SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Where is Brazil’s nationwide protest movement headed?
Even the people who started it don’t know.
The 40 or so leftist activists who form Sao Paulo’s Free Fare Movement, which seeks free public transportation for all, have been as surprised as the rest of the world as their cause exploded over the past week to include hundreds of thousands of Brazilians with grievances ranging from corruption to police brutality.
After the huge and still-growing protests convinced city governments to lower the price of public transportation this week, the group’s leaders - most of them under 30 and university-educated - acknowledge the movement has taken on a life of its own and is unlikely to fade away.
“It’s up to the people now to decide the path the (wider) struggle will take,” Nina Cappello, a 23-year-old university student, told Reuters.
The 8-year-old group, which like youth protest movements in Europe and the Arab world has seen its message spread largely by social media, describes itself as a “horizontal organization” with no defined leadership.
Like the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, the group is not targeting any particular political leader, and is not associated with any parties. It holds weekly meetings, and membership is open, although affiliates are required to sign a statement of principles and attend an orientation session.
The group’s mission is “a life without turnstiles,” supporting the right of citizens to move free of charge on transportation provided by the state, making it a public service in line with education and healthcare. In Sao Paulo, the current fare for public transportation is about $1.50.
In recent years, the group gained notoriety by staging protests aimed at provoking disruptions in major cities. Acts of defiance included closing roads, holding turnstile barriers open for passengers and staging sit-ins in the state assembly.
The group steadily attracted new members and sympathizers, although it was not until last week that the country took notice.
“It was a surprise,” said Douglas Belome, a 29-year-old Free Fare activist who works at a bank branch, shaking his head in disbelief. “We’ve been working for eight years on this. This year, we expected big mobilizations, but not 100,000 people in the street.”
Police’s violent response to a protest last week over transit fare increases magnified the group’s profile.
A protest on June 13, aimed at shutting down one of the main thoroughfares in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city and financial capital, ended in scenes of widespread police violence.
Images of journalists shot in the face with rubber bullets at point-blank range and bystanders being harassed by roving bands of military police were splashed across both social media and the traditional press.
The confrontation struck a nerve, even among Brazilians who did not necessarily support the group’s core message.
Brazil has not had a recent history of political protest and enjoyed a historic economic boom in the past decade.
But it has recently become bogged down in a range of problems from high inflation to overcrowded public transport. Many protesters have said they are marching for the right to express themselves peacefully, a cherished value in a country that experienced 20 years of military repressive dictatorship until 1985.
“People are responding to state violence,” said member Mayara Vivian.
As the movement has blossomed, Free Fare has lost much of its leadership role. Many of the protests this week have been organized by other groups, largely via Facebook.
They have also taken on a variety of names beyond the Free Fare banner - including “Change Brazil.”
The fallout has shaken Brazilian politicians all the way up to President Dilma Rousseff, who this week praised the protesters’ “greatness” for calling attention to issues such as poor public education and healthcare.
Demonstrations proliferated again on Thursday, as 300,000 people took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro and hundreds of thousands more flooded other cities.
Some political analysts believe the movement will disrupt daily life and make Brazilian politics unpredictable for months to come, with possible fallout for Rousseff and other politicians who face re-election next year.
Still, the Free Fare leaders refuse to stray from their core demand of free public transit, which they say they will not abandon just because cities like Rio and Sao Paulo revoked recent fare hikes.
To the puzzlement of some Brazilian journalists and politicians, any member can speak on behalf of the group about any topic at any time. But that does not mean they are fond of talking. Members avoid divulging any personal information out of security concerns and to avoid drawing attention away from the organization’s broader message.
“We have constructed a culture of mobilization and direct action among the population,” said Vivian, who lost part of a finger in 2006 after a sound bomb thrown by riot police exploded beside her.
“We showed all the pessimists ... and we left behind a tool that the people will be able to use, for a wide range of issues,” she said, referring to what they see as the newly proven effectiveness of protests to generate change in Brazil.
At a news conference on Thursday, three clearly exhausted Free Fare activists sat in a room packed with local and international media.
“We haven’t even had time to digest all of this,” Belome said. “All we know is that we are very happy.”
Editing by Brian Winter and Peter Cooney