message Pilastra do Minhocão, in São Paulo, supports the slogan of the Movimento Passe Livre, which has existed since 2005. photo: Rodrigo Paiva/Folhapress

By Teresa Caldeira*

IInterpreting emerging processes always carries risks. We can take secondary paths or simply let the novelty slip, framing what is being born with the categories of old interpretive frameworks that the new events actually put in check. But it is important to take risks, look for new clues and follow signals already available.

Several references can guide us to interpret the demonstrations of the last few weeks in Brazil and they had already been articulated for some time. Some of them are global. Analysis of movements such as the Arab Spring, Occupy, Spain's Indignados and, more recently, the Istanbul protests, had already revealed some of their common characteristics, which seem to indicate the existence of a new type of social movement: its relationship symbiotic with the internet and social media; spontaneous, diffuse and networked organization; the ability to attract thousands of participants in a short period of time; the heterogeneity of participants, who may or may not form coalitions; the handcrafted character of the posters; and high youth participation. These manifestations take place on the fringes of traditional political institutions, such as parties and  unions, and clearly indicate a change in the way in which new political languages ​​are produced, circulate and guide practice. Monopolies for the production of information, languages ​​and forms of organization are broken, that is, established authorities are broken. The internet gives everyone – and not just the holders of some means of expression and organization – autonomy in issuing messages and formulating interpretations, in selecting messages, in their dissemination and formation of networks. But its real power ends up being realized on the streets, where internet users go carrying slogans and meanings that have been forged in social networks and blogs for some time, and from where events reverberate that are once again expanded and articulated. in the networks.

Other references come from the relationship with the city. There is a global dimension here. Movements for rights to the city are now articulated in the most diverse parts of the world. It is also significant that the demonstrations in São Paulo came shortly after those in Istanbul, which clearly articulated an issue of the right to the city. But of course, there is also a strong local issue here. The movements erupted in São Paulo due to a rise in public transport fares. It didn't take long for it to be argued that the demonstrations were not just for the 20 cent increase and for the most diverse criticisms and claims to be introduced. Furthermore, the demonstrations continued even after the increase was withdrawn. It is undeniable, however, that the experience of the city, its impossible traffic and the daily indignities of public transport are at the heart of what the demonstrations came to articulate.

The issue of traffic shaped the outbreak of demonstrations in São Paulo in several ways. The eternal traffic jams generate daily frustrations. Those who follow Facebook and Twitter know that those who are sitting in huge traffic jams use their cell phones to post messages such as: “No bus stop for 15 minutes!”; “I'll be late again”; “Hey! Now he stopped to get a wheelchair, it will delay even more”. And so on, a breeding ground of frustrations and a space for the expression of prejudice and intolerance, often in cruel and vulgar ways.

Traffic is also as much to do with an increasingly widespread consumerism and with the fact that the government has chosen to emphasize this consumerism as a way of promoting the social mobility of the poorest strata. The car itself became fundamental in this policy. Instead of promoting policies to improve urban living conditions with the creation of better infrastructure and, above all, public transport, credit for the consumption of individual cars was chosen. The result could only be congestion and frustration.

The MPL was not taken seriously by the established political organizations. But he knew how to articulate everyday frustrations

But, of course, traffic still has to do with the new type of movement that started the call to the streets: the Movimento Passe Livre, which on its website declares itself “autonomous, non-partisan, horizontal and independent, which fights for a real public transport, free for the population as a whole and outside the private sector”. It is not a new movement, as it has been around since 2005. It is a movement that has not been taken seriously by the established political organizations. But it is a movement that knew how to articulate the daily frustrations of the city and the aspirations of its young people, and that dared to seek democratic and radical alternatives to the issue of mobility, such as the notion of zero tariff, supported by studies on alternative modes of taxation that could sustain quality public transport for all. The movement's motto for years has been: "A city only exists for those who can move through it." This is a fundamental claim for a right to the city. It is significant that the demonstrations in São Paulo were mobile and occupied various spaces in the city instead of identifying with a fixed territory, as in the cases of Taksim Square, in Istanbul, or Tahrir Square, in Cairo. The demonstrations exercised the right to circulate in various parts of the city, including areas where you don't usually walk, such as the marginals and bridges; occupied the Paulista, but also sought new spaces, such as the recently renovated Largo da Batata, and several areas of the periphery. In addition, symbolically, they ignored Praça da Sé, an iconic space for political demonstrations of the past, from the cost of living movement to Diretas and the large electoral rallies.

But to say that a city only exists for those who can move through it goes beyond the requirement of a right to the city. This statement also expresses the practice and values ​​of an immense number of young people and an intense artistic and cultural production that proliferates, above all, on the outskirts of cities like São Paulo. The young people who form these movements were born in the peripheries self-built by their parents. But if their parents accepted a certain immobility in peripheral spaces as part of the self-construction package, which allowed them to inhabit the metropolis even from a distance, for young people the city became a space to be conquered and used intensely and in its entirety. His cultural production clearly expresses this desire, whether in graffiti, graffiti, rap, break, skating, parkour or marginal literature. It also expresses indignation at the difficulties in using the city and the aggressiveness with which they try to exercise the right to be everywhere. A city where graffiti is ubiquitous should have understood this by now.

But this new cultural production expresses several other indignations related to everyday life, such as anger towards the police who never stopped being violent in the peripheries. It is not surprising, therefore, that social networks exploded and the streets filled up from the moment that the demonstrations began to be violently repressed by the police. It is not surprising that one of the posters insistently reproduced on Facebook said: “The PM is doing in Paulista what it never failed to do in the periphery”. It is also not surprising that another image that had an intense repercussion is that of a middle-class protester with the poster “The people woke up”, juxtaposed to a photo of a bus on fire in the periphery with the caption “I will tell you a secret: the periphery never slept”. Thus, those who had long been articulating a new imaginary and a silent revolt along uninstituted paths, finally arrive on the street and fix their surprise on others – on the parties that did not listen to them, on the government that continually disrespected them, on the middle class that arrived. late to the streets and indignation. They knew, the others were just discovering and surprising themselves.

Crowds in Istanbul, Turkey, the protests also articulated a right to the city issue. Photo: Alan Hilditch
crowd In Istanbul, Turkey, the protests also articulated an issue of the right to the city. Photo: Alan Hilditch

Thus, in the same way that the networked form of the demonstrations and the Movimento Passe Livre indicate the breakdown of monopolies and authorities in the mode of political organization, the new cultural production of the periphery and its circulation via the internet or through the walls and streets of the city break with monopolies in the formation of representations and interpretations and displace authorships and authorities. This cultural production is not articulated in movements and is not necessarily thought of as political, but it has certainly been building a new imaginary spread in an autonomous and unregulated way. An imaginary that crystallized in the streets.

But it is obvious that this was not the only thing that crystallized in the streets, nor was it only young people from the periphery who participated in the demonstrations (although they did participate, and a lot). After the demonstrations broke out, all kinds of indignation and frustration that had been accumulating for a long time among the most diverse social sectors also found their forms of expression. And from there, everything was seen: from revolt against the government and corruption to the demand for “FIFA standard” social rights, to the end of “gay cure” projects and PEC 37, to aggressive nationalism and a clear conservatism. This proliferation of protests is evidence of how interpretations and meanings are being articulated well beyond the capacity of organizations and institutions to maintain a hegemony in the production of interpretations. This can be very positive, as it is liberating, it opens new paths and breaks old monopolies. But it also shows the risks of the process and indicates the need for a new democratic articulation that goes beyond posters and hashtags and is capable of containing authoritarian and violent impulses, without losing the novelty. 


*Professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley (USA)

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