Ongoing protests against a rise in bus fare continued in São Paulo and Rio tonight, as well as other cities. Thousands hit the streets in Brazil's two biggest cities, with continued violent clashes between police and protesters in both cities. But it was the images in São Paulo of peaceful protesters surrounded by riot police or being fired on with rubber bullets, as well as the news that at least half a dozen journalists were injured in the fray, that showed a different story shown by some media outlets of one of a horde of hooligans.
What, then, brought so many people to the streets? In both cities, bus fare is slated to rise by R$0.20. Clearly, this is not an insignificant amount for those making the minimum wage, but the demonstrations also attracted members of the middle class, too. Considering that unemployment is still low and wages have risen over the last decade, why protest fare increases now?
Brazil protests focus on bus-fare increases. But they come at time of high inflation, sluggish growth & sharp fall in currency. Coincidence?— Simon Romero (@viaSimonRomero) June 14, 2013
First, there's the economic issue. As I wrote yesterday, inflation and the rising cost of living seem like the immediate triggers.
But my hypothesis beyond the immediate economic issues is this: the São Paulo and Rio protests have more to do with the evolution of Brazil's middle class amid a stagnation in quality in life.
On one hand, there are more and more people moving into the so-called new middle class, gaining higher salaries and levels of education and as a result, come to expect a higher standard of living. But some things haven't changed much. Crime is a major concern, especially in Rio and São Paulo; muggings, gun violence, and home invasions are serious security challenges. Public transportation is still inadequate and often of poor quality, and traffic means workers from different levels of the socioeconomic spectrum have long commutes. Many consumer goods are still expensive, and the cost of living--including basics like food and housing--is high. "It's a general feeling of being fed up," a friend in São Paulo told me.
However, it's also the traditional middle class that has grown tired of this stagnated quality of life. Some feel they have earned a quality of life closer to that of high-income countries, and are frustrated by paying high taxes with low returns. At the same time, some resent the new middle class for "invading" spaces normally reserved for the better off, and the new middle class is well aware of how it is viewed. Several people mentioned that during the protests, people were throwing around the word "burguês." Maybe these class tensions are becoming more obvious.
Esses manifestantes sao "uns burgues q n tem o q fazer"— SoninhaFrancine (@SoninhaFrancine) June 13, 2013
There are also a few interesting things to note.
The first is that the protests have no obvious associations with political parties. Brazil's most famous large-scale protests in recent memory are those against the dictatorship and the transition to democracy. Since then, there certainly have been protests (especially in São Paulo), but frequently, big manifestations have tended to involve labor unions, political parties and campaign rallies, public employees, or religious groups. To a lesser degree, there are also niche causes like women's rights rallies and pro-marijuana marches. But because this week's protests were not organized by elected officials, labor unions, churches, or political parties, it's taken some by surprise.
A mente petista funciona assim: "como pode haver movimentação social sem eu ter autorizado, sem eu ter cooptado?"— teclologoexisto (@teclologoexisto) June 14, 2013
The other interesting thing to note is how bitterly the protests have divided people, especially in São Paulo. There's the side that says that twenty cents is not that much, and that a bunch of disorganized, left-wing instigators are using violence to incite chaos. There's the other side, that supports the right to protest and encourages people standing up for a cause. But evidence of police brutality--beating protesters and members of the press, and using tear gas, bombs, and rubber bullets--have resurrected ghosts of the dicatorship for many, causing anxiety about state security.
There's also the issue of social media, which like in other parts of the world, helped both fuel and organize protesters, and allow people the world over to follow the manifestations in real time. And because of the grossly incompetent response by São Paulo's state and local governments and the resulting violence, the protests evolved into something much bigger than they could have.
Image: Police fire on protesters in São Paulo. Via Feridos no Protesto em São Paulo.