Brazil’s cup of discontent brimming with ugly racism and violence
Politicians hope for end to killings and vigilante actions ahead of World Cup
A demonstrator in Rio de Janeiro shows a placard that says: ‘Mourning for Santiago’ during a protest against an increase in public transport ticket prices. The death of TV cameraman Santiago Andrade during an earlier protest shocked Brazil, but the political class has seized its chance to criminalise protest ahead of the World Cup. Photograph: Marcelo Sayao/ EPA
Shocking scenes of violence have stirred an increasingly rancorous debate about the country’s old sins of violence, racism and class prejudice, just when its authorities hoped the staging of the world’s biggest party would spotlight the country’s undeniable progress in recent decades.
Since the start of the year mobile phone footage has supplied local media with images of the mutilated bodies of prisoners killed by rivals in an overcrowded jail and the execution in broad daylight of a thief on a Rio street by what appears to be local vigilantes.
Another group of vigilantes, this time white and from the middle-class Rio neighbourhood of Flamengo, recently beat and stripped an alleged mugger and tied him by the neck to a lamp post using a bicycle lock.
For many, a photo of this chained, naked black man conjured up the ghosts of the old pelourinho punishment posts, to which African slaves were tied and mutilated for defying their white masters.
But when a TV presenter live on air expressed her understanding for the vigilantes, she received a wave of support from colleagues and viewers.
Such ugly views, born of exacerbation at rising violence, are increasingly evident in Brazil’s media, fed by the preening nastiness of online comment. Groups of poor teenagers that organised get- togethers in shopping malls were labelled “savages who spit on civilisation” by one online commentator at the country’s biggest-selling magazine, who describes himself as “a liberal without fear of polemic”.
Brazil’s traditionally cordial nature seems to have suddenly given way to something uglier. On television a presenter slams his desk in anger at human rights groups that many see as defending the criminals that inject so much fear into Brazilian society, shouting at viewers that the police can count on him.
But this is the same police force who in Rio responded to the death of a colleague in a favela by invading it and killing six locals. On Facebook, graphic photos of the dead were posted by officers, saying they were the “response” to the killing of their colleague.
“Suspects? Workers, yeah? Victims of society? Hahaha Bandits! Marginals! Are you sorry? [Then] take one home!” read a post signed by the police unit involved.
This is the force the government will deploy to protect the World Cup from any possible protests by Brazilians opposed to the event. Though they no longer have the mass support of last year’s demonstrations that shocked the country’s political class, protests have continued on a smaller scale and look set to carry on into June when the tournament starts.
Though not always called to protest the World Cup, one of the most common rallying cries at recent marches has been Não vai ter Copa – There won’t be a Cup – also the hashtag under which protests for June are being prepared.
These marches have become an almost weekly event and are becoming increasingly violent. In January police in São Paulo shot and seriously injured an anarchist protester. Earlier this month there was the first death due to protester violence when a TV cameraman was killed after being struck by a flare.
The death of the cameraman Santiago Andrade shocked the country, but the political class has seized its chance to criminalise protest ahead of the World Cup. Two young suspects were quickly arrested for throwing the flare and despite testifying against each other are still being represented by the same lawyer, one Jonas Tadeu Nunes.
Even more bizarrely, Tadeu Nunes previously defended one of the main leaders of Rio’s criminal militia movement, formed by serving and former police officers and with links to Rio’s political class. Rather than focus on his clients’ defence, Tadeu Nunes seems more interested in smearing the city’s left-wing politicians, accusing them of bankrolling the protests. Though he has provided no evidence, his claims have been repeated prominently in the conservative press.
In Brasília senators have sought to use the death of Andrade to help usher a new anti-terrorism law onto the books before the World Cup. Their proposal would label anyone intending to provoke “generalised panic” a terrorist. This has only added to the anger among protesters at politicians.
President Dilma Rousseff is still promising the world a “Cup of Cups”. But for that she will have to hope that Brazil’s summer of discontent does not carry on into the southern winter.