Last Sunday (March the 13th) I attended the protests against president Dilma Rousseff in Rio — and all was not well. My friends and I were violently antagonized by a subset of the protesters and the police had to intervene for our safety. This is my side of the story, accompanied by my thoughts on what happened.
No earlier than on the eve of the protests did my friends and I decide to attend them. We met each other through an online discussion board about left-libertarianism and each of us identifies with different shades of progressive and libertarian ideals. I consider Roussef’s presidency to be disastrous, both in its economic policy — a rude form of developmentalism, utterly irresponsible towards ecological or economical health (as well as in social policy), not nearly progressive enough when it comes to urgent matters pertaining to civil and human rights and downright retrogade when it comes to, say, indigenous people’s rights to land and land reform. I am, thus, a leftist against Dilma Rousseff.
Before leaving home, we quicly put together a few picket signs. They said:
- The Left against Dilma
- + Drugs – Dilma
- Go away Dilma, against the indigenous genocide
- Free Market = Full Comunism
- Dilma <3 Geisel (Geisel was one of our military dictators, infamous for his government’s authoritarianism and economic interventionism. We basically did not show this sign during our walk, because we got cold feet)
The sign regarding free market as full comunism is, of course, a reference to Kevin Carson’s great article: Who Owns the Benefit? I take the other signs to be self-explanatory. Our signs, however, were not our only choice of political signaling. We decided, us men, to go in skirts, a reference to and endorsement of previous protests in favor of freedom of choice and against sexism. We intentionally refused the nationalistic greens and yellows that flooded Brazil’s streets. We went in white, purple, black and I went in red.
I am not oblivious to the meanings of the colour red. I know it is deeply associated with socialism and to the Left, and that’s why I chose it. I believe the Left should criticize Dilma Roussef’s government and I also wanted to set myself apart from both the usual crowd in anti-Dilma protests and the mainstream Left (which, more often than not, is very much pro-government).
Indeed it was the Left against Dilma sign that got the most attention on the streets. Many were the times in which we were stopped for pictures, and many were the people that took their time to chat with us, out of either curiosity or irony. Throughout most of our walk, though, we were welcomed and I felt pretty good. My left-wing friends had cautioned me against coming in red, but as I walked by people’s smiles and sometimes even compliments, I’d breathe ever more calmly. This was, it seemed, a peaceful protest.
And peacefully we walked for over an hour alongside the beautiful Copacabana beach, happy with ourselves and our messages and the way we were being received and supported. Yes, there were people defending absurdities such as “Constitutional Military Intervention” and Jair Bolsonaro, but we’d chosen to go to these streets precisely because we do not believe protests should be homogenous and monolithic. We were walking in the name of difference, not identity. We did not like it, of course; we booed and raised our signs and yelled, but it was all within reason. Part of the game, we thought.
As a matter of fact, the most unfriendly person we met was a left-wing passerby. She didn’t wear green and yellow either, and she carried with her one of those fancy cameras. Her hair had shaven regions and a half-smoked joint could be seen behind her ear. She asked if we could be quickly interviewed and have our picture taken. I complied. On the spot she inquired about our Left against Dilma sign: how exactly, after all, could I call myself a leftist, if I walk alongside coupists and right-wing extremists? I was taken aback. I told her I’m a leftist, yes, and I consider Dilma Roussef’s administration awful, and that’s why I was protesting. This need not mean I am the same as other protesters nor that I support everything they do or say. I told her a protest is chosen on the basis of the ideas being defended, not on the identity of other protesters. I said I wanted to fight against the notion that protests are homogenous and reactionary, as so many by the mainstream Left are. Okay, maybe I didn’t say it in these exact words, but that’s the gist of it. My friends added that we strongly oppose Bolsonaro and other extremist authoritatians. The lady was hostile and confrontational. We were a little sad to see that, so far, the least friendly person to greet us was leftist.
We stopped walking not long after that to meet a friend. I also intended to meet my father. Not two minutes had passed since I called him, though, a small confusion sprung. One of the many soundtrucks had arrived, a big “GO AWAY COMMUNISTS” written on its side. Our signs about drugs had been spotted and the man on top of the truck pointed at us and yelled at the mic: “We do not support drugs!” We were booed. We raised our signs higher in response. “Look at these guys, supporting drug-abuse, defending communism!”. “Not here!” “Ought to be opressed, yes!” “Go away, this is not your protest. It is ours!” Once again, I don’t recall the exact words. But soon there were dozens of people surrounding us, booing at us, shouting at us, pointing at us, cursing us. A lady in her 50s ripped my signs from my hands — at which point I looked angrily at her direction. “The fuck is this?!” I believe is what I shouted. How the hell do you do that in a protest? Stealing my sign? I wanted it back. While I approached the woman, an old man hit me in the head from behind. It didn’t hurt, but the intention was clear. “What the fuck?!” I repeated, angrier still. That’s the time Estadão’s picture was taken.
From there on, things escalated quickly. Soon there was a whole crowd on top of us and words and looks got meaner. Lazy, asshole, corrupt, cunt, stoner, weedfreak, idiot, thief, go back to Cuba. Within seconds people became caricatures of themselves, fully obedient to the orders coming from the truck as if to a general order to kill. Policemen came and surrounded me, to protect me. The man in the truck would say: “What a irony! Defended by the police, an institution you so frequently attack! Cowards!” My friends quickly joined me inside the police cordon. A few minutes must have passed in the company of shoutings, punch attempts, and general confusion; some reporters would try to sneak microphones in our direction, in the hopes of recording what we had to say. Many cameras, many weird looks. It felt like something straight from a movie.
Down came the police order: we were to be escorted. “We’ll take you to the police car, grab our arms.” There were eight or so policemen escorting us to the car. At some point a man threatened to hit us with a broom, which greatly angered one of the officers. As we walked towards the car, the shouting continued, filled with anger and hatred. Most of the people there hadn’t even seen our signs and yet we were definitely labeled as “Dilma apologists” or something of the sort. It didn’t matter: the people wanted a target, and they found it in us. Do note that outside the police cordon, some well-meaning protesters were atempting to establish a second cordon, to shield us from the angered nuts. I do appreciate it.
We were treated kindly and professionaly by the policemen, who’d make sure we knew where we were going at every turn and assured our comfort. In 2013, during Brazil’s great wave of protests, I was one of many brutally attacked by the police. May a lesson be learned: our criticisms towards an institution sometimes blind us to the good of the individuals who comprise it. That day the police protected me. And they did a fine job. I felt truly safe, and I am thankful to those that protected us.
At the police station we were safe, and we were not required to sign any documents. Just casual formalities. We waited for my father, who lives very close, and we talked about what happened. We were all scandalized, pumped with adrenaline, and extremely outraged and sad. We found the exact same caricature the Left had told us we would find. We were removed from a protest whose main cause we agree with because of the clothes we were wearing and the signs we were holding. Friends of mine had seen me on TV and on the internet, and I got many worried phone calls. At that point I was safe and sound, but the events that transpired are not to be celebrated.
What is the takeaway? Whoever has read through this can see the many criticisms I have offered, both to the man in the truck or to the angry mob that surrounded us. I was saddened. I was sad at having my signs taken from me, ripped from my hands (only the sign about indigenous people is left). I was sad at impulses as anti-democratic and violently irrational — and so sudden! We ought not generalize the actions of the people that assaulted us; I know, from personal experience, that there were many good, calm, peaceful people at the protests. But I was left with a strong impression that the pack behaviour, the manner and speed with which people changed their tone and advanced toward us, was not “individual” behaviour. This was group behaviour. A group setting their frontiers, establishing that which does and does not belong, who is “we” and who is “they”. A group fighting, tooth and nail, to enact an identiy — and to exclude difference. I have seen this sort of mob behaviour in the mainstream Left and it was sad to see it “in the other side.” I am not scared. I am disappointed. We confirmed the terrible thesis that these protests are identitarian, rather than programmatic. Or at least that many people — too many people — think and act identitarily, instead of programmatically. There is much to say against identity politics (and in favour of a politics of difference!), and I will keep on saying, just like my friends and I have been saying for a long time. More than ever, I feel that it is necessary that we wish for people to stop being dominated by rash instincts and love of power. It is necessary that we fight against fascism — both in the Right and in the Left.
I’ll keep on fighting for an ampler, less authoritarian Left. I am deeply thankful to my friends who protected me and were worried about me, made memes about the whole thing and just generally helped me through the day. I also extend my thanks to the protesters who tried to contain the madmen and, especially, to the policemen who protected us. It was a long day and I hope it never repeats itself.