Brazil: the transport crisis sets São Paulo on fire

Our correspondents in São Paulo
20 Juin 2013

In São Paulo, the economic capital city of Brazil, the dispute against the bus fare rise has never been so important. The demonstrations are violently repressed and numerous journalists were injured. The special police forces were sent to contain the demonstrations.

Kety Shapazian sur Twitter @KetyDC
Kety Shapazian sur Twitter @KetyDC
Thursday 13th of June, the Brazilian Minister of Justice was able to affirm that « in a State of rights, demonstration is legitimate, so is popular expression but acts of violence and vandalism are not ». The forth demonstration against the increase of public transport fares in São Paulo is clearly an answer to the criticisms from newspapers, municipal and regional governments, and from the federal government.    

When the cortege was forming, little before the departure, the atmosphere was peaceful despite some controls undertook by the police. The latter was arresting every owner of suspicious objects, particularly vinegar. In Brazil, it is used as a protection against the effects of tear gas. Because of these controls, the demonstrators were left without defence against the police actions. On the same morning, the lieutenant colonel and operation commander of the military police confirmed that he won’t leave the demonstrators “in peace”.  

During the last protests, the city mayor, Fernando Haddad, and the state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, repeated that they would not negotiate with vandals. For this demonstration, protesters changed their position. The 10,000 people who gathered called on “non-violence”.
However, the police charged demonstrators to prevent them from reaching the Paulista Avenue, neuralgic centre of São Paulo and economic heart of the country. The policemen threw tear gas while the demonstrators were scattering into small groups. Facing repression, the demonstrators built up barricades made of bins on fire. The police carried on throwing tear gas to disperse the groups. “At the moment, we are losing courage. We do not want anything else than to go back home. I want to go back home. I do not have that option, I do not know where to go to avoid the smoke” says the reporter Amanda Previdelli, on Twitter. “When they threw the tear gas, I tried to run to flee the gas, but they would not let us go through. A tear gas fell behind me; I just had time to see the smoke. When I turned around, another one fell”, she explains. “What they have done to the people around me was inhuman”. About a hundred wounded were counted.

Several groups continued in the direction of the Paulista Avenue, already blocked by the police. It was a real scene of war. Students coming out of the nearby university were being searched one by one. Some journalists were assaulted and the military police pursued the dispersed demonstrators. A group of more than twenty people screaming « non-violence » received shots of rubber bullets and tear gas grenades as an answer.

On television, the authorities’ message has been reversed. Mayor Haddad came back on his statement. “The image is the one of police violence”, he affirmed during a press conference after the demonstration. Governor Alckmin reaffirmed that demonstrators had been violent. Both declared that public transport fares would not be decreased. A new demonstration is planned on Monday 17th of June. In less than 24 hours, about 23,000 people had confirmed their presence via the Facebook event.

The MLP and the demand of zero fare

The Free Passage Movement (MLP – Movimento Passe Livre), the main instigator of the demonstrations, finds its origin from a spontaneous popular revolt, in the city of Salvador, in the province of Bahia, in 2003. After this revolt, known as the “Bus revolt”, the movement grew up and took national proportions. It was at the World social Forum, in Porto Alegre, in 2005, that the conception of the right to come and go as a universal right has been devoted to a priority of the movement.
The movement demands a change in the public transportation system. It actually works in the form of private concession. The movement wishes the transfer to a public model which guarantees the right to come and go for all the population. The MPL is very heterogeneous in its composition and in its practical and theoretical conceptions. If one of the fundamental characteristics of the movement is the direct action in the streets, its members seem to flirt with various conceptions going from Marxism to anarchism including the political and institutional way.     
In São Paulo and in several provincial capitals, the demand of zero fare and the opposition to the increase of common transport fare find a big echo, especially among the youth. The demonstrations composition is heterogeneous. It would be a mistake to affirm that these demonstrations only come from the middle class – as some Brazilian medias maintain it. The youth from the left wing political parties participate in the demonstrations along with the MPL.     

This complex situation led to a relative disinformation, in a country little used to demonstrations contrary to its neighbours, Argentina and Chile.

Attacks of the press and from the press

The media coverage of the protests is also ambivalent. On one hand, the big Medias have had a tendency to denounce the violence of demonstrations, and on another hand, journalists and photographers were arrested and assaulted.   

The secretariat of Public Security of São Paulo (SSP) has counted 14 wounded journalists and 4 arrested by the military police. Otherwise, some members of Terra’s editorial boards, Aprendiz and Carta Capital went for a stroll in prison. Piero Locatelli, journalist from Carta Capital was arrested because he had some vinegar. He had denounced, in one of his articles, some abuses, among them assaults on women by the police. He was quickly released, thanks to his journalist status, he clarified.   

