Several days into the wave of protests that gripped Brazil in mid-2013, I began to hear people referring to the demonstrations—half-joking, half-seriously—as our ‘June Days’. Marx, of course, described the original June Days of 1848 as ‘the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars’, arguing in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that, though the proletariat’s uprising was crushed by General Cavaignac, ‘at least it was defeated with the honours attaching to a great world-historical struggle’; ‘not just France’, he wrote, ‘but the whole of Europe trembled in face of the June earthquake’.footnote1 The Brazilian June also produced a tremor, but I would not go so far as to call it an earthquake. Nobody seriously imagined that an attempt at revolution was taking place. Class and property were not at the heart of the demonstrations, and the basic framework of the country’s socio-economic order was not called into question. The political rules of the game, too, were only targeted in a diffuse way; proposals for a constituent assembly and a referendum came to nothing, and were forgotten before the month was out.
Yet the protests acquired such magnitude and energy that it became clear something was happening deep inside Brazilian society. Though mainly concentrated in São Paulo to begin with, over the next fortnight the movement expanded to more than 350 cities and towns, bringing millions onto the streets. The surge forced the authorities to cancel an increase in transport fares, and posed a real threat to the Confederations Cup, the showpiece football tournament then under way across the country—preparation for the World Cup Brazil is hosting in 2014, on which it has lavished billions. The Rousseff government had to throw the emergency switches, rushing to offer what the President billed as a ‘national pact’: a constituent assembly, more stringent punishments for corruption, promises of investment in transport, health and education. Little has come of these ideas, of course, but there have been further flashes of protest since June: thousands marched through the streets in dozens of cities on Brazil’s Independence Day in September 2013, and there were further demonstrations in Rio in early February when its mayor announced that the fare increase cancelled after the June protests would now be implemented after all. The questions posed so urgently in June remain unresolved, and discontent still simmers, with the World Cup now in view. The tectonic plates of Brazilian society appear to have shifted.
If it would be misleading to designate the demonstrations as ‘June Days’, what should they instead be called? Many years after 1968, Sartre is reported to have said he was still trying to understand what had happened that May; I suspect the same is true of Brazil’s June protests, so perhaps we should borrow the French term—les événements—and label them simply as ‘events’. In what follows, after a brief sketch of the course of the protests, I offer some preliminary hypotheses on two dimensions in particular: the social make-up of the demonstrators, and the ideologies that crossed paths in the streets.
The events can be divided into three phases, each of which lasted approximately a week. The first unfolded between 6 and 13 June, and was largely confined to São Paulo, though there were two small demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro. At this point, the protesters were mostly drawn from a small sector of the middle class, and they had a specific objective: to block an impending rise in the cost of public transport. The Movimento Passe Livre (Movement for Free Passes) played a prominent role in organizing the first protests; emerging from a confluence of pt, anarchist and anti-globalization strands in the early 2000s, it had been centrally involved in earlier struggles over transport, notably in the cities of Salvador in 2003 and Florianópolis the following year, where it secured free transport for students. The mpl now mobilized thousands of people on the same model, notably through the use of social networks. On 6 June, an estimated 2,000 people filled São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, while a second demonstration on 10 June drew perhaps 5,000 to block major thoroughfares in the west of the city, eventually leading to confrontations with the police.footnote2 The third day of protests, called by the mpl for Tuesday 11 June, also drew some 5,000 demonstrators, but this time there were pitched battles with the forces of order; newspapers reported many violent clashes and scenes of property being destroyed. The recurrence and intensification of the clashes prompted the psdb governor of São Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, to adopt a tougher stance for the fourth demonstration, called for Thursday 13 June. On that day, a large number of people—the São Paulo State Military Police put it at 5,000, though the organizers claimed 20,000—marched peacefully from the centre of the city to Rua da Consolação, but were then prevented from reaching Avenida Paulista. From this point on, a tide of violent repression spread across a large part of the São Paulo metropolitan area, with the Military Police attacking demonstrators, passers-by and journalists indiscriminately for several hours. Participants and eyewitnesses spoke of ‘crazed’ policemen and open-air ‘battle scenes’.
Such excessive use of force drew the attention and sympathy of the general public. This marked the start of the second stage of the movement, which reached its peak with the demonstrations that took place between 17 and 20 June. Now other sectors of society suddenly arrived on the scene, multiplying the protests’ numerical strength many times over while at the same time making their demands more diffuse. The thousands in the streets became hundreds of thousands. On Monday 17, when the mpl called a fifth day of action, some 75,000 people marched in São Paulo—participants reported a much higher figure—and the protests were mirrored in all of Brazil’s state capitals. Almost every demonstrator carried a placard, resulting in a profusion of slogans and demands: