SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In February, during a protest here against the World Cup, demonstrators were running away from rubber bullets and tear gas when they bumped into a group celebrating Carnival. The Carnival people took shelter inside a bar, while cheering the police repression with shouts of: “Well done! Well done!” One man insulted a female demonstrator. He was laughing and clapping, his eyes filled with a mixture of rage and joy.
Similar scenes have been repeated across the nation in the last few weeks. It seems Brazil doesn’t have just one national team representing it during this World Cup; it has two: those who support the tournament, and those who do not.
The pro side includes all soccer fans who are passionate about the World Cup, as well as Brazilians who are aligned with the federal government. They claim that it’s a huge economic opportunity and a good way to promote Brazil abroad. They also believe our country has sufficient resources to host the tournament while still investing in public services like health care and education. For them, it makes no sense blaming the World Cup for our domestic problems. They often use the word “legacy.”
“The airports, subways and stadiums will not go back with the tourists in their suitcases. They will stay here, benefiting us all,” said President Dilma Rousseff.
The supporters say that protests should have happened seven years ago; now it’s too late to complain. Those who continue in their opposition are seen as enemies of the left-wing government — hence, protesters are considered fascists or terrorists.
The other team is represented by the activists on the streets. They are almost alone in their struggle. They face the media’s disapproval and police repression; during one February protest, there were reportedly 2,300 police officers for 1,500 protesters — more than one officer for each demonstrator. That day, 262 people were arrested.
The main reason for repressing or dismissing the protesters is that they are seen as vandals and criminals. Some of them — usually young people, many of them anarchists, who dress in black and cover their faces — do use what are called “Black Bloc” tactics. These originated in anticapitalist and antigovernment movements in Italy and Germany in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They consist of defensive tactics like forming a front line to protect demonstrators and building barricades, as well as offensive actions such as street fighting and vandalizing symbolic targets like government buildings or banks.
Of course, the Black Blocs represent a small part of the rallies — I’d say roughly 10 percent. Most of the demonstrators are peaceful and just want to openly disapprove of the excessive spending of public money on a private event. They point out that, seven years ago, the government promised that “not a single cent of public funds” would be spent building or refurbishing stadiums. But almost 97 percent of the investment in the arenas has come from taxpayers’ money. Of the World Cup’s total cost of $11.5 billion, 85.5 percent has come from public funds. The protesters also speak out against forced evictions, deaths of construction workers, tax exemptions and corruption.
On June 12, the first day of the World Cup, a protest in São Paulo was brutally repressed before it could even start. The police detained 33 citizens for “verification purposes,” even though this is illegal under our Constitution. Lawyers were denied access to their clients, while first- aid workers and legal observers were also attacked. Several police officers removed their identification tags.
Despite these problems, our news media is covering politics as if it were a sporting event. “Residents 3 vs. Activists 1,” read a recent headline in one major newspaper, after a protest in São Paulo — as though it was a soccer match between police officers and protesters, with people watching from the stands.
The newspaper said that residents harassed protesters and, in one city, threw eggs at them. “Shoot them!” a man yelled to the police from his window. “Crush them!” shouted a 70-year-old woman, claiming that Brazilians were embarrassing themselves in front of the world. A retired salesman told a New York Times reporter, “I just want Brazil to win the cup in order to silence these clowns who are protesting.”
So we’ve reached a Brazil vs. Brazil situation, a competitive scenario in which one side celebrates the harms done to the other. What I don’t understand is how the pro-World Cup people could possibly win when the protesters are repressed, since their own civil rights are also at stake. The more they celebrate the violation of basic rights like freedom of expression and the right to assemble, the more everybody loses.
This became clear to me during that February protest, when the Carnival group was cheering on the police from the shelter of a bar. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the police threw a percussion grenade inside the bar. The man who, moments before, had insulted a female demonstrator, was the first to be brutally pushed by a police officer.
But since we’re on the sports field, this is the score: From the beginning of the protests six months ago to the time Brazil’s team finished its first match, in São Paulo we’ve had a total of 10 banks vandalized (front glass shattered) and two car dealerships damaged. In the same period, 505 people were arrested here and 89 injured (according to GAPP, a group of first-aid volunteers), including one shot with real bullets.
No one is going to win this game.
Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.