I had intended this post to tell the story of the first time residents from the favela Rocinha “descended from the hill” and marched to the Governor’s luxury condo in Leblon. It was the first protest of the June Uprising that was organized by favela residents with demands specific to their neighborhood. But yesterday evening, 6 February, a sizable demonstration organized by the newly formed Rio de Janeiro chapter of The Free Fare Movement (or the Brazilian acronym MPL for Movimento Passe Livre) (whose origins and objectives I briefly summarized here) sadly ended in a violent clash between Rio’s riot squad and fleeing protestors. While this isn’t the first time police responded harshly to agitated protestors in Rio de Janeiro (indeed it’s become a rather nasty habit of theirs), yesterday’s occurrence is fresh on my mind and relevant to the issues we discuss on FAVELissues; so with my throat still stinging from inhaling tear gas, I sat down last night and began to write.
Yesterday evening, during the peak of rush-hour traffic, roughly two thousand residents marched down a major avenue towards the central train station that connects the city with the surrounding metropolitan area. They marched against a R$0.25 bus fare hike (10 US cents) that would put the price at R$3.00 (US $1.25). And they marched in favor of tarifa zero, which would finance public transport through taxes, allowing passengers free access busses, metros, trains and ferries.
The private bus companies contracted by the municipal government to operate the public bus system, along with Mayor Eduardo Paes and other politicians who support the fare hike, argue that the increase is necessary in order to cover rising operating costs and new investments. (Ironically the last fare hike was justified in order to cover the cost of installing air conditioning in the busses to relieve passengers of heat indexes that reach 50 degrees (120F); yet two years later fewer than 20% of the busses operating in the city currently have these units, and fewer still in busses that primarily serve working class and poor regions). The Mayor and the bus companies remind the public that fares haven’t gone up in two years precisely because of the June protests. Indeed, four of those companies are suing the municipality for nearly R$200 million (US $83 million) in “lost revenue” as a result in the suspension of planned increase in price, a sum greater than their combined 2012 declared profits and equal to the cost of roughly 72 million fares.
The problem with their argument is manifold. For one, it seems that politicians in Rio de Janeiro accept that prices in a non-competitive, state-facilitated oligopoly should increase just because…well just because; as if it was a natural process with no need for evaluation, reflection or justification. According to the federal Applied Economic Research Institute (IPEA), bus fares have risen at a rate of 65% above inflation. A cursory audit of the private bus companies revealed that together they made over R$70 million (nearly US $30 million) in profits during 2012. I call the audit cursory because it was conducted without free access to the companies’ financial records (which is a violation of their contracts) and the companies had plenty of time to alter their balance sheets before handing over what they did make public.
For another, Eduardo Paes stated to the press in December of 2013 (less than 8 weeks ago), that any adjustment to bus fare would depend on the findings of an independent administrative court within the municipal legislative branch (known in Portuguese as the Tribunal de Contas)*, which was tasked with analyzing the situation and determining what increase of fare would be…fair. Turns out the private bus companies don’t like it when independent fiscal institutions have access to their financial records, and they delayed or refused to hand over all the documents requested by the technocrats. In turn, the Tribunal analyzed what information was available to them and reported that there was no justification for a fare increase and that in reality the fairest thing to do is to decrease the price by 25 cents.
Furthermore, and most important to the organizers of these protests and discussions about the right to the city and urban mobilities, public transport must be recognized as a public good, similar to education, public health, and security. MPL points out that transportation is integral to daily life in any urban environment, and that the poor and working classes are almost exclusively dependent on public transport to move between work, leisure (if and when they can afford leisure activities) and home. Without public transport, the city does not function. And in order to reap the benefits of living in a city, one must have access to transportation. In this context, urban mobility, an individual’s capacity to traverse urban space, is declared fundamental to the right to the city, and must be guaranteed to all citizens irrespective of their ability to pay.
