Inside Rio's Angry Protests Against the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Hours before the Olympics officially started in Rio de Janeiro, protesters gathered to denounce the Games as a tool of the oligarchy.

by Angela Almeida and John Surico
06 August 2016, 9:03am

Protesters set fire to an Olympic flag during a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro. All Photos by Phil Clarke Hill

This article originally appeared on VICE US

As night fell in Rio de Janeiro, a group of protesters in the public square of Praça Afonso Pena grew restless. Some began burning a Brazilian flag, then a Rio 2016 volunteer's shirt. Another splinter group gathered into a huddle. One member lit a fake Olympic torch on fire and took off into oncoming traffic.

The line of military police that had blocked the crowd from continuing onto Maracanã Stadium, where the 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony would be held later that night, quickly broke rank in response. Suited in body armor and protective masks and clutching night sticks, some cops ran after the torchbearer, while others shot canisters of tear gas and a percussion grenade into the square, causing families there to seek shelter from the ensuing chaos.

A protester holding a fake burning torch stands in front of police in riot gear.

The evening's tumultuous finale capped off what had been—until then—a relatively contained rally through the streets of Rio, as hundreds gathered to protest what have derisively been labeled the "Jogos da Exclusão," or "The Exclusion Games." They represented perhaps the loudest of the two-thirds of Brazilians who told pollsters hosting the Olympics would actually hurt their economically threatened country, and the roughly 51 percent who had "no interest" in the quadrennial sporting event.

To many residents, the Games embody everything that is going wrong in Brazil.

"None of the things that were promised to us happened," Renata Monteiro, an 18-year-old student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told VICE. "Instead, we got luxury beaches and a golf course. And no one in Rio plays golf."

A protester waves a black flag behind a line of police officers.

A few hours after the protest in Copacabana, Monteiro joined more Brazilians who gathered in the Praça Saens Peña, a meeting point before the roughly two-mile walk to Maracanã. Banners displayed there read "FORA TEMER"—the rallying cry for Brazilians who want Michel Temer, the unpopular interim president, out of office—and "The Torch Kills," criticizing the police violence that seems to be a part of everyday life in Brazil. A number of protestors wore shirts supporting Vila Autodromo, a favela that, for many critics, is now Exhibit A of the pre-Olympic displacement that changed the urban landscape in Rio."There are so many problems here that you could ask all of the reporters in the US to come and there still wouldn't be enough visibility," Monteiro said. "At least with the Olympics here now, people are watching."

"We are here today to denounce all of the violence committed as a result of the Games," said Glaucia Marinho, 31, a member of Justiça Global, a human rights NGO based in Rio. "And we're protesting the 60,000 people removed from their homes by force."

A protester performing a parody of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Off to the side, a group of performers dressed as Greek Olympians were conducting an ironic awards ceremony—togas, golden crowns, makeshift torch, samba, and all. There was even a banner rallying against the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The woman behind that banner was Misako Ichimura, a Japanese organizer who traveled to Rio to learn from the anti-Olympics protest movement here and build momentum in her home country. "It's usually very similar in each Olympic city," she told VICE. "You have the eviction of poor populations, just for rich development."

As the protester and police presence in the square multiplied, the crowds soon flooded onto the streets. Amidst anti-Temer and anti-Olympics signs, two fringe protesters held up posters that morbidly praised the Dallas and Baton Rouge police shooters. Chants harkening back to Brazil's military dictatorship broke out: "It did not end! But it must end! I want the end of the military police!" Cops lined the sides of the crowd, with a row of policemen on horseback in front. But for the most part, they simply stood guard.

"During the World Cup, they surrounded us in a square and wouldn't let us leave," Thalia de Oliveira, another student, told VICE."I remember one of the policemen broke a journalist's camera. It was more violent, because it was more packed. We're not sure what will happen tonight."

That uncertainty dissipated an hour later, when a smaller youth faction began running through the crowd, burning flags and exploding aerosol cans. Wearing black balaclavas, they then raided a corner eatery, turning over tables and chairs before police intervened, and two protesters were dragged off. Yet despite the disturbance, the walk continued.

The sun was setting by the time the crowd reached the end of their route, at Praça Afonso Pena, where children gathered at the jungle gym and older Brazilians played cards. The red-and-white tear gas dispersed what was left of the demonstration; afterward, Red Cross volunteers huddled over one woman, who protesters said was recovering from a severe asthma attack due to the gas.

Less than two hours later, fireworks could be heard from the Opening Ceremony. The Games had officially begun.

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