Seven journalists from La Folha de São Paulo, the biggest daily of the country, have been injured by the police. Two of them were hit in the eyes by rubber bullets. A photographer from the agency Futur Press may lose his eyesight. According to Amanda, during the demonstration, while the press was among the civilians, the Special Forces threw grenades and aimed at the civilians with bladed weapons. “One of them emerged behind me. I screamed that I was part of the press. I thought he would catch me on the arm. I remembered straight away a friend’s words and I screamed that I was part of the big press. He released me », she said.  
During the first demonstrations, the Media, the government and a major part of the population declared they were opposed to the demonstrations. Vandalism acts were unacceptable. The banner headlines of principal city newspapers were showing the damages and minimised the number of militants as well as the sweep of the demonstrations. They highlighted the governors’ declarations.

On social networks, nevertheless, numerous photos, videos and demonstrators’ testimonies are blossoming. According to a survey from Datafolha, an important Brazilian survey institute, 55% of the inhabitants of São Paulo approve the demonstrations and 78% consider that demonstrators have been more violent than the official representatives of the cortege wanted to recognize.   

Reactions in the world

 In a note published on the 13th of June, the NGO Amnesty International shared its anxiety about the violence, the police repression and the authorities’ speech. It reported « a toughening of repression, the journalists and demonstrators imprisonment who, in some cases, have been accused of conspiracy ». Amnesty International reminded that the access to public transport for all was essential and essential to the respect of the right to come and go: « It’s essential for the right of peaceful demonstration to be assured ».
An article from the New York Times published on Friday the 14th of June explained that the demonstrations were coming at a quite tricky moment for the political leaders, who are trying to handle the economic problems as well as “promote Brazil as a safe destination to welcome the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games”. The newspaper El País, entitled its article “A new night of demonstrations, with scenes of war”. Drawing up the balance sheet of more than 250 arrests and about 50 wounded, the article affirms that “hope for Brazil would be better if these demonstrations could serve the development of democracy and enrich the country instead of impoverishing it”.
The report published by the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 30th, 2012 already called on Brazil to increase its efforts to fight the activity of “death squadrons” in the country. The organisation asked the Brazilian government to suppress the Military Police, accused of numerous extrajudicial homicides. It also reaffirmed the necessity to judge all crimes committed by policemen to fight against the impunity of crimes against human rights activists.  

São Paulo, huge population and public transport

 With 11.2 million inhabitants, São Paulo is the most populated city in South America. Its city centre is saturated by workers and students. Moreover, the town is not safe, pushing people to use a particular car.

The mass traffic can be explained by the important number of car per inhabitant. In 2011, the Traffic Department of São Paulo (Detran) counted 7 million private vehicles in São Paulo, amongst 5.11 million of cars, so about one car for every 2 inhabitants.
Moreover, according to an article published in 2011 by UNO special reporter for accommodation rights Raquel Rolnik, São Paulo inhabitants spend a median of 2 hours and 42 minutes per day in their cars, so about 27 days per year wasted stuck in the traffic. Long trips, high costs and lack of space in buses and metros make mobility a problem for public health in the biggest metropolis of the country. 

The problem is worsened by the price of public transportation. Over there, you must buy a ticket for each trip. Eight companies run the bus lines of the city. These companies are administrated by SPTrans, the local firm in charge of the bus network in São Paulo. The bus ticket fare tripled in 15 years. In 1998, it costed 1 real (0.35 cents in euros). In 2011, it exceeded 3 reals (1.05 euros). The increase of bus fare, of 11.11%, was then much superior to the inflation during the same period (6.03%). In 2013, the Labour party new prefect, Fernando Haddad, announced that bus fare would now be fixed at 3.20 reals (1.20 euros) so an increase of 6.4% less important than the inflation registered these last two years (14.4%). This increase makes São Paulo the city where bus fares are the most expensive in Brazil.
An increase of 20 cents represents an important part in the income of the workers. The minimum wage is about 755 reals (264 euros) in the State of São Paulo. The national minimum wage is of 678 reals (237 euros). Studies demonstrate that the price of transportation represents about 26.4% of the average income of a worker. According to an article published by UOL, this rise will drag the workers along to conclude some « bicos », fixed term contracts, without any employment perspective. Sort of unstable jobs.  
The discontentment, because of the rise of transportation prices, urged the citizens to organise demonstrations in other big Brazilian cities (Rio de Janeiro, Goiania, Natal and Porto Alegre), to ask for the reduction of the ticket prices. The demonstrators go down to the streets called up by Movimento Passe Livre, a group present in every State where the question of urban mobility is discussed. 

Written by Alessandra Alves, Andressa Pellanda, Bárbara Libório, Cleyton Vilarino et Túlio Bucchioni, translated by Perrine Berthier