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The Street Demonstrations in Debate

by Richard Meckien - published Aug 28, 2013 04:15 PM - - last modified Oct 23, 2013 05:01 PM
Rights: Carlos Malferrari (translator)

The IEA accepted the challenge of reflecting on history as it’s being made. On June 21, fourteen scholars linked to the Institute came together at the event O que está acontecendo? [What’s going on?] – the first public debate held by a Brazilian university on the country’s recent street demonstrations.

Debate O Que Está AcontecendoThe IEA accepted the challenge of reflecting on history as it’s being made. On June 21, fourteen scholars linked to the Institute came together at the event O que está acontecendo? [What’s Happening?] – the first public debate held by a Brazilian university on the country’s recent street demonstrations.

The event gave rise to the series of meetings UTI Brasil [ICU Brazil] at the IEA’s Laboratory of Contemporary Societies, which discussed the meaning and impact of this moment of political unrest. The panelists were Massimo Canevacci, José Álvaro Moisés, Alfredo Bosi, Sergio Adorno, Bernardo Sorj, José da Rocha Carvalheiro, Jorge Luiz Campos, Arlene Clemesha, Nicolas Lechopier and Lucia Maciel Barbosa de Oliveira, Sylvia Dantas and Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita (who was also rapporteur), all of them directly or indirectly associated with the IEA. The moderator was Renato Janine Ribeiro.

The main topics discussed were the unpredictability of the demonstrations; the possible crisis of representation and of democracy itself; the country being no longer in a passive state; the feeling of boredom as a motivating factor; the emergence of conservative values in the protests; the clamor for basic rights, particularly public transportation, health care and education; the role of violence; the unfocused nature of the demands; and the urgency of political reinvention. See below the participants’ views on these and other topics.

The voice of the participants


“The template for all this was France’s May 1968. In the almost half century since then, we have had many movements arise without us knowing what or when would emerge. These events are, in a way, big surprises. In Portuguese, the English word ‘happening’ is used to refer precisely to a unique, unrehearsed movement, one with no stage director and no repetition, a singularity that usually connotes celebration and joy.” – Renato Janine Ribeiro

“A present – and also past – feature of this type of movement, which involves mainly urban and metropolitan youth, is that they are based on improvisation, on spontaneous outbursts, with no leadership or a political party guiding them. Such spontaneity is largely based on the young people’s quality of life, always moving, always on the move, traversing. The possibility of moving about in the urban space is fundamental for them.” – Massimo Canevacci

“This movement is a construction, but membership in it was voluntary and eventually became massive. It is very similar to what happened there [the Arab Spring]. In Egypt, everyone also said that no movement was expected, that the population was dead, slumbering, and yet suddenly everyone was out in the streets.” – Arlene Clemesha

“I share only in part the viewpoint that the movement arose out of boredom and has a spontaneous dimension. The leaders of the Free Pass Movement have been raising this flag for eight years, calling for demonstrations and debating an extremely important issue, namely, the public transportation policies in Brazilian large cities, an entirely failed model. So I think the movement is not entirely spontaneous.” – José Álvaro Moisés


“These movements have their martyrs, their dead, yet they still have a strong element of celebration and of inserting non-participants in the public space.” – Renato Janine Ribeiro

“The movement managed to set off a spark that somehow mobilized people, took them to the streets, led them to realize (particularly young people) that they have power to intervene in their country, that if they want to exert influence this is the opportunity to participate.” – José Álvaro Moisés

“We aspire to political participation. But there is no political culture. In other words, the question of political education in schools is essential.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita

“Being in favor of free public expression and, therefore, in favor of freely expressing values that are democratic in ​​themselves – this seems to me a point of consensus among analysts. Government, media, academy and all other players involved in the process were (or became) unanimous in recognizing the right of segments of the population to demonstrate. This gain is something that should be stressed in the first place.” – Alfredo Bosi


“The consequences of an event go way, way beyond its causes, way beyond the 20 cents in this case.” – Renato Janine Ribeiro

