Life without Turnstiles: transport demonstrations in Brazil

Texto originalmente publicado na Arena Magazine (n. 126, Oct.-Nov. 2013), uma revista de esquerda da Austrália. Escrito em setembro do ano passado, o texto aborda as manifestações de junho de 2013 e a questão do transporte público, com foco em São Paulo. O acesso à versão original do texto é restrito. Por isso, com a autorização dos editores, o artigo está agora disponível na minha página pessoal. Sintam-se livres para compartilhar ou republicar.

This text was originally published in Arena Magazine (n. 126, Oct.-Nov 2013), a left-wing Australian magazine. It was written in September last year and addresses the Brazilian demonstrations which took place in June 2013 and the issue of public transport. The access to the original version is restricted, so it’s now published in this site with the editors’ permission. Sharing and republishing this text is allowed and even stimulated.

It has been a long time since Brazil witnessed such political unrest as seen in the demonstrations that began in June, took on national proportions in the following months, and are still taking place in some cities today. They have changed the political scene, pushing new social actors to the fore and setting the stage for new national debate.

The announcement of the increase in bus fares in São Paulo was the catalyst for protests that initially relied on the presence of young people and were organised by the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL). This nonpartisan, horizontal movement has advocated since 2005 for improvements in public transport and the gradual reduction of fares, aiming towards their elimination: the end of material and symbolic turnstiles.

Arena Magazine's logotype.

Arena Magazine’s logotype.

Of course demonstrations happen all the time and yet without mobilising the whole of society. Neither the polemical agendas around Brazil’s education budget nor that around LGBT rights has had such an effect. So what is the secret of the 2013 marches? What did the protests advocate and why did they have such an impact? For an Australian audience it might be hard to imagine public transport being a catalyst to widespread unrest, but in Brazil public transport raises basic issues of social equality and the right to protest.

In Brazil there is a social consensus that there is a right to public transport, but this consensus is not represented in reality. In metropolises like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife, people are daily forced to use inadequate train networks and crowded buses or spend exhausting hours stuck in slow traffic. We pay dearly for an inefficient system. And the right to transport for most of the low-income population is reduced to them merely getting to and from their workplaces, with no possibility of using public transport on weekends or for other purposes.

In this context proposed increases in fares were disturbing, especially as ‘public’ transport is a source of huge profits to the private companies that operate the lines, and which redirect the public purposes of the transport system to market-oriented interests. According to the daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, in São Paulo last year these companies made profits of around A$200 million, corresponding to 6.8 per cent of the city’s transport revenue, an amount higher than any other municipal average in the world.

What is more shocking is that an increase of just AU $0.10 in bus and train fares is an obstacle to the use of public transport among working class. Such facts undermine the globally accepted portrait of Brazil as a new ‘economic power’, as a country with a strong economy and a consolidated democracy. In Brazil’s recent demonstrations, we see the other side of capitalist development—access to social rights is touch-and-go for the majority of the population.

Brazilian demonstrations which took place in June 2013, for the reduction of bus/train fares.

Brazilian demonstrations which took place in June 2013, for the reduction of bus/train fares.

Yet even collective discontent is not a guarantee of a mass mobilisation. If bus and train fares are currently high, this is the result of successive increases that have gradually raised transport fees above what they would be at solely a raise for inflation. Demonstrations of this size have not taken place around previous fare increases. Perhaps 2013 was simply the moment when our ‘patience’ ran out.

This time, the MPL insisted on street mobilisations and, from late May, the streets of São Paulo were a stage for actions that gathered more and more momentum. There were two main antagonists: the mainstream media, which criminalised the protesters by calling them ‘rioters’, and the Military Police, who violently repressed the protesters, often using tear gas and rubber bullets. These actions took on the semblance of theatre: the media incited police violence, the police followed the right-wing state government’s orders, the progressive-wannabe mayor of São Paulo was simply bypassed. Since the repression of social movements is not uncommon, it seemed for a time that these demonstrations would be like any others.

Curiously, the turning point was the result of the police action itself. On 13 June—the fourth day of rally—police repression reached unexpected levels, and what’s more, in a central and highly visible area of São Paulo. The protesters had been harshly repressed. Dozens of innocent people had been arrested. Many were fired on with rubber bullets, some in the face, including journalists and photographers who were covering the event. Some of these journalists were linked to mainstream media companies. It did not take long for the ‘event’ to become a scandal.

Movimento Passe Livre's logotype: for a life without (material and symbolic) turnstiles.

Movimento Passe Livre’s logotype: for a life without (material and symbolic) turnstiles.

After just a few days, what had been a dominantly conservative discourse was transformed. Unusually, we were hearing and reading about police abuse and violence, the right to occupy the streets, the inefficiency of public transport, the problems of living in a big city, and even about bad public management.

The protests focused on public transport had opened up to a wide range of agendas. In this case, in solidarity, people in hundreds of Brazilian cities also took to the streets. The mobilisation peaked on 17 June, when the streets of all the major cities were filled with endless seas of people. Brazilians living abroad, including in Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne and on the Gold Coast also held symbolic protests. In total, it is estimated that over two million people took to the streets in various cities.

Even though this result was very positive, it also brought challenges. Political standpoints polarised. Although many people (not just the youth anymore) joined the demonstrations against police brutality and suppression of rights, most had not been present from the beginning of the protests and didn’t understand the original issue of public transport. Taking advantage of this vacuum, nationalist and conservative groups, and even some supporters of military intervention, attempted to manoeuvre the mass of young people in their direction, stimulated by the mainstream media, which sought to dilute the movement towards empty and depoliticised causes.

This strategy lost its credence in just a few weeks. With time, and the political strategy of the MPL and leftist groups retreating to some degree, a political landscape that contributed to serious debate about public transport was restored. At this point increases in bus fares were revoked in over a hundred cities. This was undoubtedly a victory, but also an indication that it was time to move on.

Police brutality, and repression to social movements, was a common feature in those demonstrations.

Police brutality, and repression to social movements, was a common feature in those demonstrations.

The MPL has now projected the ‘free fare’ project nationally and this is circulating beyond the usual progressive milieus. By promoting the issue of free public transport to the whole population, the MPL is promoting debate that suggests a radically different way of thinking is possible—not only about transport but also our ‘right to the city’. The collective spaces of Brazilian cities have experienced neglect on a massive scale. Gentrification processes in the central regions—such as rising rental prices in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of the World Cup—have added to the institutional disregard of public services and the creation of uninhabitable metropolises, especially for low-income families.

According to Paulo Arantes, the middle classes live in ‘security bubbles’—often walled and gated residential areas. Their children attend private schools, their families purchase private health insurance and their primary leisure activity is shopping. For transport, the middle class use their private cars, some with bullet proof glass to ‘protect’ them. The streets are seen as places of violence, insecurity and fear.

Constructing a life without turnstiles—without the barriers that signal and reproduce inequalities and act to exclude the working class—involves retaking urban space and revaluing public goods. We can only exercise a right to the city if it is possible to move through it. As we have seen, Brazilians have been on the streets passing on their message. Now it is time for the cause to mature, for alliances in the suburbs and popular neighborhoods to strengthen, and perhaps next time we will obtain further progress on public transport, understood and valued not as a commodity but as a social right.


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