and blindly favorable coverage of police operations.

I deeply believe that that resentment explains the fact 17 journalists were wounded in Sao Paulo on Thursday. That happened on the same day one of their officers was shown in all the papers with his face drenched in blood. Blood taken by the protesters, which were surrounded by criticism on that very night.

The police operation in São Paulo was so disastrous that it brought about a protest of journalists against unlawful arrests. Journalists in Brazil are so quiet about their rights they prefer to shut up instead of doing anything against massive lay-offs that happen every six months. They would just keep calm and carry on if they hadn’t been attacked by the police. And media coverage would still be very much against the protests.

One photographer might lose his left eye. A reporter is in hospital after a rubber bullet hit her on her face. One was ran over by a military police vehicle and he says he was directly targeted by the driver as he took his pictures. By attacking the media and being liable to the whole society in social media, police gave life to a movement that could die out within weeks.

Brazilians hate violence. And they hate the police; some secretly and some openly. When the police lost control, many could feel it and everyone could see it. And that is why the writing is on the wall in Sao Paulo. It would soon spread to the rest of the country, including the capital where Brazil beat Japan 3-0 in a match that was supposed to be a party.

It is important to say the military police are stronger than ever in Sao Paulo and in many parts of Brazil. In Sao Paulo, former mayor Gilberto Kassab put former policemen to run many boroughs (these officials are neither elected there nor have as much power as in other countries, though). Governor Geraldo Alckmin has a very hard line stance on crime, which very often means ignoring human rights, according to international organizations such as Amnesty International. President Dilma Rousseff even offered up to step up the pressure on protesters by sending more police.

All politicians want to be friends with the police, but they still wouldn’t pay them much more than they do now. And the fact they are still poorly paid is a scapegoat for their violence. Violence that is preached by those on the top and repeated by those below, who need to be violent to get better positions. The system feeds itself.

If the officers don’t get a better job within the corporation, they might as well go into politics. Or become powerful militia. Or open a security business that makes deals with the government. It was the only body to profit from the sheer violence Brazilians hate. Perhaps that is because they thought their laid-backness demanded them to give a dirty role to someone, and that someone has been the military police for many decades.

If transport fares had gone up in January, as they were supposed to, maybe there would be fewer protests. They were kept till now because the rise would affect inflation in the beginning of the school year in Brazil. To say this is about inflation is the equivalent of saying the protests in Turkey are about a shopping mall. It is just not the case, although it surely gave an initial spark to what was to become a bigger movement.

So when you look at the size of the protests in Brazil, one thing has to pop into your mind: this is mostly about the police. If it weren’t for them, people would be going home to watch football.

Other key words if you want to know more about what military police have done wrong in the last decades: torture, death squads, unlawful prisons, assassination of 111 unarmed inmates in 1992, accusations of racism and much much more. This didn’t start in 2013 — it comes from decades. It takes a good time talking to different parts of Brazilian society and some personal experience in the country to understand that.

Except for the best American papers, El Pais, The Economist and the FT, most of the international media doesn’t seem to completely understand the protests in Brazil so far. I am not saying I do, but I surely can’t see a link to inflation being more obvious than the one to police violence. Even the protesters themselves have said over and over this isn’t about transport fares or higher prices — it is a range of subjects. And they also know they turned the tide around because the repression was absurd and unjustifiable.

As a reader, I have to say most of international media tends to be harsher on our police — which is many times good — but without the experience in the country to know our minds and the real thing behind protesters this time.

National media is full of people who have never dealt with police violence themselves, because they were always where the trouble didn’t get to — most journalists from my generation are very hardworking, but are clueless about the lives of poor Brazilians. That is why media there doesn’t see there is poor people involved in the demonstrations, and not only left-wing university alumni who found a reason to break out of boredom.

The Brazilian economy might be sluggish this year, but that is not an issue for a country where inflation could be 100% a month in the nineties. We are not that demanding. We just don’t like violence, because it is not in most people’s DNA and law abiding citizens feel crushed between police and criminal violence. That is why a critic of the movement against new transport fares like me now supports it. It is because of the police violence.