“It is unknown what direction this will take. Regardless, we witnessed a certain catharsis there. But I think that movements that have a path to tread, a reflection, an elaboration – and therefore are distinct from cathartic manifestations – will surely be able to direct these paths, will be able to recoil and question and redirect themselves.” – Sylvia Dantas

“The movement taking stock of what was accomplished so far implies a possibility to examine the range of themes that appeared in different manifestations and, somehow, an ability to understand how to organize these new demands and how they may become elements that keep the movement going.” – José Álvaro Moisés


“The difference in Brazil is that the demonstrations take place in an absolutely democratic environment, unlike what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, where we find the same detonator. The problem for us, perhaps, is not so much oppression as boredom.” – Renato Janine Ribeiro


“What is going on? This is the chief question and it expresses our feeling of bewilderment toward a movement of such proportions, seemingly and explicitly aimed at protesting the 20-cent increase cents in the city’s bus fares. The demonstrators are young people who are having the opportunity – perhaps for the first time – to massively protest against what they see as an abuse of State power in a vital item of everyday life, the public transportation fares.” – Alfredo Bosi

“It is a movement of young people who have a history and a very clear, very objective purpose focused on the issue of public transportation. It is, therefore, a movement that begins with a very clear goal. But some say: ‘Only 20 cents? Meager 20 cents?’ We are a country of extreme inequality: most people spend up to 30% of their budget on public transportation. This is something way beyond absurd. To people who earn the minimum wage, this increase is enormous. We must bring up another point: the profits of the large transportation companies. This achievement – no fare increase – raises the issue of the earnings of large corporations […] that run the world system. […] When speaking of transportation, we attack one of the corporations that have great power in this country to the detriment of the population.” – Sylvia Dantas

“[Free transportation] is not a detail, because there are things that should not have a price. And the world of economic growth leaves no room for gratuitousness. I would say that the claim for free transportation may be more fundamental than we assume.” – Nicholas Lechopier

“The most important thing that should be abolished now – and not only in São Paulo – are the on-board turnstiles on buses. […] It is absurd that, to get on the bus, you have to go through a turnstile.” – Massimo Canevacci


Debate 'O Que Está Acontecendo?' - 2

“This is a fundamental aspect: purely formal, representative democracy in electoral terms is in crisis, and its deserved discredit requires some response, however diffuse and insufficiently articulated.” – Alfredo Bosi

“What is happening is a huge discontent with the kind of democracy we have in Brazil. This disgruntlement pertains to the quality of this democracy […]. Quite likely, the area that is most lacking is representation. Parties are much more concerned with coming to power and maintaining themselves in power than with establishing and maintaining connections with their constituencies […]. The parties have failed, including those that emerged from social movements, such as the Workers’ Party. […] In the dynamics of the coalition presidentialism we have in Brazil, the parties are called upon to form a great ruling coalition; it therefore logically follows that they must remain in power at any cost, even if the cost is corruption […] Not a single minority or majority party leader in Brazil deigned to state what was his or her position regarding the demands coming from the streets and what was their party’s proposal for them. Even worse, not a single parliamentary leader in Brazil – neither the president of Congress nor the president of the Chamber of Deputies – went public to establish some kind of rapport. This lack of connection exacts a high price from Brazilian democracy and helps to explain all the unease we are going through.” – José Álvaro Moisés

“Currently, no one wants to be represented. There is a conflict between those who have the power to represent and those who have the power to be represented. Self-representation is destroying the system of communicational division of labor – which in the past was based on the industrial dimension – and asserting a new kind of very pluralized subjectivity that no longer wants to delegate the power to be represented, to be narrated. During these manifestations – and, for me, this is the most beautiful part – there were no rally speakers, no PA systems. I think this is vital, because it is based on a kind of growing affirmation of self-representation.” – Massimo Canevacci

“Organized rooters, people from low-income purlieus were saying, ‘We are tired of being exploited, we have a message to send and no political party or any other group is responding to it.” – Arlene Clemesha

“According to an assessment by The Economist, Brazil occupies a democratic position, but is still not a full-fledged democracy, because several points remain elusive for us. For example, we get a very high score on the criterion of party pluralism, but very low grades on two other rather conspicuous criteria: political participation and political culture.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita


