Protests in Brazil: An Analysis of the Recent Mass Demonstrations, 2013-2015
Maria da Glória Gohn
During the last decades of the 20th Century, social movements in Brazil gained greater visibility through protest in public spaces. They built new meanings to social struggles, contributed to the construction of citizenship, and helped to consolidate democracy.
In 2013, new actors emerged: large multitudes were summoned online by social media. It is estimated that over a million people protested in the streets of Brazil in June 2013. Initially they focused on the fare increases for public transportation. Yet, the demands were soon extended to other public services, to allegations of corruption and the usage of public funds for the FIFA Soccer World Cup. The Movement Free Pass (MPL), formed in 2005, was crucial in mobilizing the street protests. Young people played a great role, often organized in groups calling online for public action, all without the resources, equipment, and draping of political parties or established trade unions.
However, these mass mobilizations did not last long. The protests after June 2013 took on multiple forms, e.g. the “Let’s not have a World Cup” campaign, the strikes over grievances in public education, and the Occupy groups in several cities. Police violence and controversies over Black Bloc tactics turned into the criminalization of protest participants and impacted the flow of events. The new actors of June 2013 continued street actions against the World Cup and its high cost, but it failed to attract the majority of the population. 2014 was a year of presidential elections during which social networks mobilized and configured new groups of ongoing impact.
The Multitude Returns to the Streets: March 15, 2015
In March 2015, new mass demonstrations erupted in the streets of Brazil, with strikingly different characteristics compared to those in June 2013. This can be explained in terms of the repertoires of demands, the groups involved, their social composition, and the age of participants. A divide emerged between those for or against President Dilma Rousseff’s government, its policies, and conduct. Federal investigations into allegations of large-scale corruption involving the public oil company Petrobras and officials from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) culminated in calls for her impeachment. Others spoke out against Rousseff’s economic and fiscal policies but not necessarily against the government as a whole.
In this situation, massive manifestations took place on two days in March 2015. The first was on March 13 when the Landless Workers Movement (MST), the Central Workers’ Union (CUT), the National Union of Students (UNE), and other organizations mobilized for labor demands while supporting the Rousseff government. Hundreds of militants gathered in several Brazilian state capitals and other cities but the number of protesters were small compared to what happened two days later.
On March 15th, 2015, the multitude returned to the streets and this was an update for the public. At first sight, it appeared like a resumption of June 2013, but only in numerical terms. The protesters were activated by social networks, especially by the new groups created in 2013 that broadened the spectrum of political positions. They mobilized many who opposed the current Brazilian federal government but without belonging to any of the other political parties. Banners of political parties and speeches by members of parliament were banned from these protests. The predominance of young people in June 2013 was replaced by people of all ages, especially families who brought their children. It was like a baptism in politics for these children as well as an educational moment for what some called “civic citizenship”. Among the new groups involved in the March 15 organizing in São Paulo were some that stood out, including “Come to the Street” (VPR) and “Brazil Free Movement” (MBL). According to the Military Police, more than 2 million people went to the streets in the country on this day, with an estimated one million just in the city of São Paulo, though Datafolha’s published figure was 210,000 for São Paulo. Irrespective of the controversy about the actual number of participants, the demonstrations of March 15, 2015 set a record in Brazilian history.
On April 12, the same groups organized another demonstration but the number of participants was less than half compared to March 15. São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue was again the site with the highest number of protesters countrywide: 100,000 according to Datafolha and 275,000 according to the Military Police. With smaller numbers, the April 12 event had focused on the two themes of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the ouster of the Workers’ Party (PT).
The events of March 15 and April 12 brought to the streets not only new social segments, especially from the middle class, but they also brought new demands. The plurality of civil society and the diversity of opinions on politics and the government increased. The social protests changed the agenda of public debate, often taking place through social media. They gave impetus to further political involvement about several themes and generated new images and representations about the economic and political conditions in Brazil today.
Loose networks rather than tight organization allowed the social protests to unfold with a new dynamic. It avoided the control of already institutionalized organizations such as UNE, CUT, and MST. The new dynamics discernable since 2013 require a rethinking of the analysis of the logic of organized collective action. It is necessary to differentiate specific groups, policies and organizational structures of movements otherwise regarded as traditional in the Brazilian scene of recent decades. Arising from the individual engagements of the 2013 protest participants, a plurality of social and political groups emerged. Recognizing these new conditions and the transformation of activism is crucial for gaining a better understanding of the events on the ground.
The broad participation in the manifestation of March 15, 2015 was driven by moral values, appeals to ethics, and outrage over corruption. Several media pundits disapproved of the demonstrations of March 15 and April 12, arguing that people from the low class were not present. In fact, Datafolha published on April 13 figures according to which 73% of the protesters said they were white and only 14% said that their income was not more than three monthly minimum wages. Yet, these arguments ignore that the great mass mobilizations that occurred in Brazil in 1964, 1968, 1984 (Direct Elections Now), and 1992 (Movement Painted Faces and the Impeachment of former President Collor de Mello) were basically mobilizations of the middle class, with a significant portion of college students.
In my interpretation, the 2013 demonstrations in Brazil were part of a movement that is building new meanings of social struggle. The protests went much beyond mere digital activism. Multiple processes of subjectivity and new forms of collective action are generated in the heat of the moment. The emotions of individuals and groups play an active role in this social construction. The composition of the new movement is complex, it has many and diverse stakeholders, projects, and views of politics, society, and government. They defy the organizational mode of political parties.
Democracy has expanded and the demonstrations show that it is an ongoing process, not something given or finished. One of the great legacies of June 2013 is the legitimacy of social protest as a way to search for profound changes. The multitudes that took to the streets viewed protest as a legitimate path towards changes. In the long term, this type of mobilization produces images of other lifestyles and values in society, and a commitment to a new generation of human and social rights.
The political system and the parties are strained and will have to respond as the concerns of the protests moved between 2013 and 2015 from specific, localized grievances to broader ethical issues with a focus on a political party in power and the president of the country.
Maria da Gloria Gohn is a sociology professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and affiliated as a researcher with the National Council of Research (CNPq) in Brazil. She obtained her PhD at the University of São Paulo. Her research and teaching interests focus on social movements, social theory, urban participatory councils, social mobilization by NGOs. She has published 20 books, including her Manifestações de Junho de 2013 no Brasil e Praças dos Indignados no Mundo (2015, 2nd ed.); Sociologia dos Movimentos Sociais (2014, 2nd ed.); Movimentos Sociais e Redes de Mobilizações no Brasil Contemporâneo (2014, 7th ed.), Teorias dos Movimentos Sociais (2014, 11th ed.), Novas Teorias dos Movimentos Sociais (2014, 5th ed.), Movimentos Sociais no Início do Século XXI (2015, 7th ed.).
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