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July 2, 2013
July 2, 2013

Brazil: The vinegar revolution

Author: Virgy Romo Translator: Anna Papoutsi
Category: Protest
This article is also available in: elespt-pt
Brazil: The vinegar revolution

It is not for the 20 centavos (7 cents), “nor for the 40 since it is a round trip” as many joke. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. A country where the minimum wage is 678 reals (232 euros) and where living costs keep increasing. A country that plays with statistical numbers in order to say that education is improving, while in reality it is not trying to actually fix it. A country in which it is possible to see on the news that a woman died from receiving intravenously coffee instead of serum, where it is normal to wait for hours in a hospital waiting room writhing from pain without receiving any type of attendance.

Yes, perfect, Brazil will be hosting the World Cup. But, as a protester’s placard said: “Great, we have stadiums like in the first world, can we now have health and education?”

And, let’s be honest, it is not reprehensible that people complain because the government is investing more in some football matches than in these issues. The people of Rio are fed up with the city being governed with the “gringos” (foreigners) in mind and not of them.

The monopolisation of the media. Corruption… a story that has no end. No, I don’t think it’s for lack of motives that citizens take to the streets demanding changes.

And it is in this climate that protests appear. In every city, more or less the same pattern has been repeating itself: peaceful march for a couple of hours and finally, confrontation between police and protesters.

That’s an easy way of summarising the events. I’ll make use of my experience in some demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro and Niterói (near Rio), in order to manage to explain how living here is.

Preparing to go to a demonstration involves a ritual. It seemed we were going to practice some sort of sport. It is not advisable to go with any kind of clothes, it is better that they are comfortable and that, like the shoes, facilitate running. Bring a cloth soaked in vinegar to cancel the effect of tear gas. This became a curiosity in this story: if the police discovered you with a bottle of vinegar, you ran the risk of being arrested. Thus, the movement is known as the “the vinegar revolution”.

The first day of demonstrations, there were about half a million people. The first feeling was something very similar to agoraphobia. However, it was not long before I got into the spirit of the demonstration. Thousands of banners expressing complaints. Several hours of peaceful walk singing lyrics about all the issues we didn’t agree with. In the windows of tall buildings lights were switched on and off in support for the movement; white sheets of paper were also thrown from the windows. These were beautiful images. These were moments when people’s strength moved you.

It was impossible to see the beginning or the end of the demonstration, but through word of mouth and technology, the news that several iconic buildings were being burned in Rio began to spread. We learned that a Congress had been occupied in Brasilia. Some concern was born; we did not know what was happening. Suddenly, the group at the head of the march turned and started running, screaming. Terror seized everyone. The initial instinct was to run as well. That was a terrible idea: whoever fell would be trampled by the crowd. Moments like this will occur in a recurrent way, so we learned it’s best to go a little aside from the crowd, parallel to the wall where you can take shelter in these cases.

It’s funny to remember reaching the point of wishing that the police would intervene because I couldn’t bear watching some individuals destroying buildings, burning cars, raiding stores. Again, we did not understand what was happening. The next day, I heard a protester complaining about how the media divided the protesters into two groups: the peaceful and the vandals. She was saying that, no, it was all part of the same thing. She did not consider herself a vandal, but a revolutionary. And that, from her position, the burning of some symbolic building is legitimate since it seems to be the only way to be heard. She claimed that last year most Brazilian public universities went on strike for months asking for changes, and in the end it was a peaceful movement that barely had an impact. No doubt this makes one wonder “is violence necessary in order to make oneself heard?” There seems to be a difference between the “revolutionaries” and the “vandals” who take advantage of the confusion in order to attack. It is a delicate matter. Another proof of disintegration of the crowd.

I did not know that only three days later, the situation would become more complicated.

The next day, during a demonstration in Niterói President Dilma announced that, as demanded by the people, she would lower the tariff. The 20 cents increase would be cancelled. However, the movement continued; this is not the only reason why people are fighting.

