An action packed day in Porto Alegre. The morning of Thursday June 27th marked the formation of the first student assembly since demonstrations began over a week ago. Although the turnout was quite small (relative to the numbers anticipated on social media), there were nevertheless roughly 300-500 students in attendance. The assembly convened outdoors, in the courtyard of one of the city’s three universities. Among the speeches and socializing, two decisions were made. (1) That students would march together to the demonstrations planned for later in the evening; (2) to reconvene an all-university assembly within a matter of weeks.
The demonstrations were again called for 6pm. However, unlike the last three, which have been held at Porto Alegre’s city-hall (which is centrally located; adjacent to the very expansive public market and the main bus and train hubs servicing the city’s 1.5 million residents); this demonstration would take place at the beautifully kept complex housing various state buildings (Porto Alegre is also a state capital) such as: The State Assembly, The Governor’s Palace, The Palace of Justice, The Metropolitan Cathedral, The Palace of the Arts. These grand names are matched by the beautifully grandiose structures that bear their letters.
The reason for the change of location could be indicative of the increasing role of Labour within the movement, as the the complex has a designated ‘demonstration area’ which is frequently utilized by various unions to express their grievances. I’ve seen it a few times throughout my time in Porto Alegre, a couple dozen middle-aged (and mostly professional) looking demonstrators from a particular union chanting, playing music from portable stereos and then leaving once the politicians and bureaucrats finished their workday.
The demonstration last night was an example of the importance of such routinized expressions of protest. Front and centre of the demonstration was a midsized flatbed truck, doubling as a stage with sound equipment, technicians, and musicians. Much like Monday’s demos, the unions and student organizations had a very strong showing, we recognized many of the faces from the student assembly earlier in the day. The designated area of protest had been extended to such a degree that it seemed as though it was the police who were confined to a small space.
The mood was festive, helped by the dry and warm’ish weather (12C and not a cloud in the winter sky). Also adding to the festival like atmosphere were the street vendors, selling food, drink, umbrellas, plastic horns, national flags and so forth.
Although there are many social and economic issues being raised, one dominant theme emerging is that the movement has become very sensitive to attempts (by the media, nationalists and the right) to co-opt the momentum. It’s telling that the first speech of the evening included a call to “incarcerate all neo-Nazi’s”; and the first performer of the evening chose to sing about the importance of anti-imperialism in Latin America.
Another significant moment came when a helicopter with a ticker-sign flew above the scene flashing statements such as “for a better Brazil, say no to violence … the police are here to protect us … no political parties”. The novelty of the stunt wore off quickly and the crowd chanted their disapproval at the Orwellian messaging with cries of “you do not represent us”.
The student demonstrators we spoke to are annoyed at the inability of political parties to show themselves without being harassed. There is a growing understanding that the absence of political parties at the demonstrations is not allowing for a Left program to crystalize; and instead may actually help the Right in next years federal elections. Indeed, the role of political parties at the demonstrations seems to be a critical dilemma.
It is difficult to see this impasse last much longer. The unions and student organizations have shown themselves to be effective forces, organizing large numbers of their membership and coherently articulating their demands. As long as they continue building on these accomplishments, the various political parties will have little choice but to respond.
Pics from Thursday night’s demos: