Context

At the end of May 2013, there began a series of protests in São Paulo, Brazil in response to the local government’s decision to raise the price of bus fares by R$0.20. The protests were at least partly organized by a left-wing social movement named “Movimento Passe Livre” (the Free Fare Movement, MPL), whose goal is to reduce public transportation fares to zero based on the idea that only popular social movements – “the people” (o povo) – are capable of creating real social change. At first, media coverage of the protests by major news networks such as the very conservative Globo was reportedly rather negative, focusing on the “vandalism” and other material violence that occurred, such as burning turnstiles or buses. After all, MPL was not entirely unknown and had performed protests before, and it would not be characteristic of Globo to present a left-wing social/political movement in a positive light.

However, once São Paulo police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a largely peaceful protest, media coverage began to change. Within only a few weeks, huge groups of people were meeting together in cities around the country – most notably São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but also in many other major cities. Through the last half of June and in July 2013, upwards of two million people participated in these protests, taking to the streets and to the spaces around Confederations Cup stadiums, calling not only to stop the rise in bus fares, but also for an end to political corruption, initiatives for better healthcare, and for better use of the millions of reais of public money that were being spent to construct mega stadiums an other structures in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

During this time and afterward, a number of narratives arose to talk about the relationship between police violence and protester violence. While police used rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas to disperse protesters and prevent them from “taking over” streets and other public spaces or from vandalizing buildings or other private property, protesters used rocks and stones and homemade explosives, making their way into public buildings. One example of this was when a group of 50 Rio de Janeiro protesters managed to break into Rio’s City Hall on July 31, 2013. They were quickly expelled (see “Protesters invade Rio de Janeiro city hall”). Art, photographs, and other images appeared across the Internet, with portrayals of fires, of masses of protesters, of police “regulating” people’s occupation of space, of protesters burning cars and damaging buildings, of the metaphorical “giant” of “the Brazilian people” that had finally “woken up” to demand its rights, of protesters with Guy Fawkes masks who used the symbolic Brazilian flag in various ways, and also of interactions between protesters and police, such as protesters that would stand in front of riot police barricades and “perform” for photos and videos.

The protests in Brazil in 2013 sparked very visible discussions in online forums, in the Brazilian media, and also in international media, and also led to the passing of several laws that purported to meet some of the protesters’ demands. A number of “causes” were used to explain the protests, though they were actually very diverse, depending not only on the city, but also the particular group of protesters. In fact, the narrative of the protests’ history that I have just given is only one of many possible interpretations, though it is definitely the dominant one, and is the one represented on the English Wikipedia. (For example, there had already been a protest in Rio de Janeiro in March 2013 that called for a stop to the privatization of public spaces that had begun in preparation for the World Cup, and there were certainly a great deal of other protests for many related causes, before things seemed to “tip” and millions of people took to the streets. Yet the principal narrative relates the protests to the “root” of MPL.)

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