Since June 2013, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protests against rising bus fares, the norm of crowd control has been heavy handed. Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police stood out amongst their peers for its ability to inflict pain and disperse large crowds. The natural reaction to police violence was an increase in the numbers of protestors as well as a surge in local Black Blocks (protestors who see violence as a form of political free speech).
After the forcible ejection of protestors from inside the City Council in late September, subsequent protests led by the teachers union gained the support from the broader population and drew the attention of Black Block members. Those anarchists now play a lead role in street rioting and form the front line of protests between Police and strike supporters.
As the protest’s numbers continue to swell (demonstrations in Rio on Monday 6 October involved between 10,000 and 50,000 people), encounters with police will likely become more violent. Police and protesters are repeating the cycle of the June 2013 protests: after previous violent encounters, police were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations on 6 October. But after the teachers’ march ended, Black Blocks came on the scene and began smashing windows, vandalizing property, and setting fires. Within about half an hour police did arrive to confront the more violent protesters (much like what happened on 17 June). If the pattern of escalation follows what took place in June, the next protest will see an immediate response by police, who will suppress any person caught in their way (similar to the 20 June protest where the police did not discriminate between protestors, rioters and innocent bystanders).
Looking beyond the police batons and pictures of burning buses, the violence perpetrated by both sides detracts from the real issue at hand. The SEPE is not willing to back down and allow the Mayor to institute reforms that only benefit seven percent of the city’s teachers (the plan concentrates on teachers with a 40 hour registration, while most teachers hold multiple 16 and 22.5 hour registrations in order to make ends meet). Thus most teachers are ineligible for planned benefits, including stated raises, while teacher advancement carries no incentive. (According to Southern Pulse sources the difference in pay between teachers with a M.A. and a Ph.D. is laughable - around 50 dollars a month.) Moreover, proposed education reforms do not address the structural problems that affect the city education system.
SEPE has an uncommon amount of support from its members in this strike, and currently enjoys renewed support from the city’s overall population (parents and students alike, many of whom were at the 6 October protest). On the other hand, the Mayor and Governor (state teachers are also on strike) have lost large amounts of support. Polls show their job approval ratings at almost single digits since June 2013. Protests in Rio did not stop when the international media left after the Confederations Cup. Observers should note that the World Cup in an election year will most likely refuel and reenergize all sides with a bone to pick.
By Rafael Saliés,
Mr. Saliés directs Team Flamengo, the Southern Pulse investigative unit focused on Brazil.