Jeremy Wilson: Days of peace signs and hashtags

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Kiwi Jeremy Wilson watches as Brazilians demand world class social services rather than stadiums

Many generations will never experience the feeling of coming together to fight for something they believe in. When this happens by the hundreds of thousands, it often represents a unique moment in history.

For many people in Brazil, especially those who were only kids in 1992 (when the President was found guilty of corruption) this is the most significant moment of their lifetime. They feel the calling to be a part of it and this vibrant culture has swung into action. O Gigante Acordou - The Giant Awakens.

I arrived in Brazil for a three-month project shortly before the first protest began. I'm based in Sao Paulo but on my second week I was in Rio for work. It was hard to miss the massive subway construction or comprehend the resources required to complete such a project in time for the World Cup. Many locals I chatted to voiced their frustrations that the subway system wasn't really necessary beyond the Cup and the Olympics, that the money could have been spent elsewhere.

Naturally with such huge events you expect benefits to the economy. Brazil is spending about 30 billion real ($17 billion) on stadiums and infrastructure. I've seen the estimated figures for events such as the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the London Olympics but Brazil doesn't have as much pre-existing infrastructure and the local argument is that some of the stadiums they are building don't provide value in the future.

In a flourishing country where 35 million people have recently risen into the middle class, 21 per cent of people still live below the poverty line. Common tweets about the issue include "World Class Stadiums not world class hospitals."

When I arrived back in Sao Paulo, bus fare increases of 0.20 real were announced. The minimum wage in Brazil is about 600 real a month and many people travel over 2 hours each way on a bus to get to work.

The first wave of protests began. The bus fares were a huge deal to a lot of people, but it seemed to be the fact the people were uniting against the rise that opened the floodgates.

"We have been promised change for too long, it's time our country focused on its people, said Marina Souza, 20, a student. Many sectors of society came to stand against corruption and a government they felt was out of touch with the views and needs of its nation.

As in Turkey excessive violence by police not used to dealing with this type of situation only made things worse and fuelled the already compelling social media content sweeping through the country and the world.

All social channels exploded with Facebook coincidentally enabling the use of hashtags on the same day as one of the most significant protests. One of the first tags #vemprarua (Come to the Streets) took off worldwide, with several others including #occupyBrazil.

My hotel is one block from the main assembly point for many of the Sao Paulo protests. On the Monday after the violent Thursday protests I went along to try to understand what was going on. The call online had been for a peaceful display. Knowing very little Portuguese made the movement all the more mesmerising.

From the approach the atmosphere didn't feel dangerous.

Those who have seen Brazilian football fans will know how passionate they are but seeing this energy channelled into support for their country gave it a very different tone.

The chants and songs came from everywhere, the national anthem and drums. People draped themselves in Brazilian flags, wore green and blue or painted their faces. As it got dark high-powered projections of peace signs and hashtags appeared on buildings inciting a fresh wave a chants.

The powerful visual of Guy Fawkes masks reminded people that they were a faceless crowd, driven not by a clear leader but by a collective force. This scenario has made it very hard for a government to appease the protests. Powerful leaders can amass great followings. But when people come together so quickly the momentum can quickly build into a popular cause.

Observing the passion of the huge group and the love for their country was one of the most moving experiences I've had. I was the outsider but I was jealous of the human spirit uniting everyone on the streets.

All ages were represented but most people appeared to be under 20.

Large groups of girls held up long-stemmed flowers and peace signs. Families attended together, people brought their dogs along and small groups played flutes or other instruments.

Like Turkey the quality and flow of content around these protests and riots is mind-blowing. There have been thousands of high-quality videos, hundreds of thousands of heart-moving photos and millions of tweets. All this content fed by smartphones constantly flashing, DSLR cameras everywhere you look, GoPros mounted to helmets, remote control helicopters and prams.

It's hard to imagine the impact this technology would have had on protests throughout history. The peace protests of the 60s live for the world to see.

While the protesters shout for a peaceful movement violence is somewhat inevitable. Smaller groups have been responsible for vandalism, fires and looting.

Andre Pereira, 21, a college student who has been there almost every night: "These looters are not even part of the protest, they are simply taking advantage and drawing bad media attention."

Nationwide the protests have reached an estimated 2 million people at their peak.

Despite the President announcing a retraction of the bus fare increase the protests continue into their third week.

"From the start it has been about more then bus fares, everybody knows that," Eloa Melo, 32, a sales representative, tells me as she gathers to march again on the Sao Paulo Council buildings.

Clashes with police involving rubber bullets and tear gas during a gathering of 250,000 have led to some deaths.

The country is hoping for an end to the violence but is largely in support of the movement. No one really knows what the next week will bring.


Jeremy Wilson is a New Zealander in Brazil on a digital innovation project.


Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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