Letter to the Editor by Chris O’Shea
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – To the credit of Thursday night’s protest in Rio, no one group was responsible for its organisation. Social media and word of mouth were the means of gathering hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. A side effect of its impromptu nature however, was that no one knew exactly what the plan was.
We arrived 3 hours after the 5 o’clock start. Not everybody can leave work early. But we eventually made it to Avenida Presidente Vargas and met the main body of the protest. An enormous number of people were slowly meandering down the street. There were Brazilian flags, Brazilian football shirts. People chanting and clapping with green and yellow face paints, placards and drums.
You enter the sea of people, 40 metres wide, and start walking.
Imperceptibly the universe around you has changed to something you’ve never experienced before. The sensation of the crowd. Your adrenalin starts pumping as you walk, listening to the chants and the cheers. You note that the sporadic sound of explosions behind you keeps happening. Irregularly regular, they’re loud. You feel the vibrations go through you. You get caught up in the chanting of thousands of people, all gathered for the same purpose. You turn around and can’t make out any details. It’s night-time and there’s only a crowd that goes back as far as you can see; banners poke out above and red police lights flash scattered within it. You know nothing and you can see nothing but the crowd. The explosions are consistent. You look around at other people’s reactions for clues, but nobody knows if they should be worried about the sound of the ‘bombas’. You reach the corner and turn onto the next avenue. The explosions cease. The feeling of relief within the crowd is palpable. The mood lightens and the chants increase. “Cabral! It’s Us! Go take one up the arse!”. “Não adianta me reprimir, o seu governo vai cair!”. People eating in a McDonalds are roundly booed and told to “Come to the streets!”. Then the explosions begin again behind.
Periodically people sprint down the side of the crowd. Some people try to flee through the side street. They see the sparks of mortars being fired from the next road and turn to run twice as fast in the opposite direction. The explosions are increasing in frequency and volume. Yet still nobody knows what is happening 30 metres behind them. “Don’t run!” comes the cry again as people try to take confidence from their collective security and prevent a stampede.
Out of nowhere comes the roar of an engine. The shout of “Run!” goes up. A police van comes tearing through the crowd from the opposite direction. It must have been going at least 60 km/h but no one could see it until it was twenty metres in front of them. Anger and resentment are added to the fear and some people are panicking. Then you hear the shots. Gun fire. Rocket fire. There are shouts and screams. Everyone behind you is running. Forwards, right to left away from something. The noise of an engine is in it. You’re running. Everybody’s running. You see the light of an empty doorway and pull the hand of your girlfriend to shove her inside. You push your way in against the metal door as he’s trying to slam it in your face, and you make it inside and up the stairs. When I turned round, the porter, as big as two men, was pushing the door shut on the crowd. He jammed a metal bar between a pillar and the handle for good measure. The glass to his left hand-side shattered as angry protesters banged on the window, resenting the blocking of their route to temporary safety. Then the glass to his right exploded and splinters flew across the lobby. The circular hole left by the police grenade was intended for those protesters that had been peacefully marching six seconds before, trying to find refuge from the police bullet coming from behind them. We hid in the lobby of the apartment for another 50 minutes, listening to the explosions, seeing police armed with shot-guns go by and coughing whilst rubbing our eyes that were stinging from the tear gas.
The protests on the 20th June in Rio had begun peacefully at five o’clock. Around a million people had amassed on a 3.5 km avenue in the heart of downtown Rio de Janeiro. The police had given out pamphlets asking protesters for a peaceful demonstration. The general mood of the police had been one of anxiety, feeling threatened by a crowd the size of which hadn’t been seen in more than a generation. Added to this it should be remembered that this is a police force accustomed to and trained to deal with the day to day threat of criminals armed with automatic weapons. The peace lasted until eight o’clock. At around nine it became worse. Protestors clashed with riot police that had arrived to defend the city hall. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired by the police, rocks and other projectiles by a small minority of protesters. Barricades were erected. As the protest receded down the avenue away from the city hall it left a scattering of broken bus-stops and traffic cameras.
