Below and Behind the June Uprisings in Brazil

The new forms of protest and organizing in Brazil can better be understood if we look closely at the practices of the small activist groups forged over the span of more than a decade.

By Raúl Zibechi for the Observatorio Social de América Latina
English translation by Ramor Ryan for Upside Down World
20 November 2013 (original post)

Raúl Zibechi explores the autonomous and horizontal forms of organization, direct action and consensus decision-making behind the Brazilian uprising.

The huge mobilizations in June 2013 in 353 cities and towns in Brazil came as as much of a surprise to the political system as to analysts and social bodies. Nobody expected so many demonstrations, so numerous, in so many cities and for so long. As happens in these cases, media analyses were quickly off the mark. Initially they focused on the immediate problems highlighted by the actions: urban transport, rising fare prices and the poor quality of service for commuters. Slowly the analyses and perspectives expanded to include the day-to-day dissatisfaction felt by a large part of the population. While there was widespread acknowledgement that basic family income had risen during the last decade of economic growth, social commentators began to focus on economic inclusion through consumption as the root of the dissatisfaction, alongside the persistence of social inequality.

In this analysis, I would like to address the new forms of protest, organization, and mobilization from a social movement perspective. These new forms emerged within small activist groups composed mainly of young people that began organizing in 2003, the year Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took power. Unlike political parties, trade unions and other traditional organizations formed in the early eighties, the new social movements are key to the June mobilizations because of their ability to organize beyond their local scene, to involve the broadest sectors of society in the struggle and to employ forms of action and organization that sets them apart from the groups that went before them.

In most cases, media coverage and analysis have been guilty of overgeneralizing, often giving an almost magical role to “social networks” in mobilizing the millions of people in the street. “With nimble fingers on their cell phones, youth have taken to the streets all around the world to protest, connected by social networks,” said former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (Da Silva, 2013) “Beyond social media, the people are unorganized,” said leading intellectual Luiz Werneck Vianna. (Vianna, 2013:9) Other analysts linked the “revolution 2.0″ to a new middle class and argued that the June struggles in Brazil form part of the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados (Cocco, 2013:17).

In this essay I assert — in tune with James C. Scott — that the key to what is happening in the public arena is to be found in the daily practices of the popular sectors and particularly in what Scott calls “hidden spaces” where the subordinated develop discourses antagonistic to power: “The acts of daring and haughtiness that so struck the authorities were perhaps improvised on the public stage, but they had been long and amply prepared in the hidden transcript of folk culture and practice.” (Scott, 2000:264) To focus on the content behind and below the visible coast of the political, says Scott, is a necessary step to understand a new political culture. The new forms of protest and organizing in Brazil can better be understood if we look closely at the practices of the small activist groups forged over the span of more than a decade.

To avoid generalizations, let us focus specifically on one of the principle actors at the root of the June protests, and one that embodies these new forms of organization and action. The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement, MPL) acted as a kind of detonator for the massive explosion of demonstrations in June. The MPL was responsible for calling the initial demonstrations that were brutally repressed by the police and which in turn led to general public outrage. Other key social organizations involved are the Comités Populares da Copa (Popular Committees for the World Cup), the Centro de Midia Independente (Indymedia Brazil, CMI) and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Worker’s MovementMTST), as well as the important role played by the hip hop scene in São Paulo and urban peripheries settlements.

Salvador, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre

From August 13 to mid-September 2003, the city of Salvador in the state of Bahia was shaken by the constant demonstrations of tens of thousands of students protesting the increase of bus fares from 1.30 to 1.50 reais. More than 40,000 people blocked roads and avenues, shut down key junctions and held their ground in the face of police repression. The wave of protests became known as the Revolta do Buzu (in reference to buses) and is considered the birth of the passe livre movement, with its demand for free bus fare for students.

