‘Peaceful’ Protests and the Legitimacy of Violent Potential

When I performed a Google search for “protests in Brazil” on April 4th, 2014, the second news article in the search results was titled, “Peaceful protests against Brazil World Cup continue,” from Euronews on March 28th. I was pleasantly surprised by the title, because I have searched this same phrase (“protests in brazil”) a number of times for my other research, and the focus of the titles is almost always on either the World Cup or on protest violence. While this article title did not deviate from an implicit discussion of violence (since the idea of “peaceful” must be newsworthy enough for it to appear in the title), it was nevertheless explicitly describing the protests as “peaceful.” Thishad to see.

Once I had clicked through to the article and begun watching the video, however, I realized my folly. The link was to an “article” with a short (20-second) video showing not only protesters, but also police… lots of police.

(The original “article” I found can be viewed here. Note that the text of the article is basically a transcription of the video, with only the addition of a third line of text: “Protesters believe the money should instead be spent on education, healthcare, transport and tackling crime.”)

“Local reports claim twice as many police officers accompanied protesters in Sao Paolo [sic] on a march on Thursday as they took a stand against Brazil’s hosting of the football World Cup in less than three months”, says the narrator of the short video clip. She then explains that these “activists” have “expressed their anger at the cost of the tournament.”

I’m not sure whether any of this “anger” comes through during the video clip, at least in terms of its audio. Only video of the protests is shown to the viewer; meanwhile, the sounds on the news clip are the narrator’s voice and some slick background music combining violins and electro percussion that, to me, conveys a sort of “professional news urgency” aesthetic.

In my viewing experience, the news agency’s monopoly on the use of sound makes both the protesters and the police seem silent. As a results, the ‘protests’ really do seem ‘peaceful.’ There seems to be no significant physical movement other than walking, and I didn’t see any clips of anybody speaking or yelling. The most noticeable movement other than walking involves the protesters at the beginning of the clip who are holding black signs with large red letters saying “FIFA GO HOME.” These protesters are dancing and moving a little bit, as if they were feeling the rhythm of some sort of protest chant. However, as far as I can see, the sound source of their rhythm is not visible (if, indeed they are moving to an audio rhythm; I really can’t know based on this clip.)

(A note about language: Remember that the official language of Brazil is Portuguese, which the vast majority speak as their primary language. The use of English on the signs could be a call to an international audience… or, possibly, to FIFA itself. Of course, the phrase “go home” is used commonly enough in relation to FIFA that it is likely widely understood, especially by the protesters themselves, many of whom seem to be upper-middle-class and have the opportunity to learn multiple languages.)

After we see the protesters holding the “FIFA GO HOME” signs, the camera switches to a video of a row of police officers, probably about three officers thick, as some people (including a man in a business suit) walk in front of the camera on the sidewalk. The man in the business suit suddenly looks toward the side of the sidewalk from which the camera is filming; he looks tense, as if he doesn’t want to be walking by this line of police officers an has just heard or seen something that made him even more uncomfortable. (Maybe it was the police officer who, at 0:04, suddenly looks like he was smelling his armpits as if to see whether he had remembered to put on deodorant.)

When I first saw this video, I thought that the people walking on the sidewalk were the protesters. “Why are there so few protesters and so many police?” I thought to myself. Because of the way the shot was filmed, it looks almost like there is a row of police on both sides of the sidewalk, and the “protesters” were traveling in-between the two lines of police, separated from potential contact with anything other than the sidewalk itself.

Maybe my viewing was incompetent, but it wasn’t until just now (probably the fifth time I have seen the video) that I understand the shot — especially because it passes by so quickly, staying on the screen for only about two seconds.

