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      Sao Paulo Is Burning

      June 15, 2013

      During the Brazilian National Free Fare Fight Day in 2012, a mass demonstration against the rising cost of public transportation, the Movement for the Free Pass (MPL) in São Paulo warned that if public transport fares went up, they would bring the city to a halt. Well, the fare went up 0.20 Brazian real (about $0.08) on June 1st of this year, so MLP called for a protest as promised. Since the first protest on June 6th, Sao Paulo’s main streets have played host to numerous violent clashes between police and students. There were three more marches in the weeks that followed.

      We got to the first demonstration in front of the Municipal Theater, downtown, around 4:30 PM on Thursday, June 6th. The sun was setting as demonstrators gathered. “Dance, [Mayor Fernando] Haddad, dance to the ground. We are the people gathered against the bus fare rise,” was one of the first chants sang by the crowd. The beat of DIY paint can drums followed. The mayor Fernando Haddad was targeted by most songs. One of them said, “Haddad asshole, take the fare down.” A girl with a megaphone said, “Goiania, Natal, and Rio de Janeiro [three Brazilian cities] took over the streets today. And here we are taking a walk downtown.” Once the crowd reached a critical mass, the protest organized by the Movement for the Free Pass started to walk around the city center, chanting and gathering more people along the way. I’ve been to a lot of protests, but I’ve never seen something so dense and so fearless. Even in other MPL demonstrations in Sao Paulo, we’ve never seen so many anarcho-punks like this time. There was a huge black bloc there. When we got to the mayor’s office, protestors chanted, “Haddad son of a bitch, this fare is insane.” During our tour downtown, some storefronts and walls got spray painted with the anarchist ‘A’ emblem. When we got to Prestes Maia Avenue, I thought we were heading to the Anhangabaú metro station. But then people started to run towards 23 de Maio Avenue, a wide thoroughfare for cars some ten-lanes wide. That’s when things got messy.

      The traffic coming from the tunnel, obviously, jammed. Two lanes of the highway were taken over by demonstrators. Holding their flags and banners up high, the MPL brought the city to a halt at 6:40 PM. And the police, who were until that point just silent observers, showed up. Across the highway, going downtown, I saw the first few cops sheltered by the riot police. It was 6:53 PM when the first bombs started to explode more frequently. People decided to head back to the Bandeira Bus Terminus, although some other guys yelled, “Stay here, let’s fucking stay here.” While the military police and the riot police were throwing tear gas bombs, people were making fire barricades throughout the highway. While Raphael, our photographer, was taking pictures of the police coming closer to us, I was taking notes. And I don’t know if it was a moment of distraction or bad luck, but they started to fire rubber bullets in our direction. It was scary. Police officers were shooting about 60 feet away from us. Then I ran into a fellow reporter who was grazed by a rubber bullet. He was pissed. Right after that, a bomb dropped right next to us. People who had nothing to do with the conflict were running in panic.

      The highway looked like a war movie. Empty, gloomy, taken over by fire and fog. Helicopters were flying over the scene. I saw people with their groceries making calls, scared, not knowing where to run to. In that scene, the riot police were marching holding their shields up high. And the military police were coming right behind them. Demonstrators moved forward heading to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art at Paulista Avenue. Because of the burning feeling caused by the bombs, we had to stop and go back a little. We were crying too much from the tear gas. Spitting too much. Everything was burning, my nose, my throat. It felt like it would never go away. A photographer gave up trying to get to protesters and went to a bar to wash his face. Raphael almost passed out. I felt sick and a woman showed up out of nowhere with a bottle of water and washed my eyes. Everyone was shedding tears and passing by us with their shirts covering their noses.

      The traffic jam started to get better, but 23 de Maio was still full of barricades. Police officers were trying to put down the fire with their feet, but it seemed pointless. When we got close to the Getulio Vargas Foundation at Nove de Julho Avenue, we saw a garbage can on fire and a dumpster turned upside down. We hurried up and got to Paulista Avenue. There we saw a girl who was terrified, crying and all shaken up, leaning against a newsstand. I asked her what happened and she said that she was in the middle of a “shooting.” I told her what was going on, and said she could go safely in that direction. I don’t know if she did.

      At Paulista Avenue, the situation was not better at all. Usually picturesque, the street was all fucked up. Glasses in a subway station were broken, concrete trash receptacles were bowled over, and two police mobile stations were dashed. One of them was set on fire. With a car fire extinguisher, a police officer managed to put down the flames. Passersby were taking pictures and shooting videos, but they didn’t seem to be scared – it looked more like some tourists having fun with that unusual scene. The street was completely blocked by demonstrators and their trash and fire barricades.

