The World Cup wrapped up on Sunday. While many were surprised with Brazil’s success as a host, others, just several blocks from the field, were less enthused.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Felipe Francisco, a 21-year-old medical student and activist, was cautious about Sunday’s World Cup final. Before the Rio de Janeiro native left home, he dressed in a white medical coat and hung a stethoscope around his neck. A big black backpack stuffed with emergency equipment tugged at his shoulders.
For every game played at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium and anytime Brazil played anywhere during the World Cup, Francisco ventured into the streets in his white uniform, staging his version of a protest.
In a march to the stadium ahead of Sunday’s final match between Argentina and Germany, a few hundred demonstrators, including Francisco, gathered at nearby Plaza Saens Peña.
In the march to the final, many demonstrators carried signs that read “Protesting is not a crime,” and the event’s organizers saw the demonstrations as casting a shadow over the tournament. Widely-anticipated protests, however, drew smaller crowds than expected, becoming a kind of sideline event in the world’s eyes.
Though the triumphs and heartbreaks on the soccer field were what dominated headlines, the frustrations held by the people of Brazil could still be felt in the cracks of the streets. Often included in this group were the chorus of public school teachers seeking better working conditions. Also advocating for students who lack basics in the classrooms — soccer balls for gym classes and adequate reading material for special education students — they have been a strong presence on the sidelines of the game.
Authorities sought to avoid any of the scenes that arose during last year’s Confederation’s Cup, an event seen as a warm-up to the World Cup. Those demonstrations peaked on June 20, 2013, when over 1 million Brazilians took to the country’s streets to protest long-standing issues ranging from corruption to poor public services.
To quell any potential for unrest, more than 25,000 police and soldiers were deployed in Rio for the final — the country’s largest such security detail in history.
In his backpack, Francisco packed the usual items he needs to help an injured person: gauze, bandages, saline, antiseptic and analgesic spray.
A few hours at Plaza Saens Peña
Before the soccer ball had even hit the ground at Maracanã Stadium, the crowd of activists, teachers, anarchists and demonstrators, hailing from Rio’s favelas and communities, scattered when gas bombs, stun grenades and pepper spray were used by police as they headed toward the stadium. Incidents of protesters trying to push through a blockade were reported, as were unprovoked attacks on dozens by officers wielding batons.
According to a Monday police communiqué, the gas bombs were “necessary” for dispersing the crowd, as some protesters had broken the doors of the subway’s entrance. The police added that the group’s intended path would have posed a security risk to the thousands of people at the nearby stadium.
Francisco, who had been hit with a police helmet at a Maracanã Stadium protest several weeks earlier when he tried to go through a blockade of police officers, has been joined by a group of medical students at all the protests.
After the crowd was dispersed at Sunday’s protest, he says he and about 200 others were then cordoned off at the square by police for nearly two hours.
Tear gas went off and aggression ran rampant during that time as well, he says.
“Everyone tried to go over them, small groups, big groups and individually, but they were not letting us go,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, another demonstration was set to kick off at Copacabana’s beachfront, near the FIFA Fan Fest, an outdoor venue airing live broadcasts of matches that had been the scene of small protests throughout the World Cup, including the June 12 opener.
In Sunday’s protests, 15 journalists covering the event were injured by police at the Plaza Saens Peña, according to the Journalists’ Union of Rio de Janeiro, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported.
Jason O’Hara, a Canadian documentary maker, was shown in local Jornal A Nova Democracia footage down on the ground, leaning against a building while getting kicked in the head by police. Wearing a hard hat identifying him as press and a gas mask, he had also been beaten by police batons.
A heavy-handed reaction
Pending an investigation, four officers have been suspended, including the one who kicked O’Hara, according to a Wednesday communiqué from Rio’s police department. Based on available footage, the police department said it further “repudiates the acts of violence” by the police officers.
The heavy-handed response has been said to deter many from protesting and has been at the center of past and current campaigns carried out by global human rights monitor Amnesty International. The debate has swirled around crowd control methods, such as the deployment of tear gas at short range, as well as the disproportionate use of excessive force and non-lethal weapons, like pepper spray or rubber bullets.
The international watchdog, which has been monitoring and documenting cases of human rights abuses throughout the tournament from host cities such as Recife and São Paulo, has called for “immediate, independent investigations into the many abuses” committed by Brazilian police over the weekend.
On the eve of the World Cup final, authorities sought to preempt any violence by detaining 19 activists in Rio and other cities for investigation on armed gang formation, according to local news reports. Authorities have called this a preventative measure, citing real concerns over the likelihood of incidents that would unfold on Sunday.
“I was nervous and sad because I had known people and friends being arrested… A feeling of not knowing what to do and how to help,” said a young local activist, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
The activist says he was also concerned about his own well-being because of his participation in protests.
