Popular Struggles in Brazil and Turkey
In Brazil, students and the indigenous may be fighting different fights, but they are ultimately part of the same struggle against the neoliberal state. While the world has been watching Turkey, another country is experiencing revolt: Brazil. Just like Turkey, Brazil has recently experienced relative success in economic terms. But just as in Turkey, the spoils of this economic growth are divided extremely unequally. Just like in Turkey, a relatively small provocation has sparked a much more widespread chain reaction. Unlike in Turkey, that provocation is a direct attack on living standards. But the anger exploding as a result of it appears to run just as deep
Brazil has seen strong economic growth in the past decade, although this is slowing. In 2010, the economy grew 7.5 percent; for 2011, the official IMF estimate is 2.7 percent. This temporary slowdown is supposed to be followed by stronger growth in 2013, although, with IMF statistics, you can never tell. However, the parallel with Turkey — also a rapidly developing economy gradually moving into slowdown — is striking. Economies like Turkey and Brazil are becoming quite an important force in the world economy. What happens there matters to the rest of the world. Better watch out — and better be prepared to extend the hand of solidarity when it is needed.
Right now, what is happening in Brazil and Turkey is revolt. In Turkey it was the defence of Gezi park that provided the spark. In Brazil, it is transport fares that drive people to the streets in anger. On 2 June, authorities in the metropolis of Sao Paulo raised the price of a single fare from $1.40 USD to $1.50. This hike, moreover, is being made in a context of 15.5 percent inflation. And for thousands of Brazilians, it proved to be the proverbial last straw. From June 10 onwards, the city was rocked by four consecutive days of demonstrations and riots. On June 13, 5,000 people took to the streets and clashed violently with police.
According to the BBC, “the demonstrators were mostly university students, but the authorities said there were also groups of anarchists looking for a fight.” The idea that some students might be anarchists by conviction, and that some anarchists go to college because they like to learn, apparently does not occur to either “authorities” or the BBC. And the ones “looking for a fight” were above all the rabid police troops themselves, who used excessive amounts of teargas and rubber bullets against mostly unarmed demonstrators, some of whom did attack shops and set fire to tires. But that’s what desperate people do if you make their lives even harder by raising the prices of public amenities in a context of rapid inflation.
Overall, more than 50 people were left injured and the number of arrests exceeded 200. According to the BBC, “police say they seized petrol bombs, knives, and drugs.” Sure. And yes, “police acted with professionalism”, according to the state governor. Obviously. After all, repression is their profession.
All of this was reported on the BBC website on June 14. The next day, the Guardian had more. Demonstrations in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and the capital Brasilia itself; 130 people detained; at least 100 demonstrators hurt; 12 police officers injured as well. At times, police attacked entirely non-violent crowds. At times, demonstrators displayed their anger by painting graffiti onto walls, smashing shop windows, setting garbage on fire, and so on.
According to police, they decided to attack because the protesters took a different route from the one agreed upon with authorities, and because they threw objects at police. The police charges themselves were ferocious, replete with rubber bullets, tear gas and truncheons. Even the mayor of Sao Paulo was forced to admit that police have not been following “protocol” and announced an official investigation.
Why the anger? Of course there’s the price hike for subway and bus tickets — but there is more. “It’s about a society that is sick of corrupt politicians not making good on their promises to make improvements…” said one 24-year-old protester. “We want decent education, healthcare and transportation. That’s what the fight is all about.” It is the same story all over again: while the state pushes for economic growth, inequality grows. People protest, the police attack, and the revolt deepens and broadens.
But there’s more going on in Brazil than protests against the rising price of transportation. There is revolt in the countryside as well. The fact remains that Brazil has built its neoliberal capitalist economy on the back of slavery, land robbery and downright genocide of its indigenous population. The struggle against colonialism and for indigenous liberation continues unabated. In this struggle, communities clash with all kinds of resource exploitation and infrastructural projects that form the building blocks of neoliberal development.
In recent years, numerous actions have taken place against a giant dam project at Belo Monte. This project threatens to harm the lands and ecosystems on which indigenous communities depend in order to make a living. On May 28, there was an occupation of the building site — not the first of its kind. On June 6, meanwhile, there was yet another major protest rally in the capital of Brasilia.
In the meantime, a shrill light is shed on a colonial and genocidal past that, sadly enough, continues today. Recently, a previously unpublished report by the state institution responsible for indigenous relations surfaced detailing the state’s treatment of indigenous people, and containing a chilling series of horror stories — ranging from thirty villagers being attacked and killed from the air with dynamite, to the purposeful spreading of smallpox, a deadly disease, in order to get rid of people. The list goes on, exceeding 1,000 crimes specifically mentioned in a 7,000 page text.
The report was submitted in 1967, but “disappeared”, as did so many of the victims. Only this spring, it reappeared, a fate that was not granted to the victims themselves. In the meantime, the military dictatorship has gone, but the terror instigated by landowners and agricultural capitalists against indigenous people and landless peasants continues regardless. So, fortunately, does the resistance.
