The second major anti-World Cup protest of 2014 took place in downtown São Paulo, Brazil this weekend. There were about 1,500 protesters present and the police were out in force, including a special unit called the "Tropa do Braço" — or the Troop of Arms — who, despite their name, came completely unarmed.
The reason they left their tools at home is because they've all been specially trained in martial arts, the hope being they'll use their batons less and therefore make the policing of protests slightly less brutal. But the plan didn't really work, mainly because they spent much of the day throttling people (including journalists who were covering the protests) with their bare hands. That, and the fact there were still plenty of other police units around who were more than happy to use their tear gas and batons.
People started to gather at República Square at 5PM, and half an hour later set off on a confusing route through a load of narrow side streets. At the front were the press pack, stumbling over each other to get the best shot, then the banner holders — punks and sociology students from the University of Sao Paulo — then the black bloc, then some more students, a samba band and, at the end, various supporters from all walks of life.
The World Cup has become an emblem of the Brazilian government's misspending of public funds, so the march was always going to attract a pretty wide cross section of Brazilian society.
Which is maybe why things remained calm during the beginning of the demonstration, until we got to Anhangabaú Metro Station, when the police surrounded some protesters and started beating on them. In the melee, our photographer Alice took a baton hit to the arm and our videographer friend had his press badge torn up as an officer grabbed him violently by the shirt. He was only let go when another friend insisted he was a journalist.
The black bloc rushed to support the targeted demonstrators, but managed to get themselves kettled in the process. Anyone who tried to leave had to deal with the Tropa do Braço and their new martial arts abilities, meaning there were lots of people being dragged around and restrained in chokeholds.
Slowly, both sides of the street filled up with people sitting with their hands cuffed behind their backs, waiting to be searched.
The road was shut down and people who'd just been going about their daily business were soon caught up in the fracas; those who tried to run out of shops were hurried back in with the treat of a kicking from the cops.
The police chucked out some tear gas to disperse the crowd and gain territory, causing some people to pass out in the street or as the police lifted them into buses.
Even the activist lawyers — legal observers keeping an eye on the cops' behavior — weren't immune from the police violence. One of them told me he'd had his mobile taken, and another said the police ripped up his documents, guessing that they weren't too keen on him witnessing and reporting their abuses of power.
I took refuge in a bar and chatted to some other journalists about what was going on. A guy who'd been beaten, despite not being a protester, was complaining to a cop, who was trying to lend a sympathetic ear and apologies. Everything seemed relatively calm and I thought I could take a breather, until some tear gas canisters came hurtling into the bar. I darted out of there so fast that I didn’t manage to see how the complaining man or the apologetic cop reacted.
After being searched at a police barricade, I made it back to República Square. At the checkpoint, I asked who was in charge of policing the day's demonstration. I was directed to a sergeant, who didn’t want to speak to the press. "Talk to the colonel," he said. Who’s the colonel, I asked. "I don’t know."
The police said, including journalists, there were 262 arrests at the protest.
While the march might not make much of a dent in FIFA's plans, at least it once again highlighted how capable the police are of terrorizing Sao Paulo's streets instead of protecting them.