There were acts of violence against the police. Chants of ‘Today’s the day to kill a policeman’ were heard. The provocation, vandalism and violence should be condemned by everybody. People’s anger at the violent minority should be expressed. But here we have to speak about the actions of the police – an organised body that has responsibilities and accountability. The police drove a two ton lorry at speed down the middle of a street full of people walking in the opposite direction. Had anyone been in a wheelchair or on crutches, or had fallen to the floor in the panic the van caused, they would have been seriously injured or killed.
The police consistently and systematically fired tear gas, rockets and rubber bullets into the back of a crowd of people peacefully walking away from them.
Police mounted on motorbikes, over the course of more than 3 hours, fired rubber bullets and rockets at small groups and individuals. The terror squad consisted of pairs of motorbikes, each with a driver and a gunman pillion passenger, that roamed the streets at speed, pulling up to take pot-shots before driving off. They motor bike squad fired on the main demonstration in the centre of Avenida Rio Branco. They fired on isolated individuals, calmly walking down a small alley next to Avenida Rio Branco, Travessa do Ouvidor. They fired on a small frightened group in Gloria until realising they were being filmed by residents in the apartments above and driving off. A quick check of the blog or social media site of almost any Brazilian will bring you a long list of other acts of violence carried out by police against civilians. It’s known that they fired rockets and tear gas bombs into music venues, bars and even a hospital. (The two theories for these violent tactics are firstly that the police were deliberately instigating panic and fear in the hope that they will prevent another protest of this size. Secondly, that their violence would aggravate the crowd into acts of retaliation that they would then be able to hold up as evidence that the protest was in fact a riot by anarchists and vandals. Yesterday the governor of Rio tried to cite an injury to a journalist as evidence of the protesters’ violence and was quickly corrected by the journalist’s colleague that the damage had been caused by a rubber bullet fired by the police).
None of the acts listed above constitute the police doing their job. They contribute nothing to progress and help nobody. Firing a rubber bullet at the head of a 15 year old smashing a shop window achieves nothing. There’s no arrest, no punishment, no bringing to justice as the police officer rides off to fire another rocket into a crowd. Firing a rubber bullet into the back of a woman running away from police grenades is a crime. Violent assault. The orders to terrorise and violently attack Brazilian citizens were given by the highest state authorities. Those responsible for it are the chief of police, and ultimately the mayor and the governor. It was a co-ordinated and pre-ordained tactic of police brutality. The final proof, if any was needed, that these decisions lie with the highest authorities can be seen in the fact that the traffic cameras in the central zone were switched off whilst the rest of those in the city remained functioning, preventing images of abuse from being broadcasted.
High-flown ideals don’t get much time in Brazil. It doesn’t occur to many people here that this is another issue as important and changeable as corruption or the P37 law. It’s all very well to talk about the police changing, but you’re wasting your breath talking about it. It’s one of the facts of life. But if these protests are an expression of the accumulated Brazilian anger that has built up over the last twenty years, a venting of all their grievances and a compensation for all the occasions they should have taken to the streets before, then now is the time for them to address their relationship with the police. People should not need to walk down the streets of their own country with their hands held aloft in surrender in fear of the sound of a police motorbike behind them. The police should be a force working for and protecting the people. It shouldn’t function as a remnant of the dictatorship era, a hangover from a time in which they were a law onto themselves, a state militia used to show the people who’s in charge.
The protests in Rio ended in violence. It was a violence inflamed and aggravated by the actions of the police. A country should be able to allow its citizens to protest. It should be able to provide its citizens with the safe environment to protest in. It should be protecting its citizens whilst they are there protesting. Although a country is its past and its GDP, its parliamentary hearings and its day to day street-life, it is also the ideals to which it aspires. If Brazil is entering a period of change and growth, taking pride in finding its identity and forging a new, proud, prosperous country then they should take this opportunity to redress their relationship between the People and those people that are supposed to protect them – the police.
685 Candido Mendes,
Gloria, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.