Last Thursday, as a mass of people gathered in São Paulo’s streets, protesters hoisted multi-colored banners and signs over their heads that read: “FIFA Go Home”; “Without Rights, No World Cup”; and “World Cup for Whom?” While the organizers called the crowd into formation, a group of young Brazilians attired in black and wearing masks walked to the front of the parade and unfolded an anarchist banner. Journalists and photographers immediately swarmed them.
No participant in Brazil’s anti-World Cup protests has generated more media coverage than the black blocs. During a protest in São Paulo in January, a black bloc group smashed bank windows, detonated homemade explosives, and erected a burning barricade in the street, which caused a vehicle carrying a family to catch fire. Because of such episodes, black blocs are depicted as a radical, fringe movement — masked hooligans that have brought chaos and violence to street protests. The negative press coverage has swayed average Brazilians. Public support of the protests fell from a high of 89 percent last June to a low of 52 percent in February.
Politicians were quick to vilify the groups. Legislators have introduced no fewer than 16 bills aimed at limiting protest activities ahead of the World Cup. Brazilians cities have instituted their own policies, in some cases banning the use of masks at protests — a policy thought to specifically target black blocs.
Around 1,000 protesters marched along Sao Paulo’s Avenida Paulista to demonstrate against the FIFA World Cup. Sao Paulo police reported that there were no incidents of violence or arrests at the March 27 rally following clashes during marches earlier this year.
After a cameraman named Santiago Andrade died in February following clashes between black bloc protesters and police during a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, a congressman proposed forming a special parliamentary committee to investigate the black bloc movement.
Some protesters have also expressed concern for the tactics used by black bloc members.
“We understand their anger and frustration, but we don’t think that violence is very intelligent in tactical, strategic, or ethical terms,” Gabriela Vuolo, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Brazil, told VICE News. “That tiny act of violence dominates the coverage of the event and our cause is lost. It gives our opponents the ammunition that they need and allows them to discredit our movement.”
But not everyone agrees that the black blocs present a problem. “We would never think of excluding the black bloc from our movement,” Igor Silva, a young protest organizer, told VICE News. “We have talked to them about wanting a peaceful movement, but we won’t criminalize them.”
This difference of opinion reflects the ambiguity of black bloc organization. Rather than a social movement, the black bloc is principally a tactic that employs targeted acts of vandalism against the capitalist state and the police. The groups employing the tactic have been hard to categorize, in no small part to due to the fact that they are intentionally anonymous and lack a clear structure, hierarchy, or official platform. During protests in Brazil, black bloc members spontaneously emerge in the streets, march alongside complete strangers, and dissipate just as quickly.
Their animosity toward the police is not baseless. In 2012 alone, Brazil’s police was responsible for the deaths of nearly 2,000 people. Last Friday, the Organization of American States held a public hearing to discuss nearly 200 cases of police brutality and arbitrary repression brought by NGOs.
A 16-year-old named Alexandre told VICE News that he was moved to join a black bloc after attending the anti-World Cup protest in January with his mother.
“I was attacked by the police and they said horrible things to my mother,” he said. “I have policemen in my family, and I respect them, but I felt like the black bloc was the only way to defend myself against their aggression.”
As journalists and photographers fought to get close to the black bloc at last Thursday’s march, hundreds of police officers lined the streets nearby. Some 1,500 officers had been deployed for the protest.
“We don’t want the World Cup to come to Brazil either,” one of the officers told VICE News. “We understand why these people are protesting, but we have to step in when they become violent.”
But on this occasion, no violence was reported. The black bloc members linked arms and acted as a buffer toward the front of the march. No demonstrators were detained, no bank windows were smashed. The only noises echoing in the streets were the drums and chants of more than a thousand Brazilians marching against the World Cup.
Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva