The June Uprisings in Brazil: Below and Behind the Huge Mobilizations (Part 1)

Published on Upside Down, by Raúl Zibechi, translation by Ramor Ryan, Nov 19, 2013.

… The huge mobilizations in June 2013 in 353 cities and towns in Brazil came as much 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 quick 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 … //

… Salvador, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre: … //

… A new political culture: … //

… 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 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 in its Portuguese initials). 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 Florianopolis. Leo Vinicius, an activist and writer from the Florianopolis 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 of 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 activist/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.
(full long text, notes and bibliography).

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