“Taking to the streets”: Brazilian Demonstrations in the Twenty-First Century

From the Series: Protesting Democracy in Brazil

Photo by Semilla Luz, licensed under CC BY.

A joke is currently circulating in Brazil that encapsulates the current unexpectedly politicized environment. A passenger sneezes on a bus. Another passenger responds as is custom: “Saude!” (God bless you). Someone else, a bit distracted, overhears this and replies “More education.” Then someone else yells “Everyone to the streets, let’s protest.”

Were the street demonstrations a surprise? Yes and no.

Yes, if we consider that no social scientist predicted the geographic scope, the number of participants, the new form of making demands, or the targets of the protests. They were like a tsunami that geographers know is possible but whose date and intensity they cannot predict. And even a prophet could not have foreseen that it wouldn’t be merely the large metropolis, but also the cities of the interior of Brazil—small, medium, and large—to which the demonstrations spread in unprecedented fashion.

Seeking a parallel with previous political demonstrations in the country was a frustrating exercise. There was some parallel with the movement more than twenty-years ago for the impeachment of President Collor, who many thought had created an economic crisis; both movements involved young people and a request for government action. However, the “painted-faces”—as participants in that movement were called because many literally painted their faces—sought an alliance with the Brazilian Congress. This time, by contrast, the congress was one of the main targets of the demonstrators because of the many scandals its members have been involved in.

In fact, the “taking to the streets” that shook the country has more in common with the “Occupy” movement that began on Wall Street, or the “Indignant” movement in Europe, than it does with the movement in Brazil for direct presidential elections at the end of the military dictatorship in the early 1980s (“Diretas-Já”), which called “for democratic liberties.”

Much of what seems new in all of this has to do with the way protest was mediated. If in May of 1968 in Paris, at a pre-Internet time, a movement could spread globally and inspire students around the world—imagine the possibilities today.

Many observers claimed that the recent Brazilian protests involved no parties, and had no clear rallying points. Within the fragmentation, nonetheless, there was a great deal of consensus: against corruption, against the improper use of public money, and for more civil rights. Amid the many idiosyncratic posters, thousands of people identified with slogans such as:” FIFA-standard hospitals,” “More health and education,” “Down with Marcos Feliciano,” “Down with the Fetal Protection Law,” “Demarcation of indigenous lands and quilombolas,” or “Down with PEC 37.”[1]

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Adriano Ishibashi/G1.

The demonstrations drew to the streets people with individual banners that had previously circulated on social media, and some with conservative slogans, but it also attracted organized groups. There were traditional causes such as those that bring together communities facing eviction because of construction projects for the World Cup and the Olympics. And there were older movements, like the collective Aldeia Maracanã, which is supported by the Brazilian Anthropology Association, and which defends the former building of the Museum of the Indian located at the Maracanã football stadium and that was threatened with demolition to make room for a parking lot. The alternative-media movement, TV Ninja, broadcast the gatherings from amid the protestors and from the point of view of the participants, showing the violent police repression.

The recent street demonstrations were not a surprise if we consider that demonstrations have been taking place on cyberspace for a number of months with just as many participants and the same objects of protest. They took place on social media that, using playful slogans, expressed indignation about a wide variety of issues everyday. They included people who took on the names of threatened indigenous groups (some switched their real name on Facebook—for examaple, John Doe for John Guarani-Kaiowá—seeking to call attention to the Guarani-Kaiowá Indians, who were refusing to leave a site they considered to be theirs, saying they were ready to die for this traditional land) and others who denounced the moralist conservative wave promoted by the neo-Pentecostalists, which had gained some purchase in the government of President Rousseff.

Social media are currently the true spaces of sociability, as one of the best-known specialists on the Internet, Manuel Castells, said recently. The streets did nothing more than transform into action what was already in word.

Brazil is experiencing a moment of undeniable social transformation, with a decrease in poverty—although inequalities remain enormous—and with large masses of people gaining access to what are often referred to as basic “human rights.” This was one of the reasons behind the “I demand more” sentiment. When, centuries ago, Durkheim wrote the book that inaugurated sociology (Suicide), he surprised everyone with an unexpected finding: the number of suicides was higher in times of greater abundance than in times of economic crisis.

At the same time, the Workers Party (PT) government had made political alliances that led to a shift to the right in issues that were crucial to minorities such as: the marking of indigenous lands and quilombolas (which have not been so threatened for years); sexual and reproductive rights (with the extension of criminalization of abortion); the displacement of poor populations to clear territory for stadiums or construction related to the global sporting events; and police violence in the favelas and poor suburbs.

Let’s hope the Internet continues to generate sudden gatherings of hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, as well as new policies, also keeps asking the same question in thousands of posts, as is currently occurring: Where is Amarildo? Amarildo de Souza is a construction worker and resident of the favela of Rocinha who disappeared after being arrested by police in July, 2013. He has been remembered in the social media as a symbol of the more than five-thousand people who have disappeared in Rio de Janeiro state alone in 2013.


1. Marcos Feliciano is a neo-Pentetencostal pastor and chairman of the congressional human-rights commission. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. PEC 37 is the constitutional amendment presented to congress that would have removed the investigative powers from various public agencies. It was voted on and rejected soon after the wave of large demonstrations.