It was a movement of poor and lower middle class students who were faced with high transport costs that represented 30% of the minimum wage. The official student associations, separated from the daily lives of students, played no role in the mobilizations. Instead it was a movement made up of people who had not previously participated in demonstrations and was characterized by its rapid radicalization. These were young people without political experience but accustomed to challenging authority (sneaking onto buses, hanging around on street corners listening to pagode and dancing samba) who turned their backs on the “leadership” of the student bodies and political parties, and were at the forefront of the street blockades resisting the police. (Nascimento, 2011)

The student multitudes rejected the official bodies that claimed to represent them; instead they made decisions in large assemblies and shared common tasks. The assemblies were held at the street blockades that spread throughout the city, and decisions were made on a consensus basis. The assemblies functioned in a strictly horizontal manner and the proposal to set up committees was rejected, to “prevent the formation of a new student bureaucracy in the streets.” (Nascimento, 2011: 9) The general feeling among the protesters was that they could lose through institutionalization what they had won in the streets.

Nevertheless, members of ‘official’ student organizations proclaimed themselves representatives of the movement and negotiated an agreement with the municipality that contributed to the demobilization of the protests without having achieved any of the objectives.(Saraiva, 2010:65) Various analysts agree that while militants of left-wing parties were directly responsible for the convening of the first demonstration in Salvador, once the movement expanded exponentially, these militants were left on the sidelines. (Nascimento, 2011)

In parallel, the Campanha pelo Passe Livre Estudiantil (Student Free Fare Campaign) developed in Florianópolis from 2000 onwards, although there were also small groups with similar demands in São Paulo and other cities. The Juventude Revolução (Revolutionary Youth) organization linked to the Worker’s Party began local campaigns around the issue of free fare in secondary schools and organized small demonstrations, leading to the mobilization of 15-20,000 students in 2004, in a city of 400,000 inhabitants. (Coletivo Maria Tonha, 2013)

The activist collective responsible for initiating the movement for free fares was expelled from the Juventude Revolução organization, for asserting independence from the party on the basis that youth “should not be watched over by an adult organization.” (Coletivo Maria Tonha, 2013) The documentary Revolta do Buzu by Argentine filmmaker Carlos Pronzato about the Salvador uprising circulated among activists, serving as an inspiration for the emerging groups in Florianópolis and other cities. In May 2004, the Florianópolis municipality once more increased the transport cost, which had already increased by 250% in the previous ten years. Following ten days of massive demonstrations, blockading the bridges linking the island with the mainland of the city during rush hour, the protesters were successful in stopping the fare increase. A campaign of direct action accompanied the mass protests, with students refusing to pay the bus fare, jumping turnstiles or opening the rear doors of buses. Similar to the demonstrators in Salvador, the students held mass assemblies in public spaces. (Cruz and Alves, 2009)

Through participants’ accounts of the events, we get a sense of the new forms of protest and organization:

Present at the protests were hundreds of secondary school students, community movements from the north and south of the island, college students, mothers, fathers, teachers, actors, public functionaries, trade unionists and other workers. Artists from the hip hop movement, as well as maracatu and capoeira groups livened up the marches. After a few days large assemblies occupying the Avenida Paulo Fontes (accessing the Central Terminal, the largest in the city), renamed Uprising street, had become a fixture. Community leaders, representatives from organized groups, and people not affiliated with any organization or institution participated and spoke at the assemblies. An older lady would speak with indignation about a particular problem, to be followed by a young man putting forward a proposal for action. The foundations for the movement were built right there and then in these large assemblies. (Cruz and Alves, 2009)

As in Salvador, student institutions and political parties did not play a prominent role in Florianópolis. The CMI, the Brazilian Indymedia, was vital in covering the demonstrations and providing an outlet for protesters’ demands and discourse. When the existing groups in several cities decided to set up a national organization, the CMI played a major role in the coordination of the groups, leading to the first Free Fare Movement gathering during the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, without any formal support apparatus. (Coletivo Maria Tonha, 2013)

On the morning of January 29, defying the suffocating heat beneath the white marquee tents of the Intergalactika Caracol youth camp within the World Social Forum, dozens of young people began to form into a circle convened by the Florianópolis MPL and the CMI. In all, about 250 activists from sixteen different delegations from twenty states participated. The meeting started in the morning, continued throughout the afternoon and concluded with important collective agreements for the formation of a national movement. The young activists, ranging from 15-25 years of age, took turns to talk with almost everyone paying close attention and taking notes; a few wore Passe Livre t-shirts and some wore the traditional red shirts of the Sem Terra.