Sometime ago, even reasonably peaceful demonstrations could be portrayed as a brawl started by a group of hot-headed people, lawfully spanked by the police. That still happens a lot in the poor areas, where media coverage is none.  It is a completely different case when that happens downtown the biggest city in the Southern Hemisphere, where dissatisfaction meets social media, smartphones and people who are fed up with various issues.

For Christ’s sake, military police have arrested people (including journalists) for carrying vinegar to avoid the harms of tear gas. Not atomic vinegar, not Molotov vinegar. Only a stupid amount of vinegar. You should probably know it is lawful to carry it around in Brazil. It could only happen because of a mechanism like the military police, a State within the State in Brazil.

That is why I believe protesters will soon push for police reform. They probably know buses for free isn’t really an achievable goal.

Police reform is.

There must be transparent and effective investigations on the police operations. Those who abused their power must be punished. Brazilians are not okay with protesters that set buses on fire or broke windows just to get some attention. These have to be punished as well. But there is no comparison between the responsibility that lies on a bunch of hooligans in a massively peaceful protest and that of agents of the State, sponsored by the taxpayer, who did what they did allegedly in our name.

Not in my name. Not in a million years.

Voting in free elections is great, but it isn’t enough for a stable democracy like Brazil. Having a free Justice is key, but we need everyone to respect the law. Brazil has to earn its presence in the global arena. Hosting the World Cup and the Olympics might be enough for regimes like those in Russia and China, where disrespect for human rights is even bolder and press isn’t free at all. Not for a multicultural, tolerant and modern country like Brazil might become.

As long as the police bring violence to the people they are supposed to protect, June 13 will be remembered. Inflation might be forgotten next month.

About Mauricio Savarese

I am a Brazilian journalist who got tired of reporting only in Portuguese. Politics and football, these are my turfs. Twitter: @msavarese. Email:

Posted on 16/06/2013, in Politics, Social, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. Belo texto. Parabéns

  2. Hi Mauricio!

    This is a great article and thanks for translating all this information for the rest of the world!!

    I’d just like to add a comment that I don’t think this is “mostly about the police” – as what people are protesting about. I think it was the trigger (I’m a Brazilian living in London and only catching up with things through internet, friends, family)

    In Turkey ” The protests began in earnest on 31 May against a plan to redevelop Gezi Park, but snowballed into nationwide anti-government protests after the perceived high-handed response of the authorities under their three-term prime minister.” (

    In Brazil, there were protestes against bus fares rise in my hometown Porto Alegre after which local gov changed their decision of increasing prices (

    From what I read, that inspired other movements – in Sao Paulo – to achieve same goal, but then local gov ordered police to respond in with all that violence and that’s when the anger built up. Maybe if they had just kept the old fares, it would be a “problem solved”. But because of the disproportion of the police action – ordered by the local authorities – it all escalated! And then the mainstream media started generalising calling all the protesters as vandals and it all channeled all that anger of social injustice that the Brazilian population is so fed up with. All the corruption of politicians only looking after their own interests and of the business elites, stealing, leaking taxpayer’s money, not providing the basic needs of the population, and going openly unpunished for everything.

    The formal structure of democracy is completely corrupted in Brazil and voting in elections does not work anymore as the politicians say empty promisses, lies and get away with everything, even changing the laws to protect themselves…! What to do? People have to reclaim the status of “Democracy” – in which leaders actually REPRESENT their voters when making decisions for the country!

    Anyway, I’m very excited about how things are evolving and hopefully it will take the whole country to a better place!

    • Indeed, Letícia! There’s a whole lot more to the protests than meets the eye. Brazilians are thoroughly fed up with decades of neglect by corrupt politicians who are completely unaligned with the electorate’s genuine best interest. The 0,20 cents raise on public transport served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

  3. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

    Thanks for this article, Maurício! It’s one of the most insightful I’ve yet seen in the English language. Has it also been published in Portuguese? I’d like my students to read it.

