With the recent announcement of a hike in bus fares in São Paulo, residents took to the streets last night to peacefully express their opposition to and anger with the hike. However, the protests turned very ugly when the police responded with overwhelming force against peaceful and unarmed protesters. And this wasn’t some “warning shot” situation – photographs reveal the extent of damage from police violence, police were caught repeatedly approaching protesters and firing rubber bullets at protestors’ upper bodies from close range, even hitting two journalists in the faces with rubber bullets. Such violence led to more people gathering to protest police violence, which led to more violence. As one woman tweeted last night, “It’s not about the fares anymore. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”
That statement is true, but indeed, it’s possible to argue it wasn’t ever about the fares in the first place – at least, not strictly about the fares. Twenty cents may not seem like a lot, but it’s important to contextualize. São Paulo has a subway system, but like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro, the metro is far more expensive than the bus lines are, reinforcing broader social hierarchies in transportation – the middle classes can more easily afford the faster metros than the working classes can. Yet many more are affected by the hikes based on simple geography. Though São Paulo’s metro system is not insignificant, the metro area is enormous (around 20 million people), and the subway simply does not reach many parts of the city; for an anecdotal example, when I visited São Paulo several years ago, I stayed with a friend who lived in a middle-class neighborhood far from the city center. I spent an hour on a city bus just to get to the beginning of the metro line that would take me into the city. So though the working classes rely more heavily on buses than on the metro, many outside the working class also rely on the bus system simply due to urban geography.
Still, what’s twenty cents? Well, for starters, it’s a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in one of the most expensive cities of Brazil – in 2012, it ranked as the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And in recent years, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city]. And then there’s the national economy. Growing inflation, growth rates that have slowed down, and currency devaluation have all further worsened matters, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessened the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. In that setting, outrage over twenty cents is far from the total issue; while the move directly impacts millions of people, the protests over bus fares tap into broader discontent over the economic situation in São Paulo.
And that only adds to the horrific repression and violence on the part of the police last night. Just as in the case of Turkey, UC-Davis, and New York City in recent history, police have responded to peaceful protests with an overwhelming and disproportionate use of force. This is the face of repression of protest, free assembly, and free speech in the 21st century, drawing on the same police tactics that resemble those of the 1960s throughout the world, but with new technologies like pepper spray and rubber bullets. And police insisting they could no longer be held responsible for their actions last night only further reeks of police abuse and impunity for state violence. The state’s Secretary of Security can insist that the government will look into the use of police force, but given the long history police violence and impunity for police and neglecting the socioeconomic inequalities in São Paulo, it’s difficult to imagine there will be any real efforts to prevent such repression of protests or change police tactics anytime soon.