An Ethnographic Account of the Riots in Brazil Seen From the Periphery

From the Series: Protesting Democracy in Brazil

Photo by Semilla Luz, licensed under CC BY.

In early June, 2013, while my friends in São Paulo were discussing politics through the night with their peers on Facebook, my informants in Baldoíno—a village of fifteen-thousand people located in the northern coast of Bahia—were still using Facebook to talk about everything other than politics.[1] In São Paulo, the news of protests first circulated through Facebook and later moved to traditional news outlets, but in Baldoíno, it was shown on TV and then gradually started to disseminate through Facebook. After the protests appeared on TV, the initial posts shared by my informants were generic messages decrying “corrupt politicians,” such as the image below that says: “Congratulations Brazil, [you] could raise the attention of the world without [displaying] butts, drugs, dirty deeds, or soccer.”

Baldoíno to Salvador, the state capital, and to other surrounding cities where the higher–education institutions are located. The content of these memes don’t make reference to local problems or local political representatives. This in an indication that, in the beginning of their involvement in the protests, these informants were attempting to connect themselves with the identities of the students being displayed on daily news programs, but were not necessarily interested in taking the trouble of engaging with mobilized groups to become physically involved in political protests.

The first sign of a desire to protest that I saw among my informants was a result of a hoax that had spread mostly among high school teenagers, which suggested that the federal government would be shutting down the Internet (Portal Atualizando 2013). The rationale that gave veracity to the information was that protestors in large cities were communicating through Facebook and other social media services, so the government would shut down the Internet to end the protests. Ironically, while intellectuals, such as anthropologist and media activist Hermano Vianna (2013), criticized the Brazilian middle-class protesters for using Facebook—calling the platform a “gated community” controlled by a powerful media corporation—my informants leapt to action to defend their newly-found channels of online communication, especially Facebook.

After a month of daily-news broadcasts about the protests, I came across the Facebook poster below circulating among my informants that invited everyone from the village to participate in a political rally. The poster says: “Demonstration at 3 pm, day [removed], Saturday, meeting place near the supply center (feirinha). Let’s show up, everyone, we must fight for our rights! [Baldoíno] is abandoned. We want changes [such as] 24-hour hospital facility, mail office, high school students do not have a school. We have no incentives, no professionalizing training programs, a sports field, or a square for leisure.”

I did not expect this to happen—as I explained in this blog post (Miller and Spyer, 2013). Up until that point, I couldn’t recall any rallies being organized or discussions mentioning local politics or politicians, not even about the county’s mayor, so this call to direct action was unusual.

At the time the march was scheduled to start, I saw a group of about twenty people, mostly young working-class women with their small children, arriving at the meeting point, carrying whistles and hand-written posters. There were so few of them that one might have noticed the whistling but not immediately associate it with any particular activity. A few community leaders and students came to mingle with them and after about half an hour the group seemed confident enough to move to the main street and start marching. The police were there and helped with the transit of cars, buses, and trucks. A few local reporters, including a TV cameraman carrying semi-professional equipment, documented the event. As the march moved through a three-kilometer circuit around the village’s central area, it swelled to about three-hundred people.

Luis Soares (2013), a Brazilian anthropologist and activist on the topic of police violence, explains that the protests across Brazil reflect a significant reduction in the country’s inequalities. The protests, he writes, “are not a symptom of the decline, but an affirmation of might and faith in the future” against a long lasting condition that now has become intolerable. While it is true that many of my informants have become part of the country’s formal work force and feel more confident about the future, about eighty percent of the adult participants of the protest were women. This was noted by the women marching, and they attributed it to fear. The men I saw watching the protest from the streets joked about the effectiveness of this kind of action: “I want my share in money,” I overheard a male teenager saying to his peers.

Soares analysis is useful to explain this lack of confidence in such protests, displayed primarily by men in Baldoíno. He observed that “before the protests, there wasn’t order and normality. Rather, there was continuing vandalism practiced by State organizations against many in the periphery of societies, all across Brazil.” Soares adds that during the protests, the middle class came to fully experience a police brutality that poor blacks had been experiencing for a long time. In Baldoíno, men weren’t as enthusiastic about the effectiveness of the protests because of fear of what might happen when the local structures of powers are contested.

Most previous writing on this topic is based on the assumption that everyone is, to some degree, politically engaged and uses media to express this engagement accordingly. Although eighty percent of Brazilians now live in cities, not all segments of the population participated in these events in the same way. Most people living in smaller settings identify themselves as in some ways marginal to most national political events, and so the generalizations do not really reflect their experiences.


1. Baldoíno is a fictional name given to the field site in order to protect the anonymity of informants.


"Após Reunião, Dilma Ameaça Tirar Internet Do Brasil Se Continuar As Manifestações." 2013. Portal Atualizando, June 18. Accessed, July 22, 2013.

Miller, Daniel. 2012. "Social Networking Sites." In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller. London: Berg.

Miller, Daniel, and Juliano Spyer. 2013. "The Riots in Brazil Seen from a Different Planet." UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project. July 26.

Morozov, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: PublicAffairs.

Soares, Luiz Eduardo. 2013. "A Classe Média Descobriu a Brutalidade Policial, Que Os Pobres E Negros Nunca Ignoraram." Zero Hora, June 29. Accessed July 22, 2013.

Vianna, Hermano. 2013. "Território Antipático." O Globo, June 28. Accessed July 22, 2013.