In Brazil, the indigenous people are confronting an enemy that is not just colonial but neoliberal. They are attacked and murdered because they are in the way of profitable export-oriented agriculture, and of the giant infrastructure needed to feed energy to Brazil’s rapidly developing industries. The same neoliberal monster that drives the prices of subway and bus tickets to unbearable heights is driving the indigenous people from their lands; marginalizing the poor in the favelas; and keeping millions of young people out of university and out of work — just as it prioritizes investment into useless World Cup stadiums over investment in much-needed schools and hospitals.
In this sense, demonstrating university students and occupying indigenous peoples may be fighting different fights, but they are ultimately part of the same struggle — the struggle of humanity against neoliberalism, and of the self-liberating people against an oppressive state apparatus built on racist and colonial foundations. Better keep an eye on how that dual struggle unfolds in the coming weeks, months and years.
Report from a Brazilian Activist
After spending the last few days in São Paulo, I return to Florianópolis with all my thoughts taken up by the subject that has monopolized conversations in the city: the demonstrations of the Free Pass Movement [MPL]…
On the way home, I was seized by a whirlwind of memories that forced me to write… It was then that I began to remember the first meeting of the “Free [Transit] Pass São Paulo” that I participated in at the headquarters of the JOC (Working-Class Catholic Youth) in March 2005, even before that group formally joined the Free Pass Movement, which came about between June and July of that year, shortly before the 2nd ENMPL (National Meeting of the Free Pass Movement). I also remembered that tumultuous and fateful meeting in Campinas: after the “Public Transportation and Free Passes – the de-commodization of public transport” seminar, again in October of that year, when I first had contact with the guy who came to “change everything”, Lúcio Gregori, who introduced the idea of the Zero Tariff to us. Then came the National Week of the Fight for Free Passes at the end of the same month…
After that, it is impossible to list everything that followed: the fight against the increase in 2006, when for the first time the demonstrators exceeded the hundreds and we gathered thousands of people in the demonstrations that we called, and many, many more activities. I remember how hard it was to speak about Zero Fares at that time – we were simply labelled as crazy by everyone and it took a huge job of training, preparation and discussion, seminars, lectures, and a myriad of activities until the proposal began to be understood and minimally accepted by different sectors of society, including within even the left.
In over eight years of the movement, be it in São Paulo or in Floripa, there were innumerable decisive moments which went to create what I am today, as well as all the great people and great friendships I made. There were many, many people who passed through the movement, the discussions, the controversies, tensions, crises… I know that I dedicated, along with many other comrades, hours and hours of work, meetings and activities to the movement. There were many who spent a considerable part of their “best years” of their youth in this movement, losing their hair, acquiring grey hairs and gaining a few extra kilos. And it was not always easy: on the contrary, the “low” moments may have exceeded those where the MPL was on the rise. There were many doubts, and those moments of disbelief where we would ask ourselves: “Is it really worth it?”
All these collective efforts in order to widen not only the organization but also the ideological aspect of the struggle, of convincing the population about the correctness of this agenda, I now see being added to the spontaneity of the thousands that are coming out onto the streets today – in São Paulo but also across Brazil and in many cities throughout the world. And from the merger between organization and spontaneity, we are witnessing this moment, rich in mobilization, in the development of practical direct action, in horizontality and autonomy, principles which are dear to the movement. The organization of the MPL is adding itself to the courage and strength of thousands of people, from all walks of life, who with all the violence and brutality of the State have faced repression, trial and all the manipulation of the mass media, and are continuing to rock São Paulo and threaten to stir up the whole country in a difficult process of analysis and foresight.
“If you remained isolated, if each one of you were obliged to act on your own, you would be powerless without a doubt; but getting together and organizing your forces – no matter how weak they are at first – only for joint action, guided by common ideas and attitudes, and by working together for a common goal, you will become invincible.“
Thus we come to the present, the culmination of all our history, without doubt surprising all expectations. We have arrived at the centre stage of national politics, gaining unprecedented prominence and recognition.
I do not know what will become of it all – beyond being sure that the repeal of the increase will come about in São Paulo. One way or another I know that I, and many others besides me, today hold enormous pride in having contributed in some way to writing this story. With great conviction, even in the worst moments of doubt and distress, we carried the knowledge that we would never regret it all. A certainty based on a gamble, because when we fight nothing is ever guaranteed.
The only thing I keep thinking now is: it was worth it. We are writing History, friends, friends, comrades, comrades in struggle and class.
What will happen from now on cannot be predicted. But I have learned that everything we do today, however small it may seem, can have repercussions tomorrow. In the words of Errico Malatesta on voluntarism:
“We believe … that the revolution is an act of will – the will of individuals and of the masses; that it needs for its success certain objective conditions, but that it does not happen of necessity, inevitably, through the single action of economic and political forces.“