Perhaps I am still ‘incorrect’ in my viewing, but when I look at the image now, I see that the camera is facing the sidewalk, and parallel with the sidewalk is the row of police officers that I mentioned earlier… The first line of police officers is facing the sidewalk and the pedestrians, and the other two lines of officers are facing the opposite direction – towards, I think, the protesters themselves. (I can only really tell because I can see the rear side of some cardboard signs. Or are they some kind of plastic riot shield???)

line of police in Euronews video

On the right, a line of a police, 3 rows thick. The closest row, made up of officers wearing grey vests, is looking towards the sidewalk and passing pedestrians. (Why is their clothing different?) The other two rows are facing away from the camera and towards the protesters, whose purple and red banners can be seen behind the wall of police near the center of the screen. The police officer on the left side of the image frame seems to be smelling his armpit. The man walking by him in a business suit will glance at him in a fraction of a second. Also, is that police officer (walking past the camera) wearing a backwards baseball cap under his helmet??

There do indeed seem to be a very large number of police in relation to “non-police” in this image… but the only visible non-police are passing pedestrians, not (as far as I can tell) the protesters themselves. This image was one of the most striking to me, and was afterwards even more striking once I realized I had misread it.

(I’m not trying to imply that the newscasters were intentionally trying to trick anybody. Rather, I’m talking about my own viewing experience, including the many details that pass through a quick few seconds of images.)

This image (and video) is particularly interesting to me in terms of three theoretical approaches I have developed on this site: dis/placement, the public sphere according to Habermas, and the state according to Weber.

The most relevant and interesting way to look at the image is in terms of the “public sphere.” As I explained, Habermas thinks of the public sphere as a sphere that mediates between private persons and the state through the means of rational debate that forms public opinion through its publicness. Habermas isn’t necessarily talking about the public sphere as a physical place, but as a political space. Still, let’s think about it in terms of physical occupation of space.

Weber argues that the state cannot exist except through its means, which involve a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force.” For Weber, control over institutionalized use of physical force is the basis of state-ness. Perhaps in this image, then, we might look at the police as the embodiment of the state. The police, although they are living, breathing humans with their own lives, realities, and desires (as is perhaps made clear by the baseball cap of the passing officer in the photo), are also tasked to perform the state’s institutionalized use (or threat) of force… (In this context, such performance of state force might involve tear gas, batons, pepper spray, or rubber bullets.) So, although it would be dehumanizing to say that the police officers wholly and simply embodied the state, perhaps I can say that the officers are performing the state through their presence and actions. (If nobody at all was willing to hold a gun or to be a police or army officer and enact the state through institutionalized violence, then perhaps the ‘Weberian’ state couldn’t exist.)

So, the police as performers of the state. In this photo, they are performing the state by standing in a thick line that forms a division between the street (full of protesters) and the sidewalk (with pedestrians who don’t seem to be directly participating in the protests).

Who, and where, are the private persons? Is there a “public sphere” mediating between state and private persons… or are the police (the state) mediating between a private-persons-acting-publicly (the protesters) and simply-private-persons (the people on the sidewalk)?

How does (or doesn’t) the group of active demonstrators fit into a bourgeois model of a public sphere based on rational discussion?

If dis/placement is happening here, who and what is being dis/placed? When the police emplace a border between protesters and non-protesters, who are they protecting? What are they enforcing? Is the state concerned solely with setting borders to its territory, or also with dividing up portions of its territory based on who is occupying those portions?

Are the police trying to keep the protesters from spilling off the street? Are they trying to prevent passerby from joining in? Are they forming boundaries and borders as a way to enforce the ownership of ‘private property’ (the buildings and banks and cars that line the streets) and thus mediate between a public sphere of democratic protests and a sphere of private property-owning bourgeois individuals?


It’s hard to talk about the police’s occupation of space without returning to my original reason for discussing this video, which is its title referring to the protests as “peaceful.”

Specifically, I wonder what this video says about the definition of “violence” as it is expressed through news representations. In this case, the headline of the news piece was about peaceful protests. In this video, then, “peaceful” apparently signifies “regulation by a massive police presence and its equally massive potential to use violent force.”

