If any of you follow the Eat Rio Facebook page you may have seen that Mrs Eat Rio and I went along to a protest at Palácio Guanabara last night and things turned pretty nasty. I guess I was going to tell you guys about what happened anyway, but after reading the coverage in O Globo, I feel even more determined to describe events as I saw them.
First of all, why did we go? I wrote a few posts about the wave of protests that spread across the country last month – at the time I broadly supported the issues that were being protested, but I was a little frustrated that most of the protests seemed to start at around 4pm, so by the time I had finished work they had mostly petered out. When I arrived into town from work last night, I heard that there was a protest against Rio State Governor, Sérgio Cabral. Cabral’s dishonesty and corruption are well known in Rio (and beyond) and I thought it a worthy issue to protest.
The protest itself centred around Palácio Guanabara, the headquarters of the Rio State government – it’s a beautiful building that was recently refurbished at a cost of R$19 million. As we arrived the scene was startling – this splendid cream building with row after row of heavily armed riot police lined up in front.
There was a fairly modest crowd milling around and a slight whiff of tear gas (something I had never experienced before – this would change dramatically before the end of the night).
We heard from others that there had been some police violence earlier (hence the smell of tear gas) and we saw a few walking wounded including one guy who had been hit right between his eyes (on the bridge of his nose) with a rubber bullet. But in general the atmosphere was low-key. There were a few people chanting a song once in a while, but it didn’t feel like there was much enthusiasm. I wandered around a took a few photos and noticed the rather strange sight of a group of men in suits standing up on the balcony of the palace and watching.
Slowly the crowd of protesters started to grow and the chanting and songs got louder and more concerted. A huge caveirão rolled past to whistles and boos. I must say, the caveirão is a terrifying vehicle: huge, extremely heavily armoured with a turret perched on top – it would not seem out of place in a war-zone.
The presence of this vehicle seemed utterly inappropriate and disproportionate – words that would come back to me again and again in the next few hours.
At this stage there was still traffic passing along the road between the police and and the protesters and it was heartening to see truck drivers and bus passengers opening their windows and waving their support for the anti-Cabral protest. As the road filled with people, I noticed that residents in the apartment blocks nearby were flashing their lights to show support too:
[You may want to lower the volume before playing the videos, the levels are a bit high]
A little later a water-cannon truck arrived and became the focus for more indignation from the crowd. At this point I think it’s really important to point out that I had seen zero violence from the protesters. In the following video you can see there is a guy selling beer wandering through the crowd and the only thing thrown is a paper aeroplane.
A few minutes later I saw the guy on the water-cannon truck turn the water on. It was just dribbling out, but I decided it was time to start moving back. At the time it felt like I was being rather melodramatic – surely they weren’t just going to attack a group of people who were simply standing there and chanting slogans?
Unfortunately we had only just started to move when they turned the water-cannon on full force. At the same time the police fired tear gas into the crowd along with what they call bombas de efeito moral – it seems like a funny name – “bombs that affect morale” – but there is nothing funny about having one of these things explode nearby. A better translation would be stun grenades. We later realised they were also firing rubber bullets.
As you can imagine, all hell broke loose. As everyone ran down the road away from the water-cannon, the gas overtook us and I found my eyes streaming, nose running and my lungs burning. As far as I can tell, the gas must dissolve in liquid, because the tears covering my cheeks were burning as much as my eyes. As the crowd ran in panic, I grabbed onto Mrs Eat Rio as hard as I could.
Further panic set in as more tear-gas cannisters landed in front of us. It was rather like drowning – you couldn’t take another breath because the gas was all around, but all the exertion of running meant you had to take a breath. Eventually we managed to outrun the gas and stood spluttering and spitting and wiping our faces, gasping in some good clean air.
Then I heard it – people were shouting warnings because the police were coming after us. I turned and managed to take a quick video as they advanced before we turned and ran.
As we ran, we saw some kids were throwing rubbish out onto the street and looking for things to throw back at the advancing police, but the vast majority were just frantically trying to escape. In the panic everyone turned down a street that headed towards Praça São Salvador (I think).
Then we saw that the police were already there waiting for us – people held up their hands and tried to turn the corner. One idiot in front of me had picked up a bottle and threw it at the police and I just had time to curse him and tell Mrs Eat Rio to look out. Next thing we knew they opened fire from no more than 15 metres away. Everyone ran for cover in a bar called either Bar Brasil or Casa Brasil. As the stun grenades came in we all crowded together and tried to shelter on the floor.
Then the gas came. The entire bar filled with gas – far worse than we’d experienced before. You couldn’t see more than a metre in front of you because it was so thick and everyone was panicking, trying to clamber over chairs, tables and other people. It was utterly terrifying and in the chaos I lost Mrs Eat Rio. I now understand how people lose each other in disasters – it was pure survival and after taking a deep breath full of gas I started to panic.
Somehow I got out. I ran around the corner and saw with huge relief that Mrs Eat Rio was out in front of me. When the gas cleared a little we went tentatively back to see if anyone was hurt. The bar was a mess and there were a few people lying on the ground dazed. The feelings of anger and fear towards the police were palpable.
There were only a few of us who had gone back, but the line of police was still there. A waiter from the restaurant was picking up chairs and we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Then the police fired more tear gas – I remember being amazed that they would be so vindictive. I realised that this was no longer about crowd control – the dogs had been let off the leash and now they were having their fun.
We turned to run and the police passed us on motorbikes, hunting down other groups of protesters who were trying to get away. A kind doorman let a whole lot of us in through the gates of his compound and we hid in an underground car park for a while.
Eventually we got out of the war-zone and made it to a bar. We sat there for about 20 minutes without saying a word, just staring into space, utterly shell-shocked. When a police car went past, I flinched and realised I was actually scared of them, these public servants.
Someone on Facebook commented on a video I linked to, saying that it looked like the police had turned a peaceful protest into a violent one, but I’d go further than that. I did not see any violence before they turned on the water cannon. After that it was just a vindictive (though well organised) attack perpetrated by the police as 99% of people tried to escape the gas, the stun grenades and the rubber bullets. The fact that a handful of kids threw a few stones and bottles afterwards was insignificant and hardly deserves a mention in the context of the event.
I wouldn’t like to experience anything like that ever again, but I don’t regret going to the protest. I can see how events like this can radicalise people (not that I’ve been radicalised!) and seeing the behaviour of the police for myself has given me a far clearer insight into the way that Brazil polices its people. The fact that O Globo‘s report puts the emphasis squarely on protester violence and vandalism is shameful.