EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Brazil, June 2013, Act II

What happened in June 2013 and what will happen in June 2014

Now that 2013 is over, it seems safe to say that the major event last year in Brazil was the series of demonstrations that took place all over the country in June. What triggered the protests was a small rise in the cost of public transportation. On June 1st, fares increased R$0,20 in São Paulo city. On June 13th, a group of university students was severely beaten by the military police on Avenida Paulista. Many journalists witnessed the beating. Most protesters were injured, and two journalists almost lost their eyes. The beating was broadcast on national television and across social networks. Brazilians were appalled with police brutality in São Paulo, and thenceforth demonstrations spread throughout the nation.

Police violence has been common in Brazil for many years, and has not been a big concern for most Brazilians. One has only to think of Captain Nascimento, an unorthodox police officer played by Wagner Moura in Elite Squad, the all-time biggest box office ticket seller in Brazilian cinema. In order to achieve justice, Captain Nascimento is not afraid to disrespect the law. He hits drug users, tortures favelados, and is fierce with his wife. His ferocious manner notwithstanding, Captain Nascimento was elected a national hero by Veja, Brazil’s most popular magazine. The majority of Brazilians seemed therefore to approve of police violence. Perhaps this is why Geraldo Alckmin, São Paulo’s governor, did not hesitate in demanding a stronger police reaction against demonstrators on June 12th.

What Alckmin forgot, however, is that Captain Nascimento’s methods were adopted mainly against black Brazilians in poor districts. Students from São Paulo University and journalists were spared from that kind of treatment. When Brazil’s middle class saw on the news that people like them were being beaten by the police, they were not pleased. This time police violence was not okay. This time the middle class could actually relate to those who were suffering state violence. The same police violence that was condoned in favelas was condemned on Avenida Paulista. The way we reacted to the awful images taken on June 13th reveals how deeply entrenched social exclusion is in our country. Not all lives are of equal worth in Brazil, and some citizens are more worthy of protection than others.

Despite being what initially galvanized Brazilians into action, state violence and public transportation were not the only causes of the demonstrations. The police stopped being violent with demonstrators, and bus-fare increases were revoked. Even so, the demonstrations continued. Suddenly, people started discussing politics on the streets. Until very recently, most Brazilians regarded politics as something alien, a boring play enacted by actors whose names they could barely remember, in a far-off city in the middle of cerrado, viz., Brasília. To be sure, political alienation was also what took so many people to the streets last June.

What happened in June 2013 was a massive political initiation for many Brazilians. People discovered that political power is not solely the prerogative of bureaucrats and politicians. In a democracy, political power belongs to the dêmos, the people. Whenever people come together and act in concert, a new source of political power comes into being. Brazilians are newly aware of their power, and that is why June 2013 will happen again in June 2014 – the month the whole world will be looking on us because of the World Cup. According to every poll taken so far, the majority of Brazilians supported the protests last year. June 2013 indeed left us a great legacy. Congress repealed PEC 37, a bill that threatened the separation of powers in our constitution, and decided that petroleum royalties are going to be destined exclusively for public education and health. One has only to wait and see what political gifts June 2014 has in store for Brazil.

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Gustavo Hessmann Dalaqua

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