When I move to the next part of the news clip, I see that there is a huge line of police, sometimes two to three or four people thick, marching alongside the protesters, making a division between them and the cars driving on the street.

flanking police in Euronews video

On the black banner, we can see “FIFA GO HOME. The entirety of the black banner is not shown in the video, but it says, “FIFA PAGA MINHA TARIFA,” which means “FIFA PAY MY FARE,” in reference (I believe) to protesters’ indignation that public funds are being used to host the World Cup while public goods are not accessible or easily affordable (nor are tickets to attend the games). The red banner says “There will be no World Cup,” a slogan that I know has been adopted by Anonymous Brasil, though I don’t know its circulation or its origin.  The white banner says “SOMOS TODXS CLAUDIA FERREIRA.”

A closer look reveals that the protesters are literally being flanked by police, with an equally thick line of officers on the other side of the protesters. In their work to form a division between the protest space and the non-protest space, the police seem to be literally occupying as much space as the protesters, if not more.

The news clip talks only very vaguely about the protesters’ demands, saying that they are related to the costs of the World Cup. But what about the rainbow banner that could be a support of LGBTQ rights? What about the white banner that says “SOMOS TODXS CLAUDIA FERREIRA”? which means “WE ARE ALL CLAUDIA FERREIRA” in gender-neutral language?


Somos Todxs Claudia Ferreira

Let me take a moment to explain what I understand of this sign. Searching the phrase on the sign led me to a Facebook page that was organizing some students from the Arts & Letters department of the University of São Paulo (USP,  a public university) to participate in the demonstrations. The Facebook event was titled, “Letters Students in the FFLCH block in the protests against the Cup!” (where FFLCH refers to the Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas, the College of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences).

According to a post on the Facebook on the day of the event, the theme for the day (for that particular group) was “Repression.” Here I will translate most of the text of the post, which was made by somebody named Ninfadora Cassiano:

Today’s repression is not just related to social movement, but also is the repression that happens every day in the favelas and peripheries and that causes thousands of dead, like Amarildo and Claudia Ferreira.

Because of this, today we call all students to join together for the FFLCH Block that will meet [in a place] so we can organize and go out to the streets to show that we are not going to accept this mega-event that only comes to bring profit to big businesspeople, while we are repressed in the streets, fighting for our rights, and while the youth and the black population is killed every day by the racist police! We will not accept the spilling of any more blood!


[The link on Amarildo’s name was added by me.]

The end of the genocide of the black population? We are all Claudia Ferreira? What does this mean, and what does it have to do with a ‘peaceful” protest?

An article on Global Voices gives more detail on this story. The Portuguese version is titled (based on my literal translation), “Claudia Silva Ferreira: killed in police action, made invisible by the media.” The English version is titled, “The ‘Woman Who Was Dragged’ and Killed by Brazil’s Military Police.” In short, the story indicates that a woman was shot in the neck and back during a police operation, and the police officers stuffed the woman (apparently still alive but unconscious) in their trunk, supposedly to take her to the hospital. With the trunk still wide open, they then drove out of the neighborhood after firing warning shots to drive away her family members who tried to keep the police from taking her. As the police were driving on the highway, her body fell out of the trunk, except a piece of her clothing was caught on the car, so her body was dragged along the road behind the vehicle for some time before the police finally stopped to put her back in the trunk and close the door. (Reportedly, they had not stopped earlier, even with the loud alerts of other drivers and of pedestrians.)

I will not embed it on this page because of its content, but you can watch this video showing her body being dragged behind the military police vehicle. The video was linked from the Global Voices article.

Reading further on the Global Voices article reveals that bloggers and social media activists were vocal about recognizing Claudia Ferreira’s full name rather than allowing the mainstream media to categorize her as “a woman,” as “the woman who was dragged,” as “just another statistic.” Activists didn’t want her name to disappear, but were not hopeful because the racist, classist media would be unlikely to remember the death of a poor, black woman. The comments of the article’s author in the comments section of the Portuguese version indicate that the “invisibilization” of Claudia wasn’t necessarily because her death and the dragging of her body wasn’t portrayed in media sources, but because she was not permitted an identity in media representations.

According to the Global Voices story, Claudia’s murder led to the rise of many vocal demands for the demilitarization of the Military Police in Brazil (which are active all the time, and simply perform police operations slightly different from those of the ‘civil police,’ even though they have military training… a legacy which I believe is connected to the military dictatorship whose rule in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s was supported by the United States).

