Last week I watched a video of a man arrested for possession of a bottle of vinegar. The man, a journalist named Piero Locatelli, was covering the protests here when a policeman asked to search his backpack. Like other demonstrators, he had brought some vinegar. The idea is that breathing through a cloth soaked in vinegar neutralizes the effects of tear gas, though this doesn’t really seem to work. The police claim that the product can be used to make bombs, but this is even less true.
Mr. Locatelli was released two hours later. But the damage had been done. Over the next week, as the protests spread to cities around the country, the arrest became a mocking rallying cry. Someone started a campaign on Facebook to legalize vinegar. Another created a “V for Vinegar” page, a reference to the graphic novel “V for Vendetta.” The “Salad Uprising” had begun.
The people’s anger was understandable. The day Mr. Locatelli was arrested, June 13, many others in São Paulo also faced the repression of the military police: more than 100 protesters and at least 15 journalists were reported injured, including a photographer, who will probably lose some of his vision after being shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. I rushed to join the demonstration, but I couldn’t get past the clouds of tear gas and pepper spray. Some officers removed their name tags when firing stun grenades. It looked like war. And it was all triggered by the equivalent of a 9-cent increase in the city’s public transport fares, to about $1.47.
That might not sound like a lot, but it makes a big difference to someone who earns the minimum wage of just 678 reais a month (around $300 at today’s exchange rates). Getting around this city is not easy. São Paulo has roughly 11 million inhabitants and 7 million vehicles. Traffic is terrible, the buses and underground rail insufficient and overcrowded. I live in Alto do Mandaqui, a neighborhood about seven miles north of the city center, but it can take an hour and a half to get there. I spend a lot of my salary just so I can sit inside a hot bus, stuck in traffic. And Brazilians in many other cities face the same, along with the threat of increasing transportation costs.
As one of the protest chants, addressed to President Dilma Rousseff, went: “Dilma, what’s the point?/To ride the bus/we’re paying more than for a joint.”
But the protests were about much more than transportation. This week, even after a number of cities agreed to lower or reconsider their fares, the protests continued. After all, we were still gravely concerned about the government conspiracy to suppress our salads. A few months ago, there was a 122 percent increase in the price of tomatoes, compared with the year before. I personally stood with the leaders of the March for Vinegar Legalization, about which there have been many jokes on social media. One person wrote that, if caught in the act of handling vinegar, you should confess to being an avid user, and say you’re trying to quit.
On June 16, pressed by public opinion, the government agreed to authorize vinegar possession for both revolutionary and gastronomic uses. Perhaps as a result, the next day, another protest in São Paulo was peaceful. Around 65,000 people marched (some, like my mom and me, carrying bottles of salad dressing). We were campaigning against all sorts of things: police brutality, government corruption, lousy public services and “funk alto no busão” (roughly: loud boom boxes playing atrocious funky music in the bus).
Another common cry, which garnered much praise despite having little purpose, was, loosely: “The people/united/are a gigantic bunch of dudes” — though the real version included a rowdy profanity.
Crowds were also criticizing the federal government for spending billions to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016 (with projected budgets of $13.3 billion and $18 billion, respectively). One demonstrator wrote on a sign: “When your son is ill, take him to the stadium.” Some shouted, “Any good teacher is worth more than Neymar,” in reference to a highly paid soccer player.
The bigger issue behind the dissatisfaction, however, is that Brazilians are still getting used to democracy. Two decades of fierce military dictatorship formally ended only in 1985. We still have a military police force to maintain public order. We still fear them. That is why these protests are so important.
Not all Brazilians agree. Many think the demonstrations lack focus, are useless or even harmful. The press sometimes calls the protesters “vandals,” “delinquents” and “terrorists.” And there have been some acts of vandalism by the crowds. But that is no excuse to stay home.
On Monday night we walked more than six miles, occupying avenues usually clogged with cars and buses. We lay down in the middle of Paulista Avenue and painted all sorts of wise messages on placards, like: “I’m so pissed off that I wrote this sign.” One boy was exhausted by the walking and just wrote, “for the right to stay in one place.”
Most of the protesters were in their teens and 20s, and I felt very ancient in my 30s. I am sure we seemed as ineffective and foolish as our bottles of vinegar against a bomb of tear gas. But we have the right to be ineffective and foolish — we’re still learning how to protest.
On Thursday night one million Brazilians poured into the streets of some 80 cities around the country. “Bring your salad. Salt and olive oil are optional.” That’s our message.
Vanessa Barbara edits the literary Web site A Hortaliça and is a columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.