Reflecting back on that first meeting, participants emphasized the importance of the gathering, particularly its autonomous character: “We were aware how it did not happen because of some deliberate policy of a large organization or body, but as a specific need of the movement — the need to set up a national coordination for the various struggles that had already formed without any organization or more defined group behind them.” (Pomar, 2005) From the beginning, activists realized that the movement had strategic potential beyond just student demands. Transportation is one of the central aspects of the reproduction of labor power and capital accumulation, and represents “the first stage of the sale of labor power.” The MPL activists recognized that their demands would impact “the proprietors of the means of production and the circulation of commodities.” (Pomar, 2005)

With the formation of the federal Free Fare Movement, the National Plenary approved a document proclaiming itself “autonomous, independent and nonpartisan but not anti-partisan,” defining its strategic goal as “the transformation of the current conception of urban public transport, rejecting the commercial conception of transport and beginning the struggle for free and decent public transport for the whole of society, outside the control of the private sector.” (Movimento pelo Passe Livre, 2005) The movement’s practice of direct action, horizontalism and anti-capitalism is outlined in later documents.

According to Marcelo Pomar, the student movement opted for a consensus process, rejecting bureaucratic entities and parties, with resolutions “eventually agreed in the National Plenary.” Despite the enormous challenges inherent in consensus-based decision-making processes, the activists felt that it was the most appropriate mode of organization “given that these were the first steps in the construction of such a movement.” (Pomar, 2005)

A new political culture

In this dynamic manner, the MPL was formed with a presence in most major Brazilian cities, with the initiative maintained for the next couple of years. However like almost all social movements in Brazil, the organization entered into a period of reflux midway during the decade, before returning in strength by the end of the decade. But to really understand a movement one needs to look beyond the demonstrations and its public statements, and go deeper into its interior world. What kind of relationships are established between activists? How are meetings and gatherings carried out? Basically, we need to explore the culture of the movement to understand its way of seeing the world. In this sense, we will follow the evolution of the Free Fare Movement through its major events and campaigns and explore what was happening within the movement; in other words, to focus on the face-to-face relationships in the everyday life of the movement.

Following its founding, the Free Fare Movement organized several days of actions and held the Second National Meeting in July 2005 in Campinas. During this three-day meeting, two small radical left parties, Revolucionário Operário and a Construção Socialismo made attempts to reverse the decisions agreed in Porto Alegre relating to horizontalism and autonomy. It was a move seen by many as an attempt to co-opt the incipient movement and led the assembly to reaffirm its positions on horizontalism and autonomy: “the movement is constituted through a federation of groups” with a federal working group but no coordination, which they believed would have introduced a hierarchical structure into the movement. (Passe Livre, 2005a)

On October 26, the Free Fare Movement convened a day of action commemorating the adoption of free fare for students in Florianópolis, a date that became known as the Free Fare National Day of Struggle. The event was held in thirteen cities including three demonstrations in São Paulo and launched a national newspaper distributed in ten cities. The demonstrations ranged from 100 to 500 people and in some cities demonstrators burned turnstiles. (Passe Livre, 2005b) The following year, the Second National Meeting was held 28-30 July at the MST Florestan Fernandes National School, in São Paulo. It was an important gathering, consolidating the movement and a big step forward in the strategy to demand free fare for the entire population, not just students.

One hundred sixty activists from 13 collectives participated in the gathering, formulating a federal structure based on the principles of horizontalism, autonomy, independence and decision-making by consensus. They agreed to set up working groups based around communication, organization and legal support as well as a study group on transportation issues. Among the attendees was the engineer Lúcio Gregori, Secretary of Transport in São Paulo from 1990 to 1992 in the municipal administration of the then militant Worker’s Party leader Luiza Erundina. Gregori held the view that transport should be a public service and therefore free. He argued that from the moment a fare is charged, a mechanism is established to divide those who can use it and those who can not, and therefore, the imposition of a fare represents the privatization of something that is common to all, public transport. He pointed out that just as health and education are free public services, so too the costs of transportation should be borne by those who benefit from the service, “the ruling class which needs public transport for employees to get to the workplace.” (Movimento Passe Livre, 2006)

Around this time, the movement went through some major changes. At this early stage the MPL had already set up a federal movement without any institutional support and set the tone of debate on transport issues in society. Nevertheless, there was an ebb in the struggle, grassroots groups in general were weak and some activists felt a sense of defeat because they had not won their main demand. The movement’s active core began to debate and consolidate a change in strategy from demanding “free fare” for students to “zero fare” for all.