[Note that it is perhaps rather problematic for so many bloggers and activists to have ‘appropriated’ Claudia Silva Ferreira’s name for particular political causes. Were these ‘activists’ speaking based on the wishes of her family and based on the voices of her community? I doubt it. More research would be necessary, though.]


Have I gotten off track of my discussion about the “peaceful protest” that was exhibited in the Euronews video?

Not at all. Or rather, by getting “off track,” I’ve done exactly what I hoped to do — which is to show not only the complexity of the protests (in opposition to the very short and ‘simple’ portrayal in the 20-second Euronews video clip), but also to show what I feel is a real absurdity in referring to these protests as “peaceful protests.” By giving a “summary” of the video, I also meant to show how active and difficult and engaged the viewing experience can be, even if its intent is simply to figure out the most basic components of what is happening in the images.

These particular protesters from USP were carrying a banner saying that “we are all Claudia Ferreira.” Yes, this message is a way to appropriate her name for specific protests in the context of the upcoming World Cup. However, the banner was indicating an attempt at solidarity, at a recognition of some sort of common humanity (and perhaps common citizenship in what is represented as an abusive state), an attempt at a call to action against repression and state-sponsored violence. (Though, in light of Weber’s definition of the state, perhaps it’s not state-sponsored so much as violence-that-enacts-the-state.)

Returning to the EuroNews video clip… The narrator explains, about the March 27th protest, that “it’s one of a number of peaceful demonstrations,” as a police officer is shown walking past the camera holding a shotgun-shaped weapon, along with a large group of other officers who are walking alongside the protests. True, the gun probably contains rubber bullets (though, in fact, these can cause real wounds and can also be lethal, according to an article in Discovery News, not to mention their potential to cause serious wounds or to cause blindness if hitting the eyes), but it is a gun nonetheless.


The protests were “Peaceful,” despite the state’s enactment of the potential for violence. Is something peaceful because it is passive? Is the presence of guns and mechanisms for ‘crowd control’ even something passive? The protests are peaceful – from whose perspective? Are they peaceful from the perspective of those who are actively denouncing institutionalized military police violence? Isn’t the presence of the military police a form of violence? Perhaps the threat of violence can be another form of control, one that is substantially different from the threat of ‘vandalism’ and graffiti… Again, the police potential for violence must be so ‘natural’ for the Euronews reporters that it is not reporting. In this way, the actively violent potential of the state, and its regulation through threats of violence, is naturalized.

From my perspective, the “peaceful” police presence at the protest depicted by Euronews is a form of violence. Because the police hold the threat of violence, their actions to regulate the protesters’ use of space are founded upon mechanisms of institutionalized violence. Protesters aren’t necessarily obeying out of deference, but more likely out of knowledge of the means of force available to the police against those who disobey. With the threat of violence and with their active presence, the police act to perform the state’s legitimate control of ‘its’ territory. (There are surely many other reasons as well, of course, such as a desire for positive portrayal in international news sources, etc. However, as suggested by DeLuca and Peeples’ argument, the absence of violence may lead to an altogether disappearance of any representations of political demands by news sources.

The basic argument of this post is that the protests are considered “peaceful” because the implicit source of violence is the protesters themselves, not the police. The protest is framed in such a way that the state’s potential for violence is legitimate and therefore “peaceful.” The framing also ignores and erases the many complexities of the protests and their discussions of specific kinds of violence, of “genocide of the black population” at the hands of police. Violence, in this case, is very much part of the demonstrations and their demands. [Note, though, that the particular student group taking about Claudia is not necessarily ‘representative,’ because the protests contained many different demands. However, it is a rather visible banner, visible also in the video clip, partially legible if not fully… legible enough for me to be able to search for it and learn more about it. While the group protesting police violence may not be representative of ‘protesters,’ they are nonetheless present and visible at the protest and in this example of international news coverage.]

Peaceful protests against Brazil World Cup continue | euronews, world news.


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