In the past few weeks, public outrage over an education crisis has inspired mass protests in Rio de Janeiro. These echo the massive uprising that took place in the streets of Brazil in June, when a series of protests erupted around inefficiencies and cost hikes in the public transportation sector.
Now, once again struggles for social rights are driving demonstrations on the streets of the future host city of the World Cup and Olympic Games. In the past months dormant frustrations have broken to the surface of public life. In particular, it has become evident that huge swaths of the Brazilian public reject the image makeover of Rio, the inequitable impact of government megaprojects, and the neglect of other social priorities by the Worker’s Party led by President Dilma Rousseff’s government at the federal level, by Governor Sergio Cabral of the PMDB party in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and by Mayor Eduardo Paes (also of the PMDB) in the municipality of Rio.
Last month, the teachers' and school employees' patience came to an end, and they decided to actively oppose the government’s approach to reform and investment in education. The government’s approach is to privatise education and creat an even greater precariousness by proposing the Career, Position, and Salary Plan (PCCR) that only offers security to seven percent of the current teaching staff: those who work for the school system at least 40 hours a week.
The Plan also doesn’t institute parity between active and retired teachers; and it doesn’t value specialised diplomas or advanced degrees earned by each teacher in disciplines other than education itself. Moreover, the PCCR shifts legal frameworks to spread so-called "multitalent pedagogy" to the municipal school system. What does this fancy term mean?
What should have been at most a rather pragmatic set of demands from a limited group of public employees, now has fed into the broader Brazilian protests.
It means that teachers with specialised education - in geography, for example - would have to teach classes in other fields that the school system now considers more-or-less the same thing - such as history or sociology, for example. Teachers see this as dramatically lowering their status as professionals trained in particular fields, and fear that these subjects will be taught at a much lower academic level, seriously degrading the learning process.
These teachers have mobilised, and represented by their union, are not just acting in defence of these pedagogical questions, they are on the offensive, demanding deeper changes. They are insisting that their career be valued more highly and demanding that budget cuts stop. But crucially, they refuse to merely discuss "better salaries" or "greater investments in Education". This new movement is visionary; they aim to remodel the whole teaching and learning process. So they rejected the government’s proposal which they considered backward and, at best, superficial.
Protesters started a series of demonstrations on the streets, with many thousands participating, joining the pre-existing occupation of the City Council chambers in Cinelândia Square in the city centre, integrating their own educational agenda with the occupiers’ demands. However, the city and state of Rio de Janeiro firmly rejected their demands and on September 28, unleashed heavy-handed tactics - beatings, rubber bullets, and pepper spray - to evict the peaceful occupiers of the building.
War-like tactics backfired
This repression came to a climax on October 1, when, according to the left-leaning journal Jornal Brasil de Fato, thousands of marchers stood in front of the City Council to insist that the council not vote on the legislation that would institute the PCCR. The protesters were dispersed by what may only be described as a military attack. On the same day, Mayor Eduardo Paes imposed his own PCCR "solution" which was rammed through the council behind closed doors while right outside the mayor's office bombs, tasers, and columns of tear gas were incessantly shot targeting not just protesters, but any civilians who had the misfortune of being in the vicinity.
But the mayor’s aggressive tactics and Governor Cabral’s belligerent targeting of peaceful social-rights advocates had the opposite effect of what they intended. An already angered population was further inspired and their passions reignited.
On the streets, besides the usual slogans against the governor and the mayor, such as "Resign Cabral!" and "Go with Paes!" (a pun which plays with the Brazilian expression used to say goodbye to someone - "Go in Peace"), the protesters questioned the focus on mega events at the cost of social rights: "I don’t want the World Cup! I want investments in Health and Education!", "I want FIFA standard schools and hospitals", "How many schools would fit in one Maracana stadium?", besides the ever more present "There’s not going to be any World Cup!".
Significantly, the aims of the protesters have shifted, going beyond merely demanding a greater piece of the profits from the "New Rio" or greater inclusion in social progress. Now they are questioning the model of progress itself.
A short chant goes like this: "This was a very funny country/There were no schools, only stadiums/No one could say anything/Because the police would come down on us with a heavy hand."
What should have been at most a rather pragmatic set of demands from a limited group of public employees, now has fed into the broader Brazilian protests. What was first limited to teachers and school unions spread to other occupations, movements and struggles already mobilised to resist. There were protesters who camped out for the Ocupa Câmara (occupy the congress) in Cinelândia Square, the indigenous groups who occupied Aldeia Maracanã, right next to the stadium, the habitat movements questioning the mega events, as well as youth who were already mobilised in autonomous groups and assemblies in almost every protest since June.
This new wave of education protests use "Black Bloc" tactics. In Brazil, "Black Blocs" were organised as self-defense units to protect the front-line of protests. But these same protectors have been represented in the media as dangerous vandals, and demonised by the state in order to justify the brutal crackdown of the protests. The mask-wearers were welcomed by the protesters, despite the media portraying them as being dangerous, chaotic and destructive. Indeed, this sense of solidarity amidst the demonstrations, this shared manning of barricades, inspires a common determination to fight against the fear of repression.
Joining of diverse causes
Instead of merely demanding better salaries and working conditions, the teachers' strike is creating space for a more profound questioning of the foundations of authoritarian logic of rule and non-participatory governance. This change culminated on October 7, when over 50,000 people participated in a protest, taking over downtown Rio. This was similar in scale to the mass uprisings in Brazil in June that captivated the international media.
The October 7 event was the first time that a melding of diverse causes and struggles, from trade unions, social activists, feminist, artistic interventions, to masses of grade -school students, could be seen. Once again, the protest was brutally dispersed with war-like tactics, which were immediately given legitimacy by the mainstream press which provided hysterical, fear-mongering coverage of the protest before, during, and after the event. The media deployed its now-typical Manichean rhetoric that separates the "well-intentioned protester" who has a certain right to demonstrate from the "vandal" who has no rights and deserves extreme, violent repression. And of course the media’s camera lenses do their best to present as many protesters as possible as vandals.
Significantly, the aims of the protesters have shifted, going beyond merely demanding a greater piece of the profits from the "New Rio" or greater inclusion in social progress. Now they are questioning the model of progress itself. It’s no surprise that the issues of education are now being inserted into a more radical, and broader struggle for "rights to the city". Protest groups are learning from each others’ successes and failures, as they resist and think of new alternatives, affirming new visions of political reality and social-movement action. Education has become part of a general revolt that rejects the model of a city governed by sanitising, market-geared, and authoritarian policies.
The protests feed into the hopes of many who, despite immense institutional impediments and a government both deaf and dumb to the protest movements, make it possible to continue dreaming of and edifying another Rio and another Brazil.
Bruno Cava has a law degree and a master's degree in philosophy of law, and is an associate researcher at the Nomad University Network. He blogs at quadradodosloucos.com.br.
Marcelo Castañeda is a social scientist and is currently doing his PhD research in the relations between political action and the Internet.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.