Many neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro were without electricity yesterday afternoon (Sunday), for periods varying from twenty minutes to several hours. Not that unusual in this city, where services are pretty paltry, to say the least. Power outages happen, especially when it rains.
But, with all that has been going on here in Rio de Janeiro in recent weeks, many were nervous yesterday. What happens when it gets dark? Will the city remain in darkness? Who cut the lights? The protesters? Fascists? The city itself? There is a tense air in Rio, as people wonder what will happen next. People are nervous. The protests are all anyone can talk of.
More protests are planned for this week, with another major rally scheduled for next Thursday. The first big out-pouring of Carioca support came last Monday (20th), when 100,000 people filled Rio Branco in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Rallies of this size are unheard of in laid-back Rio, and Rio Branco had only ever seen crowds of such magnitude for massive Carnaval blocos. The streets were filled with people dressed in white, holding flowers, and various placards, pleading for better education, better health, less corruption. The list goes on. Many were mobilised after watching images of police repression on the streets at recent, smaller, protests.
It was a hair-raising experience to be there, and to be part of this peaceful uprising, the biggest protest seen since the impeachment of Fernando Collor in the early 90s. Very few police were visible on the night, and all was calm. It was amazing, positive, heart-warming. So, Cariocas do care. At Cinelandia, images began to appear of protesters in Brasilia climbing on top of the National Congress building there, met with rapturous applause.
Rumours of vandalism at the nearby legislative assembly building, ALERJ, put a slightly bitter taste to the whole thing. Who, as part of that crowd, had decided to do this? Police trapped inside the building, according to OGlobo. Don’t let yourself down now Rio.
But, images and footage emerging seem to show a tear gas offensive on a crowd of university students sitting on the steps, singing the National anthem. From then, chaos. And, chaos that got people worried. Anyone who had considered participating that was watching images unfold from home, must have been glad they didn’t go to the city.
But, three days later, Rio got out onto the streets again. This time, there were an estimated 300,000 people on Avenida Presidente Vargos, though some put that number closer to the one million mark.
In the interim days, there was some confusion. Would the rally go all the way to Maracana football stadium as had been originally planned? No, just to the Prefeitura building (city hall).
The Spain-Tahiti match was underway, when Rioflections landed at Maracana to scope things out. Security was tight, and a grand ring of roads surrounding the stadium were sealed off. No-one would pass. There were hundreds of police there, Military Police, BOPE, CORE, CHOQUE DE ORDEM, National Force – everyone was armed, and waiting for their next orders. Testosterone was palpable in the air, as rifles were readied, and guards waited, batons in hand, waiting, waiting.
Once the protest march got close to the Prefeitura building, a small group to the front ran towards Maracana. When the first road was sealed, they returned, and tried for another. When this seemed impossible, they reverted to the Prefeitura, to join the rest of the crowd. There, around thirty police on horseback formed a line in front of the building, with a small handful of armed cops behind on foot. Within the grounds of the building, there were around 60/70 lined up in full riot gear, again waiting, waiting.
For around 20 minutes or half an hour, nothing happened. Different groups chanted and protesters brought their placards to the front, to wave in front of the police, and the gathered media. The air was tense, and a panic came from somewhere in the crowd. People ran, leaving several pairs of flip-flops on the asphalt. But, it came to nothing. Someone had caused a startle somewhere, but it was nothing. “Don’t run, don’t run,” shouted several protesters. “Let’s all sit down,” shouted another. A few sat but people were too nervous at the feet of the police horses. They needed to know there was a way out.
And then the bangers were fired. The same ones that are used in favelas to warn of police in the proximity. Three loud bangs, followed by one louder one. These were thrown directly underneath the feet of the horses, causing the animals to startle. A couple of police on horseback ran in through the crowd of protesters, but then returned to the line-up again. The same thing continued. Police forming in a line, banger thrown, reaction from police, in through the crowd, and then back again. By the fourth time, the horse-back police were ordered out, and galloped away at top speed. Civil war began. Tear gas offensive, on any grouping of people in sight. Armoured vehicles rolled down the city streets.
But, who throw the bangers, that started everything off, is the big question? Many people here suggest that infiltrators were planted, as a dirty political tactic to damage the integrity of protesters, and to make people too afraid to carry on. One rumour is that that ‘someone’ went into favela communities and paid them R$500 to come down, and trash as much of the city as possible. For sure, there were different elements in the larger group. There were people wishing to wreck the place, and there were people wanting to fight, physically, against the authorities. But, these were of the minority.
