Estadão and not-so-dramatic shifts in coverage of violence

This page in Estadão (a newspaper based in São Paulo), which is titled “Em uma semana, quatro protestos contra aumenta da tarifa em São Paulo [In one week, four protests against transportation fare rises in São Paulo],” contains a short timeline with summaries and links to articles about what happened in each of the four days during the week of June 6th, 2013.

In these summaries and selections of salient details in the first few paragraphs of its articles, the newspaper is “emplacing” detailed descriptions of protesters’ actions and ‘vandalism,’ even as it displaces such detailed representations of police action. In the first summary for the June 6th protest, the word “police” does not even appear, and the statistic that “15 pessoas foram presas [15 people were imprisoned” is used in the passive voice, as if the actual process of imprisonment and the agents who did the imprisoning are not important. In the June 7th article, the tear gas and stun grenades used by police are mentioned, but the introductory paragraph concludes with comments on how the protests caused a lot of traffic congestion (and, in fact, the title of the piece is “Protesto fecha a marginal e lentidão chega a 226 km,” which essentially explains, I believe, that the protest closed off  part of traffic access and the resulting slowness affected 226 kilometers of streets. In other words, the focus of the article is on the negative traffic effects of the protest rather than on other things such as police action or political demands.

(Let me take a moment here to argue: Summaries are important. The abstract of an academic article, for example, can determine whether people decide to read the article or not. The abstract can also contain the most clearly explained version of the article’s argument. Likewise, titles of works, especially those of news media pieces, are central (in my experience) to the way a text will be framed. For example, if an article discussed both protester and police violence in a fairly balanced way but was titled “Vandalism in the streets of São Paulo,” its message (through the article  ‘summary’ in the form of its title) would be bounded and structured by that title. Likewise, although I do not have specific academic literature to support me at this point, I would argue that these article summaries are important. By excluding the police from the summary for the June 6th protests, it is implied that police action is not noteworthy… In other words, it is “natural,” and not worth reporting on the news.)

The third article summary, linking to an article titled “Confronto e destruição marcam maior protesto contra alta da tarifa de ônibus em SP [Confrontation and destruction mark the largest protest against bus fare rise in São Paulo],” describes the ‘destruction’ involved in the protests, saying that the protests made Paulista Avenue into a “praça de guerra” (which literally translates to “plaza of war,” as opposed to, for example, “battlefield,” though I do not know the the alternative meanings that are surely carried along with the phrase ‘praça de guerra’). It is explained that [translated] “Dozens of people were wounded, including three Military Police officers, and 20 were imprisoned.” It is interesting that neither the agents of the injuries nor of the imprisonments are highlighted. Based on the article description, I am led to assume that the injuries were a result of the ‘destruction’ happening through the protests. (This framework acts to prevent me from interpreting the injuries as, for example, the result of police action.)

The introductory text of the full article reads almost like to a call to alarm. The last two sentences say: “According to the Military Police, between 10 and 12 thousand people participated in the action, which left a trail of vandalism. Another similar action is planned for Friday, the 13th, at 5pm.” The destruction is caused by the protesters, while the Military police are the source of authority about the number of protesters.

It’s not framed simply as vandalism in this article, but as violence.

Despite causing a great deal of disruption in traffic, closing [one lane] of Consolação and Radial Leste, the march remained peaeful until 7:45 pm. The violence began when a group of demonstrators tried to invade the Terminal Parque Dom Pedro II, setting fire to a bus and a dumpster. The Shock Troop reacted with gas bombs and rubber bullets and the demonstrations fell into confrontation from that point. (my emphasis)

Remember, this is one of the earlier articles before she shit in media representation. In this paragraph, the “violence” is said to begin with protesters’ actions of setting fire to a bus and a dumpster, while the police use of gas and rubber bullets is a ‘reaction.’ In this case, damage to physical things is considered a form of ‘violence’ – and the more important form, as it is the one that sets things off. In this description, the protesters are the aggressors who incite violent confrontation with their own initial violence.

This is yet another example of what I am arguing is the displacement of representations of police violence, and the displacement of protesters’ political demands, as a way to emplace the authority of the State as the holder of the monopoly on legitimate use of force, and thus to emplace the legitimacy of the state. As the initial and later protests were meant to act against institutionalized interests and policies that promoted inequality, it is not surprising that newspapers would displace the political demands and legitimize the state; it is a way of delegitimizing protesters and the potential of political manifestations in certain spaces. If the “public sphere” was manifested historically as a space of rational discussion between private persons as a way to mediate between private interests and the state, it makes sense that the more powerful private interests (such as large media outlets) would be interested in displacing and denouncing any action that might not engage in forums that meet the bourgois ideal of controlled, rational discussion. If the public sphere has historically privileged a certain social class and the limited number of individuals who are capable of being ‘heard’ in the formation of public opinion due to power and influence, then it makes sense that insurgent ways of engaging with the ‘public’ and the state would be delegitimized. (Note, though, that it’s a bit more complicated than this, since the 2013 protests overall were characterized as being largely white and middle-class, meaning the people have a potential for voice in other forums.)

(A note: The video that’s included in the third article summary shows a large group of protesters chanting, and along one side there is a group of military police milling around. In my viewing, this video doesn’t show any type of violence, including the vandalism described in the article.)

The Estadão account of the week of protests continues with more descriptions of vandalism, and there is also included a lengthy (34-minute) interview with Caio Martins, a representative of MPL. The summary alongside the video first explains how the governor and prefect ‘condemned’ the excesses of the demonstrations and dismiss any possibility of lowering the fare, and then says that according to Caio Martins, the protests would not stop until the fare was lowered.