  4. Parabéns. Bom falar para o resto do mundo a outra face do nosso governo de merda.

  5. Mauricio,
    Your text is quite good and very sincere, but allow me to disagree when you say the inflation can be forgotten next month. Not this time. Among the allegations, police violence – which has never ever stopped – was let’s say the most prominent cause. But El Pais and Associated Press completely missed the point. It’s not just the physical violence. In the past few years, the politicians became so shameless and certain that they could get away with anything that they stopped even bothering covering up. Thus you have Federal representatives openly voting their own salaries, their 14th, 15th yearly pay, their food, home, and infinite “assistant” paid office positions, and doing so the day before the New Year, the day before Carnaval, or during a big soccer game, or during the soap opera finale. Those are not PHYSICAL violence acts but they are violence. They are abuse acts. This is madness. I’m here 8000km away from home and wondering what the hell is wrong with these people, that see this happening and DONT DO ANYTHING. Right-wing religious groups are completing such a scary picture with their headless marches and violence actions against women and minorities that I wonder if I can ever go back or if there is a way for me to take my family out of there. They must be treated as such. If the people don’t say STOP, they won’t . If the people don’t realize that neither leftists OR right-wing will legislate FOR them (like paulistas LOVE to do, they always think going back to a “blue” party will solve something) then everything is lost.

  6. Muito bom, Savarese! É isso mesmo o que você disse, o apoio de verdade às manifestações veio depois da violência da polícia ser comprovada e divulgada aos quatro ventos. Mas acho que a cada dia o protesto ganha mais um motivo para continuar. Começou com as passagens, depois com as detenções irregulares, depois com a prisão de jornalistas em exercício da profissão, depois com a violência da polícia, depois com o apoio do Alckmin à violência e a postura bunda mole do Haddad. Vamos ver o que acontece nesta segunda-feira.

  7. Postado por Jô Soares.


    Avisem a todos os manifestantes para usarem a bandeira brasileira como manto em volta do corpo, qualquer ato contra uma pessoa que esteja com a bandeira sobre o corpo é um ato contra a bandeira nacional. Isso é crime conforme o art. 44º do Decreto-lei nº 898, de 29 de setembro de 1969: “Destruir ou ultrajar a bandeira, emblemas ou símbolos nacionais, quando expostos em lugar público: Pena: detenção, de 2 a 4 anos.

    “Os policiais provavelmente não vão respeitar isso devido à seu péssimo treinamento e pouco amor à pátria. Isso vai fazer eles se atacarem, pois vão ser feitas fotos com policiais atirando contra a bandeira, atirando spray de pimenta e bombas. Mesmo se nesse momento a imprensa não ficar a favor, vai atrair a atenção da imprensa internacional. Não apenas pelo fato do ataque à bandeira, mas também porque os dever de policias/bombeiros e médicos é servir a sua pátria tão amada.


  8. This is the best text I have read about the protests so far. Maybe it’s because your take on the matter, although clearly lead by your personal opinion, is still very impartial and fair. Every other comment I have seen so far has a very Brazilian outlook on it. You have stepped out and seen the big picture. I don’t know how long you have been in the UK for but I say well done for learning different points of view so quickly. Observing and truly open minded people are rare. Be proud of it, mate.

  9. Mauricio, I’d like to congratulate you on the article. As Thaddeus said, it is very insightful and touches the deeper aspect of the movement that has been spread for all on the social medias in the last few days. As always, we can never truly rely on the brazilian mainstream press. [Something that has completely changed aspects regarding these protests ONLY because their very own journalists were targeted by the unjustified, absurd, repressive police violence.]

    Although I do have what I consider a very important observation:

    the word ‘decades’ used largely throughout this essay can sometimes fall short of reality. — ex.: “This didn’t start in 2013 — it comes from decades. It takes a good time talking to different parts of Brazilian society and some personal experience in the country to understand that.”

    Even though that is true, as we like to say here ~ o buraco é mais embaixo! This definitely did NOT start in 2013, it comes from over 5 centuries of economic, social and moral exploration. Nearly 4 of widely spread extremely violent slavery. A country with this strong background of complete disregard for human dignity: where slaves were rewarded for punishing their disobeying peers; black marines were treated differently from white ones until beyond 1900; police-forced vaccinations for the people [resulting in yet another bloody protest]; the same egotistical maniacs as ever running it no matter of what party, whether from within or using public brainwash [I could go on forever]; can NEVER change it’s attitudes without a THOROUGH change in it’s politics. The culture of violent punishment is more embedded in our collective memory than the acknowledgement of our rights. And with them, the notion our authorities should have of how to deal with it all.

