Demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on 20 June 2013. Photo: Ingrid Samset

How can we make our democracy truly representative? Can participation be institutionalized? And who does the Maracanã stadium belong to?

Ingrid Samset, CMI. Rio de Janeiro

Under the high ceilings of an outdoor assemblage area at the Pontifical Catholic University  of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), framed by the intense green of tall trees, the questions were given ample space to reverberate. The meeting that took place on 24 June, organized by PUC-Rio’s Department of Social Sciences, gave room to share and discuss impressions that had accumulated during an unprecedented week of mass protests in Brazil.

But who do the demonstrators represent? After all, at any one day of protest the demonstrators have only made up between 0.5 and 1 percent of Brazil’s population. Pointing to how the campaign to reduce public transport fares, which triggered the protests, was initiated mainly by university students some have claimed the movement is chiefly by and for the middle class. But recent research by the IBOPE institute published in Época magazine, which was pointed to at the PUC-Rio meeting to great acclaim, finds that 75 percent of Brazilians support the protests. It also finds that beyond the six percent who had participated in demonstrations until then (the survey was done on 19-20 June), 35 percent of those who had not participated would have done so had they been able to.

This suggests that the protests resonate far beyond the middle class in Brazilian society. Indeed, banners on the streets of Rio have testified to a significant presence from the favelas, as the poorer neighborhoods are known in this city. Demonstrators have protested, for instance, against the ban the police has imposed on the popular funk parties in these neighborhoods. As one banner read, “culture is not a case for the police”.

At the PUC-Rio meeting, a representative of a residents’ association from the favela of Rocinha touched on the issue of police violence. Such violence had made the demonstrations in Brazil expand as, on 13 June, a number of São Paulo and Rio protestors were attacked by police and this was recorded, photographed, filmed, and posted online, motivating many more to join in protest against the violence and in solidarity with those who had been injured. In favelas like Rocinha, however, where narcotraffickers and police have contested each other for years, police violence has been a more regular experience. “But now”, the Rocinha representative said at the meeting, in a calm and matter-of-fact way, “you see how it is”. He was met with massive applause.

Another issue that raised much engagement was the role of the media. Media power is fairly centralized in Brazil, giving news networks like O Globo much power to set the agenda and influence what kind of narrative that emerges as dominant. Some of the protestors have raised this issue of media power, while analysts have pointed to this as a reason behind the growth in the use of social media and alternative news sources in Brazil. At the PUC-Rio meeting, one speaker questioned how the media’s interests might influence their coverage. He said that while people like him may want to discuss the role of the FIFA World Cup in these protests, networks like O Globo did not “because they have an interest”. This triggered loud cheering and applause. He continued, “Maracanã” — the famous football stadium in Rio — “is not a detail. It is central! Who does it belong to?” For this audience, the answer was clear: “Maracanã is ours”.

Listening to the speakers, I began thinking of the various movements for social change that have arisen across Latin America more broadly over the past few years. In Brazil too such movements have simmered, but now they are taking shape as a bigger collective, though a collective who is not yet quite sure of who it is. Julián Fuks wrote in Folha de São Paulo on 23 June about his own experience of walking through the streeets as a part of the mass. He described the moment when the crowd suddenly discovered their own reflection in a big building along the avenue (my translation):

“For a moment, we were frightened by our own size, enchanted by that image: the avenue that always was packed with metallic boxes, with inexpressive cars that only give back to the building its own image, now the building is occupied by women and men. We are taking back the city that had been assumed by machines, and we realize: we are not stopping the city (...). It has never been as mobile, as alive as it is now.”

This alive-ness is one reason why it is difficult to know how far the protests will go. Much will depend on the ways in which the movement will channel its demands into a dialogue with the authorities, who already are taking a number of steps to meet them. At the PUC-Rio meeting, sociologist Marcelo Burgos suggested that while we cannot be sure where the protests will take Brazil, we do know their direction. “The street belongs neither to the left nor to the right”, Burgos said. “The street just belongs to democracy.”