By Einar Braathen*
Rio de Janeiro three days before the carnival: yet another street demonstration this record hot Brazilian summer. Twice as many police as demonstrators in the street. The slogans are: Não Vai Ter Copa – ‘”There won´t be World Cup”– and ‘No to criminalization of protests».
Não Vai Ter Copa – ‘”There won´t be World Cup” – sounds like a surreal parole in a football crazy country that has already invested around 10 billion USD on arenas for the tournament which will start on June 12th. Still, the parole has received growing support, and not only on social media and among the activists who have already taken to the streets on numerous occasions during this record hot Brazilian summer. In fact, an increasing percentage of the population as a whole are against the country arranging the World Cup: 10 percent in 2008, 26 percent in June last year, up to a record-high 38 percent this February. The Brazilian government and the International Football Federation (FIFA) therefore fear a repetition of the mass protests that took place during the Confederations’ Cup in June 2013, when over 10 million protesters were in the streets in 400 cities throughout Brazil. They are particularly worried that the host cities will be plagued by violent confrontations. Much indicates that this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The demands from June last year are equally prevalent today, including: a significant improvement of public services within the areas of public transportation, health and education; and no to corrupt politicians, who together with entrepreneurs are getting rich from overpriced and socially destructive construction projects.
The presidency, the congress, and several governors are up for elections this October. They have all proven to be incapable of following up on the promises they gave last year to “listen to the voice of the streets” in order to quell the protests. Instead, the corporate-driven media of the country, led by the Globo- imperium, is focusing on the violence and vandalism of certain protesters. The politicians are hoping that repressive measures – such as more police, new laws, and harsher penalties – will quell the tensions and isolate demonstrators. There is much at stake in front of these games.
The public opinion continues to be on the side of the protesters. Not as overwhelmingly as in June last year, but 52 percent of the population still express “support the demonstrations”, according to the poll agency Datafolha. On the other hand, the grand coalition that makes up the federal government was approved by only 39 percent of the people this February, compared to around 60 percent before the mass protests of last year.
The government has presented the following bills for the congress: increased penalties – up to three years imprisonment – for whoever destroys public or private property; prohibiting the use of masks during demonstrations; and obligation to announce demonstrations 24 hours in advance to a series of specified governmental organs. In addition, a proposal has surged that would legalize measures the police has already used on multiple occasions, which is preventive actions – including the arrestment of surveillanced persons before the demonstrations begin.
Romero Juca (PMDB), a parliamentary leader of one of the two largest political parties in the government coalition, does however not feel that the government is going far enough. With enthusiastic support from right wing forces, he has proposed a new “law against terrorism”, which explicitly will strike street protesters accused of using violence. Terrorism is, according to this proposal, the act of “provoking or spreading generalized fear or panic through violating human life or the physical integrity, health or freedom of persons”. The prescribed penalties that are being suggested is from 8 to 20 years if the attack is directed towards public or private property, 15 to 24 years if directed towards a human being, and 24 to 30 years if the act of violence results in death. The proposal is being pushed in order to take effect before the World Cup.
At the same time, a massive police corps is being put together. 150 000 officers from the military police and 20 000 private security guards are preparing in special World Cup battalions, with a budget of around 1 billion USD. Ralf Mutschkle, FIFA´s director of security, is part of the chain of command and in charge of the private security guards. In Rio de Janeiro, the World Cup battalion has its own elite troop. The newspaper O Globo recently portrayed their new armor on the front page with the headline Rio gets “Robocop” against Black Blocks. Black Blocks are the “enemy”- supposedly violent protesters.
Surely, there are anarchist groups that idealize the “right to revolt”, or at least the “right to self-defense”. However, researchers, journalists, and human rights´ activists that have observed the clashes between police and protesters point to the fact that the tumults are almost always triggered by an aggressive police. The law enforcers rarely enter in dialogue with the protesters. The police resorts far too quickly to teargas grenades, rubber bullets and “tasers” (laser guns). On the other hand, the grand majority of protesters is opposed to breaking garbage cans and bank branch windows, which are the most common forms of “revenge violence”.
The violence status from June last year until today is that one person has been killed as a direct result of protesters´ actions – a television photographer who was struck in the head by a fireworks rocket. On the other hand, an unknown number of demonstrators or bystanders have passed away in traffic accidents or similar accidents as they have tried to escape the rubber bullets and tear gas of the police.
Of the many thousands of protesters that have been taken in – during the last demonstration in São Paulo on February 21st, 262 were arrested – the police have only been capable of bringing 27 people to court, in spite of their surveillance cameras and other intelligence. Several hundred police officers have been reported for the use of severe violence in service, but no one has been brought to justice. An especially dangerous development is that the police seems to be actively hindering the work of the media in the field. In São Paulo alone, 57 journalists have become victims of police aggression during protests since June last year, and 107 in the country as a whole, according to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji).
Sure, there will be a World Cup in Brazil. The question is: what kind of World Cup, and at what price? Economically, socially, and not at least politically, the Brazilians are paying a price that might be too high. Presumably, Sepp Blatter and FIFA will once again get off too easily, with too high profits. One can however ask: is the international audience willing to accept that the right to demonstrate and other democratic rights are being sacrificed because yet another corrupt mega sports show must go on?
* Based on Einar Braathen’s article in the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen, Wednesday 5 March 2014. Translated by Celina Sørbøe.