As the police action became more and more intense, several protesters came in front of them with white flags, with their banners, begging for the police to stop. Lights were cut on Presidente Vargos, adding a more sinister air to proceedings. Apparently, security cameras also went on the blink. Coincidence?
The action went on for hours, and police used very excessive force against the population. They were acting under orders, of course, but the display was cowardly. Using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, they pushed the crowd back, away from Maracana, into the city centre proper. The BOPE were there, fuzils in hand. Apparently, Brazil has run out of tear gas, and has had to buy some in from Angola. The new gas is twice as potent, and double the legal strength. Why did Brazil run out? Because, they had sold all their stock to Turkey, to quash the protesters there.
This is the voice of Zoë Roller, from Califronia, who has live in Rio for two years…
“I just got back from protesting alongside 300,000 people in downtown Rio. At one point we joined a group of people holding Brazilian flags and waving peace signs at a line of riot police, who responded by shooting tear gas bombs directly at us. We tried to take shelter with some beer vendors in a side street, and watched a parade of trucks and armored vehicles drive by.
The police caught some of the fleeing protesters, pinned them down, and tear gassed them. As we watched, a few more policemen ran over to us and searched as at gunpoint. Luckily they let us go, muttering “Fucking university students!” Later, after almost everyone had dispersed and we were looking for our friends, a police car passed us in the street, made a u-turn, pepper sprayed us, and drove off. And that sums up our evening.”
Walking along the path taken by the violent clashes between protesters and police, was like Armageddon. Traffic lights were flattened to the ground, as were bus stops. Complete carnage. Rioflections passed a small group of protesters, in discussion with two Choque officers. It was heated, but pacifistic, and everyone was having their say. Five other officers watched from their motorbikes, not impressed with the dialogue. As their colleagues left the group, the protesters began to chant, and immediately received a barrage of tear gas.
No-one was immune. The streets were filed with groups of police hunting down small groups of protesters, to gas them. It was like one of those nasty computer games. They even went into a hospital spraying people there. The fumes went all the way up to the seventh floor, according to doctors on duty that night.
In nearby bohemian part of town, Lapa, people who had attended the protest, and fed when it got hairy, were enjoyed a few beers on the way home, when police circled the area, not allowing anyone to leave, and launched tear gas into the restaurants. The shutter came down, and people remained inside, with the gas. It was better than being out there, one witness said.
Conspiracies about political infiltration become less unlikely, when you stop to consider the potential implications of real social change here in Rio, in Brazil. Who really wants change? The people, of course. And, who doesn’t? The fat-cats who have been milking the system, creaming money intended for public services, buying votes, bullying their way to where they want to be. Is it likely that they’ll just give up, and roll over? The violence that marred Thursday evening left people scared. Mission accomplished, if that was the idea behind it.
Police repression has been going on for many years, particularly in the favela communities. Such acts go largely unreported, due to a sense of helplessness within the favelas, and a planned ignoring by the powers that be. As with many things here in Rio, when things come to the asphalt, they get more attention. Will there be any reprimand for police officers?
President Dilma finally opened her mouth on Friday night, when she addressed the nation. You’re right, she said. Congratulations for standing up to what you believe in, she added. But, we will not tolerate violence, of any sort. (Even police?). I will ensure that 100% of cash earned from pre-salt finds will be spent in Education (she has already tried, and failed to deliver on this promise). Now, let’s get ready to enjoy the World Cup.
Her message was short and sweet, and didn’t cut it, according to many here on the ground. She will now meet with individual governors and mayors, to try to come up with solutions. Her work is cut out, let there be no doubt. Even with the best political will in the world, the corruption here runs so deep that it would be hard to break.
We can but hope. Now, we wait to see what will happen next Thursday.
Meanwhile, the revolution has gone into cyber-space. While hackers are busy trying to infiltrate various official sites (though sometimes they are just copying sites, using similar addresses, to make it look real). Brasilian intelligence forces are in turn trying to infiltrate social medias sites, and many have already been removed from Facebook. The revolution continues online, said one commenter last night, as 7,000 people tuned into Marcelo Freixo’s live Twitcam last night. Freixo, who ran for mayor of Rio last year, and who works in defense of human rights has appealed for all denunciations to be sent to him for investigation.