In Brasilia (population 2.5 million) the MPL established a group numbering 40-80 people. After 2006, during a seven year period without fare increases, that number fell to 8-20 activists. They engaged in three types of activities: “direct actions on the street, raising awareness over issues of public transport and urban mobility, with a focus on class, race and gender, and lobbying the government for free fare and zero fare.” (Zibechi, 2013) These small activist groups were comprised of highly dedicated young students who took their activities very seriously, like holding a month-long activist training camp in 2001, leading to the creation of very tight activist networks with intense interior dynamics. (Duques, 2013:3)

During the formation of the Free Fare Movement in 2005, the activists mapped the cities’ secondary schools and with careful preparation held dozens of workshops. (Saraiva, 2010:68) The day-to-day work of each group involved weekly or biweekly plenary meetings, various specialized work groups and small, stable study groups, with almost daily contact between the core activists. Some of the principle actions of the Free Fare Movement were street performances with music, dance and theater, involving long hours of preparation.

The point here is that autonomous activism requires a greater level of dedication than is usually considered by observers like members of political parties. Furthermore, everything must be done without any institutional support so it relies heavily on collective work and creativity. Strong bonds of trust and solidarity emerge in these collective groups, to the extent that some activist groups could be considered living communities. Activists will often share a house or live within the same neighborhood and frequent the same social spaces, and this level of co-existence is a powerful cohesive factor which blurs the line between friendship and militancy, creating a climate of fraternity that is reaffirmed with the various regional or federal gatherings. Needless to say, this militant lifestyle goes together with a consistent ethic that does not separate words and action, the personal and the collective, or decision-makers and activists. It is a way of doing things that is counter to the hegemonic political culture, including the left parties.

During the period of reflux in 2006, “the movement entered into a complex and often tense process of reflection, trying to understand where they had “failed” in the fight against fares.” (Saraiva, 2010:70) Within the São Paulo Free Fare Movement, for example, people felt that failing to curb increases in 2006 and the lack of proposals on how to continue the struggle had a significant internal impact: “The activists felt cheated, exhausted, several people left and the movement entered a long period of restructuring.” (Legume and Toledo, 2011 ) This period extended to 2010, and varied from region to city.

The adoption of the “zero fare” strategy was just one policy shift. Other strategic changes followed, from broadening its popular base to intensifying its anti-capitalist character. Letting go of the “free fare” slogan was also a way to go beyond the student movement and towards demands that included the entire population. Taking on board technical advice from militants such as the engineer Lúcio Gregori and the formation of study groups allowed the Free Fare Movement to deepen their knowledge on transport and the city, and to understand the political consequences of segregated cities in spatial and racial terms. The movement began to place itself into the long history of powerful struggles and revolts against fare increases from 1974 to 1981 in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, the Baixada Flauminense, and the satellite cities of Brasilia and Salvador. (Filgueiras, 1981, Ferreira, 2008) All of this allowed the Free Fare Movement to become a point of reference in the debate on transport and the “right to the city” concept which is the core of “zero fare.”

The MPL’s second shift in strategy to broaden its social base had even deeper implications as it related to the class character of the movement and, thus, the manner in how the oppressed feel oppression. In Brasilia, “from 2007 to 2008, the MPL increased work in secondary schools and neighborhoods on the peripheries,” explains the activist Paíque Duques Lima. (Zibechi, 2013) In São Paulo, the MPL “saw the need to diversify their work fronts, beginning work in some communities, especially in the south zone”, the poorest part of the city. (Legume and Toledo, 2011) However, as they began working in the urban peripheries they found a population already organized in community associations, political parties, and NGOs resisting evictions caused by real estate speculation and the 2014 World Cup. These were zones dealing with local drug issues as well. As Paíque Duques from Brasilia noted, “the MPL followed in the steps of the Comitês Populares de la Copa (Popular Committees of the World Cup),” which at this point “had begun to gain leverage within entire neighborhood struggles.” (Zibechi, 2013)

The strategy of working in the periphery communities changed the profile of the movement. If organizing in the São Paulo peripheries lent greater political legitimacy to the Free Fare Movement, in Brasilia there was a real change within the movement in terms of class and race. If the initial founders were predominantly young white people of middle and lower middle class, after 2008, there was an influx of “youths from cities around Brasilia” (Guara, Taguatinga, São Sebastião, Ceilandia and Samambaia) as well as poor families and black people. (Saraiva, 2010:85) These were people who had been unable to find “their” place in formal institutions, whether it be a leftist party, a union organization or a student’s union.