“We were overtaken by a state of melancholy […], that things are so complex we are powerless, that there is no way out of it. Suddenly, these manifestations began happening here, in our own country, where everyone thought our youth was alienated and had succumbed to a very acute type of passivity. Suddenly, we all saw the young people manifesting and wanted to manifest ourselves, because it was life, it meant abandoning the state of somnambulism, of anesthesia, that had taken hold of us. Other young people then began to take part in this movement. This is a moment of catharsis, when people are living out their experience of cognitive dissonance […] whereby their perception of reality does not match what is said to them. And what is said? That we are the 7th largest economy in the world, that we’re improving, that the middle class is expanding – so many positive things that are put forth and flaunted.” – Sylvia Dantas

“In Egypt, Tunisia, the Arab countries – terrible dictatorships – the population had to break the barrier of fear. And here the population broke the barrier of apathy.” – Arlene Chemesha


“Access to health care, education, basic rights are denied us, are violated all the time. Our institutions have foundered. This contradiction that we all face on a day-to-day basis was brought to light. People can now have a voice.” – Sylvia Dantas

“The issue of the 20 cents might seem like a detail, but it is not. It is perhaps of even greater political importance because public transportation is a basic good, such as health care, water, healthy food. I also find it important to note that transportation is no mere issue.” – Nicholas Lechopier

“The demonstrations have a trigger, as well as other demands. Health care is treated superficially, when it must be treated both globally and locally […] The movement must focus it more. This is a question that must be thought through. And I demand that a major focus be directed to health care […]. It must not necessarily be unique, but it should very clearly spelled out.” – José da Rocha Carvalheiro

“This is not matter of the president manifesting or not, but of the government as a whole understanding the demands, the issues that emerged, as proposals for solving the problems that are being posed, particularly with regard to the most important public policies: health care, education.” – José Álvaro Moisés


“There was a breakdown in political communication between the players, which is a key element in political action. What I mean is that it became impossible to establish a communication channel or any other acceptable means of communication […]. We are going through a new moment of interruption in political communication. This means an exercise of political reinvention […]. In other words, the legitimately accepted channels of expression, demands, participation, somehow seem exhausted. Or they seem unsatisfactory. All of them are exercises in political mise-en-scène that place the dissatisfaction, the effervescence, in a public space, with a large audience and high visibility.” – Sergio Adorno (associating, at first, the current manifestations and the invasion of the dean’s office of the University of São Paulo in 2007).

“Maybe this is the time for parties and discredited institutions to hear what people are trying to say and carry out this exercise of political reinvention. We are in urgent need that these institutions be changed, reinvented. The way they are now, the discredit only tends to grow.” – Lucia Maciel Barbosa de Oliveira


“And, obviously, against police repression, an aspect that worries us all, because the unwelcome presence of groups willing to vandalize causes a dangerous hardening of the security forces.” – Alfredo Bosi

“It is not a matter of the youth from São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro looking at Istanbul and imagining themselves emulating [what is happening there]. I think it was the opposite: in my fantasy, it was the police in São Paulo, it was [mayor] Haddad and [governor] Alckmin who imitated and tried to replicate what happened in Turkey, in Istanbul.” – Massimo Canevacci

“There was police violence, which we all reject, criticize, and which was in a sense the great detonator. This allowed us to reflect: for many, it recalled the events of the dictatorship; for others, the idea that the police is always violent and, therefore, must be opposed. The discourse that links violence and political protest is being reclassified. Until the 1970s, it was legitimate, i.e., violence was associated with the end of oppression, with the movements of decolonization, with the idea that violence was an instrument of politics. But what have we been seeing since the 1970s? An ongoing disqualification of violence, i.e., that violence is not a political means, that violence is non-politics. There now seems to be an attempt to redress the question of violence as a space of politics.” – Sergio Adorno

“The violence that was mentioned has a very strong meaning, however frightening and negative it may often be. It is truly an oppressed voice breaking loose, and it must be heard. There are also many accusations that, similar to what happened in Egypt, real-life criminals are being paid [to take part in the demonstrations]. This may be happening.” – Arlene Clemesha