At the end of the video clip, Martins says that nobody talks about the violence of the fare, which prevents people from going to work, to school, to find a job, to access people and information. For him, the focus on protester ‘violence’ against buildings is misleading.

So, this is an important inclusion in the Estadão timeline, one that gives an MPL representative a lengthy opportunity to voice the demands and political perspectives of MPL protesters in these early June protests before the actions exploded more widely across Brazil. (Note, though, that according to several comments on the video, the reporter is asking aggressive questions as a way to get Martins to ‘admit’ that the protests had lost control. Comments indicate that none of the questions were positive or supportive.)

But I didn’t watch it. I didn’t watch the video because it is 34 minutes. 34 minutes. Yes, it offers a lengthy interview, but it doesn’t offer a ‘quick’ and ‘accessible’ and visible voice to MPL that a news reader would be able to access quickly. In the environment of news, where people are only expected to read the first few paragraphs of any article, a 34-minute video is not accessible. In the environment of this project, where my focus is on the visible, a 34-minute interview is not accessible like a 1-page article. Anyway, my focus is on the summary of the video, where it is only said that the protests won’t stop until the fare decreases. When I read this summary in relation to the other articles in the Estadão timeline, it fits well with the sort of ‘alarm’ being signaled about future ‘violence’ and ‘vandalism.’ The summary could have focused on other aspects of the interview, such as Martins’ explanation that a high fare and barriers to public transportation are forms of violence, but the ‘expository agent’ who presents the summary and video does not allow this.

The article summary of the fourth protest event explains that it was the most violent one, and this summary explicitly talks about police violence, saying that the street turned into a “battlefield” when police impeded the protesters from moving onto Paulista Avenue. According to the summary, the police rubber bullets and tear gas affected not only protesters, but also bystanders, bus passengers, and local residents. Perhaps the change in coverage is at least partly because a reporter from the Folha de São Paulo was shot in the eye by a rubber bullet.

Still, I’d like to draw our attention to the title of the article: “Paulistano fica refém de tiros e de bombas em ato por redução da tarifa [São Paulo city center is held hostage by shots and bombs in an action to lower the bus fare],” with a subtitle saying that “Hundreds of people who were returning home during rush hour ended up imprisoned  between police and protesters on Rua da Consolação; new marches are already planned for this Friday and for Monday.”

Three aspects of this title and subtitle stand out to me. Firstly – yes, there is a change in the way the protests are being reported. While the previous three articles largely focused on ‘the protests’ (and protesters) as actors of vandalism and destruction that impeded traffic and safe travel, the role of the police in the ‘violence’ is also more thoroughly discussed in this article, rather than simply being mentioned in the passive voice or in passing.

Secondly, there are two things that have remained fairly constant about the titles and intros, which is that they focus on a) the ability of traffic to flow through the city and the effects of the protests on this flow, and b) that new marches are planned, implying that traffic blockages will continue.

Finally, I would like to point to the main title, which uses the passive voice to say that the city center was “held hostage . . . in an action to lower the bus fare.”  When I say “passive voice,” I mean that the agent/actor who is holding the city hostage is not identified in the title. What is identified is that the city was held hostage in/through the action to lower the bus fare. Even though I suspect that whoever wrote the title was trying to make it ‘neutral’ and not lay blame on either protesters or police, to me it seems as if the article is blaming the protests, and thus the protesters, for the situation taking place. To me, it seems implicit that the police are simply reacting. The logical conclusion from this title is that if there were no protests, the city center would not be ‘held hostage.’ Traffic flow would be smooth. To me, the title implies: ‘Never mind all those people who couldn’t afford to even ride the bus; without these protests, things would be normal, safer, peaceful, and without undue blockages in traffic.” When I read this title, I am reminded again of the first articles, which characterized police use of rubber bullets and tear gas as reactions to the ‘violence’ of protesters who spray-painted walls and burned buses and dumpsters, rather than contributions to violent conflict in and of themselves. The use of police violence is to some degree naturalized, as is the legitimacy of the state to act out this violence.

Based on the titles, it is the protest that is marked by confrontation and destruction; it is the protest that closed down the streets; it is the protest that ends up with chaos and vandalism. The emplacement of this interpretation displaces the potential for others. If I were to write an article, for example, I might say something like, “State mechanism of institutionalized violence greatly escalates intensity of protests and leads to violent conflict”. This interpretation, as well, would work against other possible interpretations by displacing. Though it should be stressed that ‘readers’ of these texts can and do interpret them in many different ways, it still seems important to think about the way the texts are framed, which is perhaps more significant than their actual content.

[Note that in its timeline, Estadão is not self-reflexive about its change in coverage. In any of the events, it might be said that the conflict between protesters and police was what impeded traffic, but the role of the police in the conflict is not acknowledged in depth until the final article (though it still is not fully addressed by any means).]

The degree to which a dis/placement of perspectives and realities can be considered “violence” in these news performances can be debated. However, my goal with this post was to indicate the ways in which media reporting mirrored police actions. By using rubber bullets and tear gas to control the actions and locations of the protesters, the police were ‘naturalizing’ the legitimacy of the state to control ‘its’ territory and regulate who goes where and the limits of their behavior. Likewise, by focusing on the negative aspects and the violence and vandalism and other problems caused by the protests, the news reporting was able to naturalize the police potential for violent reaction, the state’s control over territory, and the “natural” state of non-protest, which (I would argue) is characterized by inequality and exclusion. The dis/placement occurs through acts of performance in power-laden spaces, and the more visible accounts push away the others. By putting certain aspects of the events outside of the space of the lens, and by pushing protesters outside certain spaces, state authority is re-legitimized.

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