Reasoning amid riots

July 9, 2013

Fortaleza, Brazil

By Paulo Whitaker

If the FIFA Confederations Cup is supposed to be about soccer, the latest edition in Brazil was really about so much else. Brazilians are passionate about the sport, but with all the public spending on stadiums for that and the 2014 World Cup, the people inaugurated the Confederations Cup with protests against poor public schools, hospitals and transportation. The protests began over a sudden increase in bus fares, but that was only the catalyst for a wave of protests that swept the country, especially near the stadiums where the world was watching soccer.

They were ten days of steady protests and riots, leading up to the semi-final between Spain and Italy in Fortaleza. I had the information that protests were planned near the stadium, and because of past experience covering I went earlier this time with colleague Kai Pfaffenbach to the stadium. But police had kept the demonstrations far from the stadium in a slum area dangerous to walk in with photo gear.

After leaving the hotel we passed in front of a university where some 300 students were already barricading the main road to the stadium. It was clear that clashes would be inevitable that day.

Police had set up four separate control points to stop the protesters from approaching the stadium, so we chose the one to which the students were heading. The atmosphere became tense when the students arrived carrying bottles and stones. It was their way of announcing violence.

Protesters arrived at the police barricade screaming slogans, and the police prepared for possible confrontations. Kai and I were working close, but then it made sense to search for a different position. I found a house with a terrace that offered a different angle.

The terrace was actually a large ballroom for dance classes, and there were two positions from where I could photograph. One was a large window with a protective grill, and the other cracks in a wall I could shoot through but only have the center of the image without obstruction.

An officer’s gun accidentally fired a shot to the ground, and the already-tense situation exploded as protesters began throwing stones. Some police officers tried to calm the situation, but everyone was nervous and soon stones and firecrackers rained down on the police. The battle had begun. Police retaliated with tear and pepper gas, and rubber bullets. The gas left me unable to open my eyes, and I couldn’t take pictures for a while. The owner of the house I was in offered me vinegar to smell and reduce the effect of the gas.

Amid the battle, out of the crowd of demonstrators appeared an older man shouting and gesturing at the police. He approached them in spite of the rioting students and exchange of rocks, rubber bullets and gas canisters.

With the man’s single-minded purpose, the scene reminded me of the famous 1989 photo of a sole man confronting military tanks in Tiananmen Square.

This man in Fortaleza faced the police with paper in his hand saying that he had the power to imprison them all for their behaviour. He was overly emotional, but seemed to keep reason in his favor, and the police didn’t react against him. After a few minutes he was persuaded to move away because he was in the middle of a conflict and in serious danger. I photographed it all from the terrace.

The image was a very strong one, and was published in most of Brazil’s media and many international news sites and newspapers. But the real repercussion came when the identity of the man was revealed and he was interviewed. The man, Silvio Mota, 68, told Brazilian media that he was mad because he and his family were walking towards their home nearby and were almost hit by tear gas and rubber bullets. Mr. Mota is a retired judge, and was a member of the guerrilla movement that fought against the military dictatorship in the 1970’s.

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