    It is such history that leads our alleged protectors to say frases like “You’ll pay for the others”

    or “we won’t be responsible anymore”

  10. I think there are too many reasons to list for the protests in Brazil. I just got back before this happened. One thing I know for sure, perhaps if the Brazilians spoke English and were nicer to us when we spend our dollars there, this would sure help.

  11. A police state never benefits society at large. I hope the people of Brazil get the justice they deserve.

    Truly sickening stuff.

  12. I am brazilian and i have been reading some things about what international press is speaking about my country and, so far, sorry, but the international speakers are a little bit lost, maybe because we leave kind of apart from the rest of the world…closed in our own country, just few brazilians speaks other languages, so the world can’ t listen to our demands !!!..In fact, ..the problem here is not about the police at all. The problem is about the a range of issues, like the spreading corruption, the great amout of taxes we pay here that goes to the pockets of the politicians, the Federal Congress which insists on legislation about issues which benefits their own, the problem IS, indeed , the economy which is not well, the huge amount of public money spent in the wrong areas…our federal government do not spend money in education, public health, in infrastructure……….and, of course, the C class, which lived, for 8 years in a not real world…and now,,,they are understanding that they are loosing their power to buy things,,,,,the C class is getting the terrible undestanding that , now, they are loosing their purchasing power….all those issues are connect…..the increase of the bus taxes was only the last straw. . All these protests that are happening now, in this moment, all over the country are much more complex than this article speaks about!! It is against the federal government, against the PEC 37 which takes out the right of the District Attorney to investigate the corruption spread all over the federal government…..pec 33 that tries to submit all the decision of the STF , the higher court of Brasil , to the Congress because the government did not like the condenation of the biggest “mensaleiros “.by the STF.(.those who had participated in one of the biggest scheme of corruption that ever happend in Brazil. are called “mensaleiros”)…, it is a very complex happening here. The protest speaks out about all these issues at the same time….and, of course, the huge amount of money spent to built all the infrastructure of the World Cup that is going to happen here….most of the brazilians are revolted about this matter!! Definitely , it is not about the brazilian policie, that s for sure!! Apart from all of this, our level of violence in my country increased enormously in the last years, so, our police are doing well, we need more protection for the population because crimes are happening all over…it means that there is no plan going on to improve our public security!! All theses issues have being showed by the protesters.

  13. Keep on with the peaceful demonstration Brazil until someone who can implement reforms in the military and economy listens. Use the additional media coverage for Football World Cup and Olympics to your advantage. Hopefully the government ministers will be shame to see such on international news. They need to ensure that the country is safe for the two events, they must listen eventually.

  14. Thank you for sharing your point of view including personal experiences – I also appreciate the historical context you put these most recent events in. We certainly don’t hear much news in the US media about Brazil and I never quite trust what I am hearing here….

  15. incaunipocrit

    Reblogged this on The Blogspaper.

  16. Thank you for this expositon so lacking in the U.K.. press.
    I am in Costa Rica where armed police intervention has roused a great deal of opposition to the government.

  17. A sad state of affairs in Brazil. Stay safe! (From the corrupt police!)

  18. Thank you for your explanation of what’s happening in Brazil! I think it’s the latest in a pattern of similar events taking place around the world. It’s amazing to see how seemingly mundane policy changes can spur nationwide protests, i.e. in Turkey it was the planned tear-down of a public park. In Braziil, it was the increase in bus fares. The bigger issue is the fact that these singular policy changes are uncovering dissatisfaction that’s existed for quite some time – across a myriad of issues. Hopefully demonstrations will create increased responsiveness on the part of municipal and national governments everywhere.

  19. very thorough, I enjoyed reading it and feel like I know alot more about the situation there. keep up the great work!

  20. Reblogged this on bermanj1forchange and commented:
    Fascinating insight far removed from media that clearly doesn’t get it.

  21. History of Capitalism

    Brilliant article, thank you, extremely informative. Also, merit does not rule above all here in American politics.

  22. Muito bom texto, compartilhei em meu blog. Para passar para os meus seguidores.

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    When I take a look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine however,
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