      Near Pátio Paulista Shopping Mall, bombs seemed louder. I was told that some protesters went inside the mall, which ended up shutting down. Some people kept marching through Amadeu Amaral Square, where the riot police got more aggressive. The narrow streets made the traffic even more chaotic. A guy who looked like the captain was yelling at drivers, “Stop this fucking shit! Get out!” and giving orders like, “Squad, 1, 2, activate.” Then we decided to head towards protesters, who were still taking trash from the sidewalks and taking it to the streets, setting up new barricades. It was 8:35 PM.

      People started to disperse, so we decided to follow some of them who were heading to the Vergueiro metro station. I asked a guy if they were going to jump over the turnstiles. He said yes. And that’s what they did. Everyone got in the subway chanting and security guards stiffened up. The first protesters jumped over facing some resistance by those guys, who were holding batons. And shit got ugly. Boys and girls took a shortcut to the platform. Others were arguing with the security guards, who were already angry at this point. One girl reported she was called a “nigger” by one of them. And then the fight started. Batons, yelling, broken glass, people running. A guy’s face was bleeding. In the middle of the conflict, I managed to shoot this video.

      When the fight was over and there was almost no one else in the station, it shut down. It was 9:04 PM (usually Sao Paulo’s subway stations close after midnight). Minutes later, a cleaning lady who works at the subway station came out desperate and got in a police car. A piece of glass had hit her in her left eye. I asked a security guard if they had arrested someone. He said they didn’t, but he’d like to. Raphael and I thought it was time to go home, but talking to a photographer and some police officers, we found out that there was something going on at Consolação Street. We took a cab with a girl that was going to Paulista. We were dropped off at Brigadeiro Luís Antônio Avenue and walked all the way back to Ciclista Square. We were exhausted, our feet and legs hurt, we were hungry, thirsty, and wanted to go to the bathroom, but we couldn’t think about that. When we got there, we saw part of the military police and riot police officers leaving and some TV reporters were interviewing passersby. Without any sign of protests, we decided it was time to go. According to the police, there were 2,000 people in the protest and 15 were arrested. Although this time the mainstream media specifically mentioned the Movement for the Free Pass, and didn’t just treat them as some “vandal students” as usual, the fight was reported as vandalism caused by punks. I think the brawl could be explained by the massive anarcho-punk presence, or maybe it was the contentious police reaction to the blockage of 23 de Maio. Or maybe both.

      The second protest took place on Friday, June 7, and it was milder because the riot police stepped in quickly with their not-so-humane methods. As soon as protesters took over one of the city’s most important and chaotic freeways, Pinheiros, tear gas bombs dropped with no mercy. Sao Paulo came to a halt once again. Weakened by police brutality, the protest dispersed. This day, the local police estimated only 5,000 protesters, as opposed to the 10,000 on the first day and 15,000 on the third.

      Then there was a third protest at Paulista Avenue this week. Having had their share of gas bombs over the last few days, people were giving out disposable masks. While protesters gathered, an MPL member was negotiating the crowd’s route with Colonel Marcelo Pignatari, who was in charge of safety that day. He told me the riot police were not standing in position there and everything would be just fine, depending on how protesters behaved.

      Going down Consolação Street, people were chanting, and yelling, and calling people who were watching from the sidewalk to join in. Police officers were holding arms to form a human barrier. A few minutes later, it started to rain and people started to chant, “Come to the rain, to fight against the hike.” And other streets were taken by hundreds of demonstrators, reaching 20,000 people according to the MPL. When the crowd got to the city center, two buses were stoned and set on fire. Covering the MPL for the third day, it struck me as an odd thing how long it took the police to take action. And then bingo: bombs and more bombs exploding in the sky, heading towards whoever was there. Around 20 people were arrested during this third protest. Among them, journalists and students. The police say they’re tracking potential “vandals” on the internet. In addition to that, the police themselves announced they have plainclothes officers infiltrating demonstrations to identify people who may “break the order,” an expression constantly used by the police.

      On Thursday of this week, the SP Public Ministry informed us they will ask the mayor and the governor to take fares back to their previous price, R$3 [US$1.40], for 45 days, as a way to make the MPL SP stop staging protests in Sao Paulo. This last demonstration was a protest, but the MPL said that if the fare goes back to its previous price, it would be a celebration party. It’s is said that the police will be in huge numbers and employing enormous amounts of violence. I read social networks booming with news that the cops are searching everyone in metro stations and in the streets nearby the Municipal Theater, again the meeting point, where it all started, as I headed there. 

      Here's video from a demonstration this Thursday:

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      Topics: Brazil, protest, mass transit

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