“We have a specific moment, the violent actions of the military police […]. Violence changes everything. On the following demonstration, there were 65,000 people in São Paulo, including those who had been complaining that order was being disturbed.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita


Debate 'O Que Está Acontecendo?' - 3

“Yesterday there was physical aggression by people participating in the movement: toward those with banners, toward those who were part of previously existing social movements, toward homosexuals. In short, I think there was a rather disturbing conservative swerve yesterday.” – Lucia Maciel Barbosa de Oliveira

“My concern now is fascism […]. We were hacked by the media, by the Right, and everyone went to the streets. And then things got out of control. Having no agenda, everyone took their suppressed desires to protest against everything and everyone. And now we have to control the monster that we put on the streets.” – Jorge Luiz Campos

“After this onset, which had many positive aspects, opportunistic groups began to appear – a leaning to the right, a fascist movement […]. We run the risk that they usurp not only how the manifestations are seen by general public, but also the direction toward where the movement is going. It is in this vacuum of understanding, in this lack of communication, that such fascist movements are popping up and taking the lead of a movement that was beautiful when it emerged.” – Arlene Clemesha

“We begin to see signs of the movement being co-opted […], of the encroachment of other agendas […]. We begin to perceive that what the Free Pass Movement intended is being phagocytized by extremely conservative movements […]. These are people using the image achieved by the demonstrations to convey a coup mentality. This is very dangerous. The Free Pass Movement did what it had to do: occupy the public space. And it spoke out when it noticed attempts to manipulate it, to use it. What did the Movement do? It withdrew. And very rightly so. Why? So that these card-carrying opportunists might go back to where they should never have left.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita


“These are movements that go way beyond whatever mustered them and upon which are projected all desires, even those of contradictory nature. Thus it also happens that the outcome is often taken away from them.” – Renato Janine Ribeiro

“If we observe the demonstrations, each person has his or her own poster. Even if each poster reflects a collective feeling, it is a unique reading of a collective experience, of an interrupted political communication. I think this experience needs to be thought through; what does it want, where does it want to go and why does it refuse these mechanisms?” – Sergio Adorno

“To be able to somehow continue with the demands and preserve the meaning it had initially, the movement must set other extremely objective goals, such as lowering fares from R$ 3.20 to R$ 3.00. It must define goals of this nature.” – José Álvaro Moisés

“This movement was carried out by the Free Pass Movement, that is, it began with a clear-cut agenda. To say it is diffuse, that it does not know what it wants, this came later. The movement was born with a very objective agenda.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita

“It has a focus. The focus of the Free Pass is the free pass. With another focus, it will be a different movement. On the other hand, the corruption agenda is an agenda of the infiltrated Right. It is a generic agenda. Corruption is not open to discussion; what we can discuss are instances of corruption.” – Jorge Luiz Campos


“One element that was not mentioned here and which seems essential to me is the idea of reclaiming public space, the idea of having a claim to the city as a space of encounter, of confrontation […]. It is no wonder that people are going to the streets; being connected over the internet is not enough.” – Lucia Maciel Barbosa de Oliveira

“We’ve established a connection between the movement in Brazil and the movement in Turkey, both quite recent. Both dealt initially with a matter that concerned our way of living, the environment, the issue of urbanization, mobility, transportation. This was not by chance. There is a strong connection between the new social movements and the question of ecology, without limiting itself to the ecological dimension.” – Nicholas Lechopier

“People who grumble against the movement believe that manifesting against something means gathering students at the São Paulo Art Museum [MASP], singing “The Heart of a Student” and releasing a dove from a cage. But this is not so. To carry out a movement that leads to transformation it is necessary to disrupt order. If it does not minimally disturb the order – this does not mean practicing violence or vandalizing public or private property – it will not have the necessary impact.” – Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita


“One thing in common [between the movement in Brazil and other springs] is the insufficiency of economic growth to build a common meaning, a collective goal for our life in society. Perhaps the key to interpret these movements is the perilous notion of infinite economic growth […], the problem is a matter of economics, of the role of money, and I’m now going back to the issue of transportation, of free transportation.” – Nicholas Lechopier