The movement’s identity, from this perspective, is positioned against a set of oppressions: class, gender, race, and though not explicitly, age. In effect, the movement stands against all forms of oppression, and through its practice seeks to avoid the traditional division of labor by gender and skin color. Through its composition, the Free Fare Movement begins to reflect a commitment to the poor, people of color, women and those without access to transport and thus, access to the city. People of color, (black, brown, mestizo) began joining the movement, recognizing in the Free Fare Movement a similar struggle against discrimination, and also because the core black activists within the MPL participated in the anti-racist movement.i

When Brazilian urban social movements began to reactivate in 2010, the MPL had already established itself as a national organization in the major cities, with fluid links with other social movements and a voice in the public debate on transport and urban reform. It had thousands of trained and experienced activists who in five years of activism had organized hundreds of street actions (from flyering to demonstrations of 10,000 people), occupations of public buildings, occupations of bus terminals and road blockades, as well as organizing their own communications media reaching hundreds of thousands of Brazilians. Although still a relatively small movement, it was by no means marginal, as evidenced by the participation of well-known personalities such as the former mayor of São Paulo, Luiza Erundina, during the Zero Fare campaign launch in 2011.ii

As the forms of action transcended the boundaries of the movement, they were taken up by other similar groups and movements. Paíque Duques reflects that “the formation of the MPL forged a culture of political action that developed beyond their own struggle” because their organizational experience influenced activists involved in other actions beyond public transport (Duques, 2013:7). This new culture of struggle and organization took place far from institutionalized groups or parties, in relatively autonomous social spaces; spaces where hidden discourses flourish and dissident cultures are forged, as noted by James C. Scott. By analyzing the relationship between social space and hidden discourse, Scott emphasizes the dilution of the border between theory and practice, present in groups such as the Free Fare Movement: “Like popular culture, hidden discourse does not exist as pure thought; it exists only insofar it is practiced, articulated, expressed and disseminated within marginal social spaces.” (Scott, 2000:149)

However, the Free Fare Movement is not just an expression of an alternative/rebellious youth culture and the cultures of the inhabitants of the peripheries. It is “an organization with principles and strategic perspectives”, as was made clear during the second gathering held in July 2005 in Campinas (De Moura, 2005). It is a movement formed, according to Duques, as “a grouping of anti-capitalists with efficient mechanisms of resistance to domination and bureaucratic or market co-optation.” (Duques, 2013:19) Various distinct cultures come together in the melting pot of the organization, from hip hop and popular culture to Brazil’s leading organization of resistance, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Rural Landless Movement, MST). The MPL also takes inspiration from the Zapatistas and other anti-globalization movements. Although it has not yet been studied in detail, the impression is that no one culture is hegemonic within the various groups that comprise the MPL.

Policy and strategy comes from within the movement itself as well, the product of the long debates and hands-on experience at the forefront of the revolts in Salvador and Florianópolis. Leo Vinicius, an activist and writer from the Florianópolis Free Fare Movement explains how leadership works in the movement during times of upheaval:

When I talk of leadership I don’t mean command and obedience, nor the manipulation of the masses. I’m talking about a group that thinks, plans, discusses and studies the social issues surrounding the popular revolt and the day-to-day issues of the uprising, in order to meet the needs of the movement [ … ] The best and most possible leadership in these cases is the one that understands how to put autonomous practices created and produced by the social mobilization into play. (Vinicius, 2005:60-61)

We are dealing then with grassroots groups that consist of  militant researchers or activist-intellectuals who have the ability to organize and work with popular sectors, to identify projects and strategies for constructing a social force that promotes change from below. These are features that allow us to talk of a new political culture in Brazil in the first decade of the century; a new culture of struggle and organization, consolidated in small and medium-sized groups that came into public visibility during the massive outburst on the streets in June 2013.


i. According to comments by Paíque Duques Lima interviewed by author.

ii. In Brasilia alone, there were 200-300 people heavily involved. The constant coming and going of people facilitated the spread of the movements political culture to other sectors of society.


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