June 20th arrived. The tension was easy to feel in the air, and that day is not so easily erased from the memory of those who were at the demonstration. It was in one of the largest avenues of the city and, despite of everything, it was full of people. A pretty shocking image. From the beginning, there was something different, a small victory had been achieved with the bus tariff, and now each group were defending one thing. However, that was not what made this day historical.

The demonstration had barely finished when chaos and terror were established throughout the city between protesters and those who had not even been in it. Because this time the police made no distinction between the peaceful protesters and the vandals.

We saw a big part of the crowd retreating in a stampede, holding cloths on their faces, a sign that tear gas had been fired already. The girls and I were paralysed in a corner. We did not know what to do. All streets were overwhelmed with people running from one side to the other.

We stayed in that corner hoping that the confusion would pass. How naïve were we! The stun grenades were already very close and the flow of people was still amazing, you could already hear perfectly the police shooting. We looked at each other perplexed and said we had to get out before being trapped. We started walking quickly along the wall, as we had learned. I had to stop. They had fired large amounts of tear gas, my eyes stung too much, I couldn’t open them. A hand grabbed me and pulled me out. I walked several meters without knowing where I was going. The sound of shooting was still approaching; impossible to calm down. We arrived at the entrance of a metro station, we didn’t even decide it, we ended up inside pushed by a group of people.

They closed down the gates, there was no exit once you’d entered in there. We were worried, would the cops dare enter? Some, afraid to death, went further down the metro entrance. Which, by the way, was not running. We decided to sit on the stairs waiting for the confusion outside to pass. We hadn’t settled when explosions came from the metro entrance. Obviously, everyone who was in there run out terrified in the direction of the stairs where many of us were waiting. We were nearly crushed again. Despair gripped all of us, no one felt safe there. This avalanche against the gates managed to get the gates opened. We all went out pushing hard. More gas. I could not see anything.

We are lucky, there is a bus caught in the chaos that opens the door for us. Not even going to Niterói, our city, but it hardly mattered. We got home. We knew that the situation got worse in Rio after we managed to get out. Facebook kept updating with stories really frightening. The “Globo”, the most important broadcaster in Brazil, was showing the demonstrations of all the big cities except Rio. That’s a bad sign. What is happening?

People were injured not only by rubber bullets, but also by fire. Everyone had friends who were lost in the confusion and whose whereabouts remained unknown. Many did not manage to return home that night, others had to walk really far in order to go home.

Why was public transportation not running? Never had that happened before. We found out that it was the police who had fired the stun grenades in the metro station; we learned that they also entered a hospital and fired pepper spray, they entered in most parts of the city and even cut off the lights in some areas to cause more terror. The feeling of being ambushed by the police was shared among all who were there. The governor, Sergio Cabral, washed his hands saying that the police acted on their own.

It was a nightmare. A horrible dream, but we all had a conviction: once we got home, we were safe. Which brings on the table an old issue: the daily police operations in the favelas, with firearms and without resources like ours to record what happens there.

On the other hand, the rumours of a possible coup d’état are not silenced. And the story doesn´t seem to be very different than a few decades ago, when the dictatorship was established.

Thus, many protesters, mostly students, momentarily leave the streets to reunite and attempt to reach a consensus on how to deal with these events: a police force that instead of providing security, cultivates fear; parties and companies trying to capitalise on the situation; people that have strength but not a common goal.

After a quiet week, there has been more dialogue than action. The demonstrations continue but with less force. Many are tired of seeing people shouting for such diverse reasons, often they have nothing to do with one another. Others have been too scared to get back out on the streets. Will people overcome those fears, that difficulty of finding common ground? How far will this movement go? Will there be any impact at the legislative level? The next days will be remembered for being a great demonstration of people united or for reliving the horrible scene of the past few weeks?

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Brazil: The vinegar revolution by Virgy Romo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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