From Confederations Cup to Demonstrations Cup

June 26, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

It took them 21 years but they’re back. Brazilians began to hit the streets last week to protest the lack of investment in health, education, public transportation, and security, and against corruption and the exaggerated spending for the Confederations Cup, World Cup and Olympic Games. The last time I saw a nationwide movement of this type was in 1992, during the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. He ended up resigning.

Two decades later Brazil’s youths have again provoked the entire country to fight for their rights. The difference between these protests and the ones in 1992 is the level of violence from both the police and the demonstrators. I covered them back then, and those now in Rio and Belo Horizonte, and there’s no way I can agree with those who say that it’s just a small group from each protest that confronts the police. I’ve seen the protests divided into huge groups between those who are fighting for better infrastructure and services, and others who just want to fight the cops, but they are all in the battle.

The first protests were against the increase in public transportation fares, but with the movement’s success suddenly other issues have made the list of demands much longer. Since they began during the FIFA Confederations Cup, a warm-up to next year’s World Cup, the protests gained much more visibility than normal. One of the biggest complaints is the amount of public money being spent on the construction of stadiums, and for that reason many of the demonstrations are held on match days, and even inside the stadiums as fans hold up posters with phrases like, “We want FIFA-standard hospitals,” or “No more corruption.” It’s worth noting that FIFA prohibits demonstrations inside stadiums during its competitions, but this time Brazilians managed to dribble around FIFA and get their posters inside.

The first day of clashes in Rio was on June 17, when I went to cover training sessions of Italy and Spain. As I was transmitting pictures I heard on the radio that protesters were trying to invade Rio’s legislature. I raced there and as I arrived I found myself face to face with youths setting fire to a car. As I photographed I could feel their indignation, and it frightened me. They were youths from slum families, who suffer more from the bad public services in Brazil, especially the lack of education. At one point I looked around and noticed photographers who I had never seen before, most likely with ties to the demonstrators.

On June 20th, the second big demonstration in Rio, we three photographers scheduled to cover the Spain vs. Tahiti match. When we realized that the protest would be massive, we decided to cover the match with two, and I would follow the protest outside the stadium. That day there were demonstrations all over Brazil, and in Rio everyone gathered first at the downtown Candelaria Church. I managed to find a building with access to take pictures of the crowd from up high.

When I noticed that some of the demonstrators began to march toward City Hall before the street filled up, I followed them. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was alone among them with no other photographers, and I began to feel in danger of being robbed. Mounted police were positioned right in front of City Hall, with a battalion of riot police to the right. Then another group of mounted police appeared to the left, and I knew it was time for me to move. Again, I perceived that the most radical of the protesters weren’t infiltrated to discredit the movement, as often happens in other protests. These were young, mostly poor and very brave, although there were a few who only came to confront the police. Some of those looked like MMA fighters.

At times the protesters would circle around the riot police, forcing them to move away. In one of those moments I took the wrong decision and ended up between the police and a group of stone throwers. Suddenly a tear gas grenade exploded in front of me and I had nowhere to run but towards the demonstrators. Everyone was tense, and as I ran towards them I yelled for them to retreat so they wouldn’t think of me as a danger. I managed to turn a corner on a street filled with protesters, but the police were advancing from the other end. I was again amidst the demonstrators.

A man who was arriving for his night job at the nearby Post Office ran with me from the bad position we were in. I grabbed him and said, “When the police arrive I’m going to scream that I’m with the press, and you should yell that you’re a worker.” In that way I managed to get out of the awful position between police and demonstrators. I had never seen a riot as lawless as that one. After transmitting a few photos I walked around the area and realized how much I had missed – there were stones and bonfires everywhere.

Two days later I again spent the day covering protests instead of soccer. That was in Belo Horizonte where I found the police better trained in dealing with the situation than in Rio. They kept the march one kilometer from the stadium, although FIFA demands a distance of two kilometers, and in that way managed to keep the demonstration confined to a narrower street. They were the only police that I had seen follow proper security protocol. When the protesters began launching rocks and molotov cocktails, the police defended themselves with just their shields. It all lasted an hour, and the police only reacted offensively when protesters tried to break through their roadblock.

I photographed from behind a tree and while my colleagues were photographing the Confederations Cup, I spent my day covering the Demonstrations Cup, a phrase coined by colleague Ueslei Marcelino.

There’s no doubt that the underlying cause of the protests are economic problems. In the two decades since the last big movement, Brazil enjoyed economic stability and the population covered its eyes to corruption. So why didn’t the demonstrations begin when Brazil was initially chosen to host the Cup? I remember covering a demonstration against the privatization of Maracana Stadium, with fewer than 100 protesters. What made the Giant awaken just now? I only know that neither our president nor our politicians know the answer. I have a feeling that these protests will continue until the 2016 Olympics, well past the 2014 World Cup.

For the first time, soccer, which has been used politically so often in the past, is not able to quiet the voices of the people. I’m going to have to enter a stage of physical training myself, because these kids who have woken up the nation, really know how to run.

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