HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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21 June 2013

Chega de Bullying

The lines to buy Metro tickets were impossibly long. It was not, I thought, an accident that the increased demand for public transportation to get to Rio`s biggest protest in a generation had not been anticipated. The unusual presence of Military Police at the station entrances gave an unmasked vision of the hooded cowards that would be waiting a few hours hence. I walked towards downtown, eventually entering the metro in Catete.

My fellow passengers were dressed for a walk in the park, not a military confrontation. They carried poster-sized banners, handbags, cell phones. One of the better posters read “Se Pelé é Rei, eu sou jacobino” (If Pelé is King, then I´m a Jacobian). Coming from the zona sul, the attitude was light, festive, but different from Carnaval. There were small groups of friends, couples and individuals – mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties heading to Candelaria to start the long march to the Prefeitura.

A carnaval-style sound car led the way, with chants blasting over the throbbing mass. This gave the procession a familiar air, but there was no dancing, no gyrating and skimpily clad women to ogle. The sound car moved slowly as a human tide rose behind it.

Several political parties (or unions) had their banners out: UNE, CTB, AMES, PSB, PSTU, ANEL. Compared to the march of 100,000 on Monday, this showed a jockeying for position among vested political interests, exactly what the majority of the protesters don`t want. Later, I heard that the CUT and PSTU groups had their banners shredded. The ANEL banner was prescient (At least on the night):  “Isso aqui vai virar a Turquia” (This here will become Turkey).

In the middle of a crowd it is impossible to determine its dimensions. In order to get some perspective, I ran forward to overpass that links the Prefeitura building with the Cidade Nova metro. I arrived to find the metro access doors closed. 150 people, journalists and photographers, PM and Metro security were inside. 5 minutes later the journalists were gone.  

Looking back towards Candelaria, some 3km distant, a human wave rolled. Directly below me, the vanguard had arrived and was dancing underneath the overpass. The Maraca é Nosso flag whipped through the air as the songs and rhythms from the x-Maracanã made protesters jump and chant as if they were watching a game unfold.  Hundreds had pushed forward towards the front of the Prefeitura building (aka Piranhão, or big brothel). The mass of the protest was still coming but had slowed. Fireworks. Bap bap bap, boom. Cheers. Military helicopters swooped. Jeers.

Bap, bap, bap, Boom. Cheers. Elderly people huffed up the stairs to get into the metro. Security told them it was impossible. Como pode? We heard that BOPE was going to enter the station. Bap bap, Boom. Cheers. Journalists climbed up for a better angle. The stairs were crowded in order to see the impure spectacle. Below, the growing chorus  bellowed stadium chants. The most popular “Não vai ter Copa! Não vai ter Copa! “

History stretched, ran here and there. 500,000? 600,000? During Carnaval, O Bobo inflates counts. There was light conversation in an atmosphere of civic solidarity and pride.

Boom. Boom. Crack crack crack. No cheers. The air filled with tear gas as people sprinted towards the oncoming hundreds of thousands. I was stuck on the stairs, with my back protected and seemingly out of the line of fire coming from city hall. Crack crack crack. More gas canisters flew into the streets, chasing those who are already running. Brave young lads picked them up and threw them back or kicked them in the canal. Someone with his face covered smashed the bus stop. I can`t decide if that is a satisfying sound.

Minutes extended as I judged a good time to run in front of the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters to get away from city hall and back towards the crowd. More gas flowed  through and we choked and coughed and spit and cried. I try not to rub my eyes, sprayed some vinegar on my mask and rode out the wave of pain. Three guys with medic coats came up and offered a spray of milk of magnesia  - a base substance to rub around the eyes. I felt horribly for these people with me on the platform. They were all overweight and scared and in the right place with a wrong government.  

The front of the crowd was chased away and in their place came the tough young guys with masks and muscles to throw things back at the PM. More bombs, more smoke, more anger, more vandalism. I decided to run for it as a rainstorm of tear gas canisters falls from the top of buildings, or helicopters, or who knows where. Blinded again, I ran towards the crowd retreating along Presidente Vargas. A small group sprinted down a side street and was confronted by shock troops. They retreatd  around a corner, but they were prepared with Molotov cocktails and bombs. One cocktail exploded in someone`s hand, catching his hair on fire. Será que valeu a pena?

Caught between two side streets where the shock troops laid down constant tear gas and percussion grenades, we were pressed from behind by the PM which had been systematically following the salvos and establishing the new front. Again, I timed a run and was again caught in a world of tear gas. We were up against the Canal do Mangue, a putrid, open sewer that would eat through a tennis shoe faster than a taser. The PM continued launching gas into the slow moving crowd. Como pode?

For an hour we were pushed back with gas and bombs and bullets. The crowd walked quicker, with small groups occasionally running to get out of the way of falling canisters. When they fell at my feet again I was blinded, but not as much as the person to my left. I wrapped my arm around him leading him forward as quickly as possible. He was helpless. I was not much better. Minutes later the torment passed and we were again walking with the masses, beating a new path to the state legislature building. The beer vendors were out. Antartica has never tasted so good.

Near the intersection of Rio Branco, it seemed that the crowd had moved on. Explosions and sirens punctuated an eerie silence. The scene was one of Holywoodian destruction. The PM was 100 yards distant. The menacing force stood shadowed by clouds of tear gas and black smoke, the red lights of their trucks making scary shadows. Dozens of people sat down in the street. My friend and I joined them. BBC Radio called me for a live interview. The number grew to two hundred people, legs crossed, V signs raised.

The PM attacked from two sides: bombs, gas, bullets. Blindness, searing lungs and a full sprint into the side streets while trying to talk on the phone. I don`t know if the BBC aired the interview. I blindly jumped over broken trees, cobblestones and shredded metal while running forward, trying to explain what was going on. Bombs exploded all around and more canisters rained down. There were no machos here, just people running for safety.

I ended up on Rio Branco heading towards Praça Mauá. The vandalism was out of control, universally undertaken by young men with their faces covered. Then again in front of the Museu da Amanha, another attack from the police that sent us running yet again.

It was a long walk to the metro. PM roamed the streets like rabid dogs, guns pointed in everyone`s faces. Worse, they threw tear gas into restaurants. These are the same tactics employed in Turkey. Solidarity!

For my usual trenchant analysis you can find links to the million interviews on the media page. And if anyone heard that BBC interview, please send it along.

My banner choices of the day: Chega de Bullying; Mais Amor Menos Paes; Desigualdade social é uma violência estrutural

[p.s. I had it easy]


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