“The arrests on Saturday and the way the police behaved on Sunday, violently repressing a small protest near Maracanã Stadium, were a clear attempt to intimidate protesters,” Atila Roque, director of Amnesty’s Brazil office, said in a statement on Monday. “The violence meted out by the security forces over the course of the World Cup was excessive, unnecessary and a direct threat to the right to peaceful protest.”
Looking back: June 17, 2013
On June 17, 2013, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets in Rio.
The catalyst — a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares from the previous week — erupted in demonstrations in São Paulo that mushroomed across the country. Though the transit fare hike provided the spark, it ultimately unleashed a fire frustration over the burgeoning inequality gap, as well as the perceived disconnect between investments in mega-events, such as the $4 billion it cost to build and renovate World Cup stadiums, and people going without basic necessities throughout the country.
“We believe that the struggle for social rights did not begin in 2013 and will not end in 2014,” Priscila Cavallieri, a member of the Popular Committee of the World Cup, a Brazilian social activist group, told MintPress News. “That means that the organized social movements are fighting a long time and will continue the fight after the World Cup.”
As the protests grew, bloody confrontations between protesters and police intensified and raised alarm.
“When things started to get more serious [as the protests continued] — when I saw that people were starting to get hurt — I thought I could take a [medical] coat and just help people,” Francisco said.
But at that moment, the third-year medical student was not thinking about the violent clashes outside the doors of the Menezes Cortes bus terminal in the city’s center where he was standing. He was helping a woman with asthma, who was having trouble breathing because of the tear gas being dispersed by police.
A bus driver spotted Francisco wearing his white medical coat and stethoscope and quickly ushered him to two other passengers — a mother and her son who had been waiting for a bus when tear gas seeped into the terminal.
There was no one else around to help them, as the march unfolding around them had devolved from a peaceful protest into violent confrontation.
Meanwhile, a breakaway group of demonstrators had broken into the state legislative assembly building, located near the bus terminal. About 140 feet from Francisco, a car exploded after protesters had set it ablaze. Shortly after that, he heard the sound of live rounds — rubber and metal bullets — that were being used to disband demonstrators that day. (Francisco would find out the next day that a man had been hit with a metal bullet nearby.)
Nearly 20 months old, the baby in the bus terminal began to show a bluish tint on his face and around his fingernails. Using his stethoscope, Francisco checked the baby’s breathing as the mother remained huddled in a corner.
A bus driver laid out a towel on a table in a sparse waiting room used by bus drivers in between shifts, creating a makeshift emergency room table.
After massaging the baby’s back and chest for a few minutes as he brought the vinegar-laden toilet paper to the baby’s nose, the baby started to coax and stir, Francisco says. He continued this for several more minutes until the baby was relaxed, then he went to help the mother, who was still huddled in the corner. She was recovering from multiple fainting episodes when he checked her vitals.
He stayed in the room, making sure the mother and son were okay and hoping the chaos outside would wane.
The events of June 17 inspired and compelled Francisco to attend every protest since, simply to help others.
Drawing smaller numbers
Local newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported that in the 12 days after the World Cup began, protests had dropped by 39 percent compared to the 12 days leading up to the event.
“The World Cup touches some things with Brazilians. … It’s really difficult to see Brazil play and go to the streets,” said Gabriel Onofre, a research assistant with the Institute of Land and Cartography of the State of Rio and private school teacher.
Just a week and a half into the World Cup, he sat on the steps of the assembly building, where union teachers assembled amid a several-week strike.
The Rio native, who attended the protests last year as a spectator, says it was a proud moment for his country when it “awoke” to change. But he pointed to the current environment — in which jogo bonito, known locally as the “beautiful game,” is at the forefront — as what is making it difficult to “revive the protest.”
“I think we have to separate the Brazilian soccer team from the government, from FIFA. … We like fútbol, but we don’t like the fútbol of FIFA,” he said.
While opinions have been mixed about the lasting impact of the World Cup, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who faces a re-election bid in October, had been feeling the heat from critics in the lead-up to the event.
A survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, highlighted the “grim” mood of Brazilians and reported that 72 percent of Brazilians were dissatisfied with the country’s current state of affairs.
Meanwhile, the protests lingered as a backdrop in the minds of many when it was time for kickoff.
Noting the drop in numbers of protesters, Francisco recited the old adage that “it’s the quality, not the quantity” that matters in the end.
But he also pointed to the violence that he has encountered. On Sunday alone, he helped 10 people who suffered injuries related to tear gas inhalation and rubber bullets.
“My way of protest [when wearing a medical coat] is to take out people’s fear of coming to other protests. It’s to show them that we’ll be there to help them if they get hurt,” Francisco said.