Urban resistance has rocked Brazil since June 2013. On the largest day of protests, 20 June, two million citizens took to the streets in over 100 cities and municipalities. One million marched on the streets of Rio de Janeiro until police fired tear gas, flash grenades, pepper spray, and rubber bullets from police lines, helicopters, motorcycles, and armored trucks. Both national and international media scrambled to explain the uprisings, allowing far-flung experts, everyone from Manuel Castells to Francis Fukiyama to Slavoj Zizek, to mold the protests to their respective academic theories and political ideologies. But the reality of the Brazilian resistance is not easily summed up in a single essay. From the cacophony of voices on the streets, one usually hears what they listen for.
Rather than attempt to explain the sudden swell of resistance in urban Brazil, in this post I give a short overview of the activist organization that sparked the current protest movements.
It all started when a group of two-dozen urban transport activists organized a protest in the city of São Paulo against a 20-centavy hike in bus fare (about US$0.10). Within a week, tens of thousands took to the streets. “It’s not just about the twenty cents” was chanted, chalked, and spray-painted. São Paulo’s residents were fed up of costly transport that delivered poor service while further enriching private companies that hold state contracts to provide public services; which pay their employees pitifully low wages, and receive substantial public subsidies.
The Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) has been resisting neoliberal urbanism since its inception in 2004 in São Paulo, although the group cites protests in 2003 against high bus fares in the cities of Salvador, in the north, and Florianópolis, in the south, as the first moments of inspiration. The MPL is a group of urban activists originally composed of a few university professors, undergraduates, and high school students (although now their ranks have grown considerably due to their sudden national fame). They organize according to horizontal, direct-democracy principles. They have no designated leader, and they have a loose structure that allows for a national network of affiliates (currently in seven cities) which follow common principles and trajectories agreed upon at national assemblies but which otherwise act autonomously. Curiously, the MPL does not operate in Rio de Janeiro, which has become the vanguard city of urban resistance (in no small apart due to a rising anarchist consciousness and in reaction to the remaking of the city in preparation for the World Cup and Summer Olympics); although rumor has it that MPL activists are organizing with Rio residents to form a new group.
**UPDATE (7 February 2013): A chapter of MPL has begun to organize in Rio de Janeiro as has carried out two protests against a hike in bus fare to date). See my latest post on the matter for more information.**
The MPL is a radical organization. It’s impossible not to use the word beautiful to describe their discourse. A passage from their mission statement:
The MPL is not in itself an end goal, but a means for the construction of another society. Likewise, the fight for free transport for students is not an end goal. It is an instrument to initiate debate about the transformation of the current concept of urban public transport, opposing market-based logic and beginning the fight for free, high-quality public transport as a right for all of society; for public transport outside private interests and under public control (of the workers and users).
The influence of the radical urban philosopher Henri Lefevre is apparent in their published materials, and there are hints of Guy Debord and the Situationists International in their uncompromising visions of a city for all. They view the movement of bodies in urban space as fundamental to culture and social structure, and thus consider public transport a necessary battlefield for the reorganization of urban society. Public transport should function to serve the needs of “the people” (defined in their literature as youth and workers) rather than to benefit the workings of capital and the capitalist class.
The MPL is suspicious of corporate media, and their national guidelines stipulate that the group should prioritize alternative media to disseminate their messaging. During the first week of protests most of the major newspapers ran editorials attacking the MPL and the young people who joined them on the streets, labeling them disenchanted middle-class university students without just reason to cause such urban disruption. Even when attacked by São Paulo’s military police the mainstream media focused on “acts of vandalism,” implicitly condoning the harsh crackdown in response to violating the sanctity of private property. It wasn’t until police attacked journalists covering the protests for the major newspapers—one of whom was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet—that the media almost uniformly began supporting the protests (now called “democratic”), condemning police violence, and reporting on the many irregularities of the opaque public transport system. They also began to profile the MPL, which became an overnight sensation.
In a Sunday edition of Folha de São Paulo dedicated almost exclusively to the protests that had spread like wildfire across the country, members of MPL argued that the high cost of public transport acted as a barrier to movement, facilitating only laborers’ commute to and from work rather than the “appropriation of the city”. The result is a form of “urban apartheid”, and the fight for free fare is a fight to “finance the right to liberty.”
To read more about the MPL, check out their English-language blog.
For more on the MPL and urban politics in Rio de Janeiro, follow me on twitter @yosoytucker