#ChangeBrazil: Who Was Never Sleeping, Who Just Woke Up and Why
For the past few weeks, Brazilian streets have been a place of protest. For the first time in decades, there are more people protesting on the streets than partying. For the first time, there are more photos on the news of Brazilians holding protest signs than of Brazilians kicking soccer balls or wearing bikinis. Even the Brazilian diaspora has mobilized solidarity protests in San Francisco, Dublin, New York, Vancouver and many other cities. And it feels good, let me tell you.
Much like protests that have happened in Turkey, Spain, and areas in the Middle East, this movement started as a reaction to what would appear to be a minor bump in the average Brazilian’s day-to-day life: a 20 cent rise in bus fare. However, considering that the majority of Brazilians are poor and dependent on public transportation for their livelihood, 20 cents was a huge price to pay for a system that barely functions as it is.
As we’ve since learned, this movement is not only about 20 cents. It’s about the billions of dollars that are going towards soccer stadiums and tourist attractions while Brazil’s hospitals are understaffed, its education system mediocre. In Brazil, mega-events and the country’s world image are being prioritized over actual human beings, who are treated as collateral damage to development.
Even so, the size and the power of the #changebrazil movement is a big f*cking deal. Most obviously because it contributes to the long list of countries coming together to form a global movement against corruption, and the problems of capitalism. But also because Brazilians are not known for protesting. In Brazil, there is a stereotype that Brazilians constantly complain about problems they see in their country, but never take to the streets to tell their lawmakers. In many circles, most forms of activism are seen as extremely radical, to the point that many of my family members call me “militant.” Trust me, this is not a compliment.
This cultural aversion towards vocal and visible activism can largely be attributed to the trauma the Brazilian people underwent during the country’s military dictatorship, which only ended in 1985. During that period, people who protested were disappeared or tortured for voicing their opinions, and many Brazilians have a hard time trusting that that period is over. After all, we still have a military police to keep the order (and violently control marginalized populations).
Instead of joining together to effect change, Brazilians have been more likely to act individually, working the system to achieve what they need. But it appears that this new generation has finally realized that the dictatorship is over, and it’s time for the system to work for us. Says one Brazilian protestor in the city of Rio de Janeiro, “We began to realize that politicians are humans. Corrupt humans, but humans. And if you attack them, they fall.”
So why now? What about this particular moment has pulled Brazilians to the streets?
The World Cup. And the Olympics. And World Youth Day. Brazil is now an economic superpower and is finally taking its place on the world stage, a costly venture that has hurt at least as many Brazilians as it has helped.
Brazilians love to pull on the metaphor of the “Sleeping Giant” when talking about national identity. How could such a huge country with so many natural resources remain a less developed country for all these years? Could this be the moment in which the giant of Brazil’s economy and Brazil’s people has finally been awoken to discover its own strength?
Maybe. But let’s be clear about what was the catalyst for this movement, and who built the precedent for it. #ChangeBrazil started over a 20 cent bus fare. It started as a movement about class, transportation and access to the country’s most basic services, and has since shifted to include conversations about corruption and government. Many of those who are yelling about corruption are not the same protestors that could not afford to pay 20 extra cents to ride the bus.
This movement was started by people who have been historically denied access to public space, including people of color, the poor, members of the LGBTQ community and women. But now, for the first time in decades, Brazilians of all classes, genders, races and sexualities are learning what these people have always lived with.
Black Brazilians have long known the results of police brutality, watching as their young men are systematically killed through police or drug-related violence. Brazilian women are all too familiar with the fact that their presence in public space is often dictated by the men occupying it at the time. Queer and trans* people in Brazil risk their safety every time they leave the house as out members of the LGBTQ community.
This doesn’t mean that the more privileged don’t have a place within this movement. It just means that our job involves a lot more listening than yelling, a lot more supporting than leading. It means that our privilege makes us an ally in this important fight.
The first step we can take is to make sure that the conversation is not directed away from the movement’s original goals. Corruption is an abhorrent pattern in Brazil, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not only in the hands of politicians. Karen Polaz makes a great point when she reminds us that politicians are a product of the society in which they work. How can Brazilians call for an end to corruption in the government when we participate in this culture every day? Let’s stop cutting the line because of familial connections and skipping the fees because of friends in high places. Let’s stop working the system and make it work for us.
If we hate corruption because it promotes inequity, then let’s not forget that there are many other forms of inequity that are much more damaging to Brazilians than backwards politicians. I applaud activists that are working to insert larger conversations about human rights into this movement.
And I still contend that this movement is absolutely about women, even if it is not being publicized as such. Luka Franca puts it perfectly when he says that, “the feminization of poverty means that quality public transportation is absolutely a feminist issue.” After all, women make up 55% those who use public transportation in São Paulo. More and more households are being lead by single mothers who rely on public transportation to get to their jobs, often in wealthier neighborhoods across town where they are employed as domestic workers.
Improving the public transportation system would also help to decrease incidents of sexual harassment or assault, since many women who cannot afford busses are forced to take cheaper (and often more dangerous) unregistered vans, or walk long distances at night. We know from the recent rape case in Rio where a woman was kidnapped while riding one of these vans and gang-raped by her captors.
Change is coming to Brazil. But it’s up to us to change it into the Brazil we want. Will #changebrazil co-opt the movement into an attack on government corruption while ignoring the needs of the poor and marginalized who have been organizing for decades?
Because there are many movements in Brazil that were never “sleeping.” Perhaps Brazil as a unified country is waking up, but women, queer people, indigenous groups, Afro-Brazilians and landless workers couldn’t afford to take a nap.
Brazil’s landless movement is looked to worldwide as a model for rural organizing. Brazil’s version of SlutWalk, Marcha das Vadias is still going strong even after the U.S. movement has lulled (they will be having their next march July 13 in Curitiba). Indigenous groups in Rio and Pará have been protesting tooth and nail against displacement caused by the construction of a soccer stadium and a hydro-electric dam. Brazil’s domestic worker movement is one the strongest most developed in Latin America.
So to those who just woke up: good morning. We’re glad you’ve finally joined us. We hope you’re ready to get to work.
To hear more about why Brazilians are taking to the streets, check out this video of the protest in San Francisco, where Brazilian expats send messages of solidarity to friends and family on the streets for #changebrazil.