Water-downed remnants of this ideology are actually present in the political rhetoric of Rio de Janeiro politicians and appointees. In discussing the cable-car transport systems, the elevators, and tram rails built to move residents up and down the steep hills of (a few of) the city’s favelas, the Governor, Secretary of Transport, and Secretary of Security all spoke reverently about the right to “come and go” with dignity. That traveling in and out of the favela freely and with dignity is a fundamental right to be guaranteed by the State. But that rhetoric seems to stop at the edge of the favelas. Those same citizens whose freedom of mobility the State is committed to protect leave their neighborhoods and pay exorbitant prices relative to their incomes to travel to work, school or the beach. For example, to travel from Ipanema to the Complexo do Alemão, one would need to board a bus to Central Brasil (the site of yesterday’s protest), hop a train to Bonsucesso, and from there take the new Gondola or more likely a private van or motorcycle taxi. That is a total of three different fares (there is no concession when changing modes of public transport in Rio de Janeiro). Google estimates that the journey would take a minimum of two hours during rush hour. One woman who works as a domestic worker in Copacabana told me she takes three busses (totaling more than two hours and R$15 each way during traffic) between work and her home in the Western periphery of the city. The cost of her commute is more than her hourly wage. Imagine if you had to work over an hour just to pay for your commute to and from work.
Back to the protest. One of the main events at any MPL protest is called a Catraca Popular in which passengers are encouraged to “pule uma catraca” or jump over a turnstile (also known as a faregate or bafflegate) in protest of paying high prices for widely acknowledged terrible service. At last week’s protest, which took place without disturbance, this was an inspiring moment. This small act of civil disobedience is largely symbolic (saving the single train fare home is unlikely to affect the finances of an individual and loosing the profits associated with a few dozen (or even a few hundred) passengers will not affect the profit margins of SuperVia (the private operator of the trains). Beyond the symbolism, I call it an inspiring moment because the facial expressions of the passengers who approach the Catraca Popular often appear cautious at the tumult; then curious at what is going on; at first hesitant to break the rules but then joyful in doing so. Many of them took out their phones to take pictures or videos of the protest before ducking under the turnstiles. This suggests that the Catraca Popular effectively encourages working citizens to think critically about their commute, and perhaps to recognize the political in the mundane urbanity of the everyday.
Up until the point that SuperVia brought out the barricades, there was not a single act of aggression. Last week, a smaller crowed conducted the very same protest without incident. Why, then, did SuperVia Trains, a private company, attempt to police a public protest? Why did their employees engage in acts of physical violence against citizens? Why were they willing to risk the security of everyone in the train station rather than let a few dozen passengers ride for free? These are questions that I ask of SuperVia. But I won’t hold my breath for a response.
Fleeing the truncheons of the police and the intoxicating tear gas, protestors, vendors, and passengers trying to get home scattered. Some protestors managed to destroy some of the turnstiles on their way out. Outside, some protestors set fire to trash heaps and broke the windows of unoccupied public busses. All-in-all 20 people were arrested, dozens suffered minor injuries and two people remain in grave condition at the hospital. One of those is Santiago Andrade, a cameraman and journalist who was hit in the back of the head by what police and the major newspaper O Globo claimed was a homemade bomb lobbed by a protestor, despite the fact that their own journalist who was a few meters from Andrade, reported on live TV that it was a police flash grenade.
[UPDATE]: Shortly after this blog was published, Globo exercised copyright authority and removed all video evidence of their journalist reporting that the projectile that injured Andrade was fired by the police. The newspaper then devoted many resources to investigating the incident, ultimately coming to their own conclusion about who launched what. Their ‘investigation’ has led to the arrest of a young man who Globo continuously refers to as ‘a black bloc’.
These acts of “vandalism” and violence are the only events that made the morning newspaper article published in O Globo. The story did not mention the groups that organized the protest or the slogans they chanted. They didn’t quote a single participant or cite the literature that is available on the Facebook Event Page. So with that I’d like to end with a thought-provoking quote by Emma Prankhurst, a British activists and suffragette. This quote comes from her biography My Own Story:
Ever since militancy took on the form of destruction of property the public generally, both at home and abroad, has expressed curiosity as to the logical connection between acts such as breaking windows, firing pillar boxes, et cetera, and the vote. Only a complete lack of historical knowledge excuses that curiosity. For every advance of men’s political freedom has been marked with violence and the destruction of property. Usually the advance has been marked by war, which is called glorious. Sometimes it has been marked by riotings, which are deemed less glorious but are at least effective.
*An earlier version of this blog misidentified the Tribunal de Contas as part of the judicial legal system, when it is under the authority of the Rio de Janeiro municipal government as regulated by Brazils federal constitution articles 70-75.
For more on the MPL and urban politics in Rio de Janeiro, follow me on twitter @yosoytucker