Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Where are the protests? The fitful giant and its futebol

By Liz McKenna


“The giant has awoken,” went the catchphrase. Last June, more than a million Brazilians took to the streets, initially to challenge a bus fare hike. The image of a once dormant, now dynamic colossus became one of the primary metaphors for the country’s 2013 protest cycle. One year later, as Brazil hosts the largest single-event sporting competition on earth, these masses are nowhere to be found. As one street vendor told me, “We Brazilians are anesthetized.” And futebol, it seems, is the opiate of choice.


Does the World Cup alone explain why the streets are now devoid of demonstrators? A closer look at how last year’s protests were organized, the composition of the "new masses" who marched, and the few but steadfast activists who continue to occupy land and organize strikes provides a more complete picture of what became of Brazil's 2013 unrest.

Mobilizing, not organizing

“No political parties!” the demonstrators cried last year in an effort to remain neutral. At a 100,000-person march I attended on June 17, 2013, protesters shouted down and then violently expelled members of a union with strong ties to the governing Workers Party (PT). Four days later, more than 2,000 people attended a general assembly to discuss the agenda for the next march. In the absence of a facilitator, the meeting began two hours late, and then only because a similarly partisan union, CSP Conlutas, lent their sound system to the gathering of mostly college-aged students.

In his book on the recent wave of global uprisings, Manuel Castells argues that the kind of horizontal, leaderless, and technology-driven mobilizing I witnessed last year can be a new source of power for aggrieved populations. This anti-authority approach, sometimes referred to as the practice of prefigurative politics, appeals nicely to the Left’s longstanding fear of structure, institutions, and leadership. Yet while communication networks have only increased in sophistication and reach in the past 12 months, the protests and assemblies have not. An older tradition in the social movement literature offers a similarly unsatisfactory explanation for the Brazilian case. Some theorists predict more unrest in propitious political circumstances, such as when the international public eye is trained on the country or when a presidential election is imminent. Yet despite the confluence of these factors in Brazil, the mass demonstrations dissipated almost as quickly as they began.

Who marched last year?

Although the vast majority of fans who can afford to watch the World Cup at the stadiums are white and wealthy, Brazilians from all social classes are transfixed by the games. As Pedro Peterson pointed out in his recent CLAS blog post, there is an important distinction between Brazilians’ passion for the jogo bonito and the atrocities committed in its name. When the national team plays, shops close, office workers are given paid leave, and all cars and public transport come to a halt. Yet in contrast to the apparent classlessness of the Cup, the composition of the June 2013 masses represented a narrower segment of Brazil’s urban populations.

lone protester, June 20, 2014

Public opinion polling firm Datafolha found that the June 2013 protesters earned on average more than two times the minimum wage and were relatively well-educated and media-savvy. In São Paulo, over 77 percent of the demonstrators had attained some education beyond high school, and in Rio de Janeiro fully 86 percent had received either a high school or a university diploma. A staggering 84 percent of survey respondents did not claim affinity for any political party.

None of these attributes conform to the profile of Brazil’s sub-proletariat masses. In subsequent surveys, public support for the protests declined from 89 percent in June 2013 to 66 percent in October 2013. Upper-class respondents were much more likely to continue to support the protests (80 percent) as compared those with the least schooling (47 percent) and those from lower income-brackets (42 percent).

These data seem to support the “differentiated” and “thin” adjectives that scholars have used to describe Brazilian democracy. Sociologist Luiz Werneck Vianna writes that neoliberal polices that re-entrench inequality are evidence of his country’s efforts to modernize while ignoring what it means to be modern.

In his 2008 book Insurgent Citizenship, James Holston similarly notes that “Brazil’s differentiated citizenship is a case of centuries-persistent politics of legalized differences” (31). In other words, it was a shock that these relatively better-off and politically disengaged segments of society took to the streets last June and of little surprise at all that they have yet to return en masse.

The giants who never slept

When news media and newsfeeds touted the revival of the giant in 2013, many longstanding social movements responded with incredulity: “The giant may have just woken up, but the periphery never slept,” activists countered. As social scientist and favela resident Mônica Santo Francisco noted, “[People on the] margins never slept because the police never let them.” Guilherme Simões, a member of the Homeless Workers Movement’s (MTST)’s executive council, echoed this sentiment in a personal interview:

Liz McKenna at 2013 general assembly

"Brazil has a long history of peasants, workers, and marginalized classes engaging in struggle. The giant never slept, [that is], the Brazilian people who are most exploited have always resisted, but always within the context of a very strong state. The Brazilian state is perhaps one of the strongest and most consistent in post-colonial history; it has been able to administer class conflict very efficiently."

Worthy of investigation, then, are the numerous strikes, smaller-scale street protests , and land occupations that predated and outlasted June 2013. Although smaller in scope and scale, several actions have been extremely effective. For example, during Carnaval earlier this year, Rio de Janeiro’s garbage collectors went on strike, letting mountains of trash putrefy on crowded streets and otherwise picturesque beaches. They won a 37 percent salary increase. One of the MTST’s most recent occupations near São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium — called the People’s Cup — earned them a meeting with President Rousseff and the promise of an additional 2,000 low-income housing units.

Perhaps a towering giant was never an apt metaphor for Brazil’s 2013 protest cycle. Demands were contradictory, ideologies at odds, and organizing structures virtually nonexistent. Instead, it appears that old-fashioned organizing practices are a more powerful locomotive of social change than are momentary uprisings convoked in cyberspace. Far from leaderless mobs, sustained grassroots campaigns depend, as ever, on the unglamorous but necessary work of movement building — regardless of how Brazil’s seleção fares in the end.

Cross-posted from the CLAS Blog, published by UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies.