What Brazil’s protests mean

What does it mean when hundreds of thousands of Brazilians take to the streets shouting “out with the President”? After countrywide protests this weekend, the answer is still not clear.

Sunday’s protests in São Paulo were peaceful and mostly in the spirit of modern democracies. Many different groups helped organize the march, representing diverse political positions united by anti-President Dilma Rousseff, anti-Workers’ Party rhetoric.

Numerous groups had rented their own loudspeaker-equipped trucks and positioned them at different locations along the Avenida Paulista, where protests traditionally take place in São Paulo. The movements that represented fringe positions had few interested listeners. For example, only a couple of hundred people (in the midst of an estimated crowd of 135,000) were paying attention to an organization demanding a military coup and claiming that only the army could stop the “homosexualization” of Brazil.

Much larger crowds were massed in front of the trucks of the main organizers, Acorda Brasil (Wake Up Brazil) and Vem Pra Rua Brasil (Take to the Streets, Brazil). Their orators used music and anthems to rouse the crowd and, as is often the case in Brazil, soccer team chants were reworded with political slogans. The anti-Workers’ Party movement Acorda Brasil changed the old leftist saying “Um povo unido, nunca será vencido” (“A people united will never be defeated”) to “Um povo anseio, Lula para a cadeia” (“The people demand (ex-President) Lula in prison”). Many marchers held signs proclaiming Sérgio Moro, the judge leading Brazil’s corruption investigations, the hero of the day.

Yet Sunday’s protests still drew smaller crowds than had been expected. True, the raw numbers cannot on their own be read as broad satisfaction with the ruling party. But the reality is that the chants of “out with Dilma” masked disagreement about what exactly the protesters wanted to see happen — most seemed to want Dilma to resign, many wanted her impeached, and others simply sought fresh elections.

Will the protesters get any of these wishes?

Dilma’s resignation or impeachment are both unlikely scenarios, and the protests against the President and her party don’t provide solutions to the current corruption crisis or to the continuing problems of social and economic inequality. What the protests do highlight, though, is the continued vibrancy of democracy in the country.

Like many Brazilian protests, the line between street fair and political action was quite fluid. On Sundays, Avenida Paulista is always filled with people eating, strolling and shopping. And while the march clearly drew more people than you would expect to find out on a typical Sunday, there were also more upscale food trucks, water and drink carts than usual mixed in with the anti-Dilma T-shirts styled to Brazil’s national soccer jerseys.

But three moments stood out to me as fascinating examples of the particularly Brazilian way of doing politics.

The first was early in the day, when a few hundred of Brazil’s Hells Angels were granted a police escort to roar down the Avenue in a way impossible on a regular Sunday (or any day). The second was the public hero-making of the military riot police who smilingly encouraged children to pet their horses (and thus encouraged their parents to forget continuing claims of police violence, especially in areas outside of the center of the city). Finally, there was the complexity of a group of eight smiling female military police officers in makeup, lined up together (presumably on command) and taking photographs with whistling male admirers.

Other issues were also apparent.

For a start, the numbers of college age protesters was modest — the crowd appeared to be mainly families and those 50 and over. Meanwhile, the diversity of the crowd was equally modest — the protesters predominantly fell along the “white” end of the color spectrum (although in Brazil the terms for race vary widely, and rarely is the black/white approach of the United States employed). Indeed, it was noticeable that the vendors, and the military police themselves, were of different colors — and seemingly different classes — than many of the protesters.

Still, Sunday’s protests are part of a continuum in modern Brazil that has been apparent since the 1960s. Two years ago, demonstrations started with young people opposing increases in public transportation fares. On Sunday, the street marches were led by different groups, all protesting government corruption and united in opposition to Brazil’s democratically elected president and the Workers’ Party.

One of the many joys of being a historian is that I do not have to predict the future. But seeing the weekend’s demonstrations close up, one thing was very clear — the use of the street as a location for making political points looks set to continue. And in doing so, it suggests a healthy democracy in Brazil — even during these times of political, economic, and social uncertainty.

Jeffrey Lesser is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History at Emory University and a fellow of the Intercultural Dialogues group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. His most recent book is Immigration, Ethnicity and National Identity in Brazil. The views expressed are his own.

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