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Student Movements in Brazil

Students demonstrating for non-militarized security on campus may face civil lawsuits for "disturbing traffic." (Photo: Vinicius Souza and Maria Eugênia Sá)

In 2011, the young people of São Paulo, Brazil, as in other parts of the world, were involved in a series of demonstrations for changes in politics and society. And also as in other places, the police and media repressions were a constant issue. The most emblematic was the movement for the end of the agreement between the Military Police (PM) and the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) for the surveillance of the campus.

Despite the wins of movements such as Ocupa Sampa (Occupy São Paulo) and the March of Freedom, the Fora PM (MP Go Home) movement did not reach the same level of support. Ocupa Sampa camped for several weeks in Vale do Anhangabaú with free lectures that attracted hundreds of people and had a friendly reception from the news media. The March, held with a broad agenda after the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of citizens to free expression, including claims to change the laws of narcotics, followed the March of Marijuana, which a few weeks before had been suppressed with violence by the military police of São Paulo.

For years, the academic community of the most important Brazilian university has been fighting against the progressive militarization of the security services in USP and the criminalization of the movements of the university's students and workers. In 2007, the former director of the Faculdade de Direito (Law School) do Largo São Francisco and current rector of USP, João Grandino Rodas, had already requested the MP entry in the historic building in downtown São Paulo.

It happened in order to, with the use of violence, put an end to an occupation of no more than 24 hours of the patio for holding the National Day in Defense of the Public Education with students, teachers and representatives of the National Union of Students (União Nacional dos Estudantes) and of the movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), among other entities. Two years later, then-Rector of USP Suely Vilela requested the entry of the MP's Riot Control (Tropa de Choque) to prevent picketing in a strike of employees. In the confrontation, at least three people were arrested and 10 injured, including several students wounded by rubber bullets or beaten with truncheons.

Since then, the MP had been making sporadic rounds on the main campus of the university. But with the death, at the beginning of 2011, of a student who reacted to a mugging just after taking money from an ATM inside Cidade Universitária (University City), the academic community started requesting more security. The state came up with an agreement with the MP in August for the regular surveillance on the campus.

A portion of the teachers and students applauded the initiative. On the other hand, a significant portion of students and employees regarded the agreement as a break in the university autonomy and an action that, far from ending the violence, would repress further the political, social and union manifestations. Indeed, despite the drop in crime since the robbery in May, dozens of students (especially the poor, blacks and homosexuals) have been reporting more and more frequent searches and constraints by the MP, and even an invasion, without a judicial mandate, of the headquarters of an academic center.

The final straw was the attempt to arrest three students who were smoking marijuana inside a car in a university parking lot in late October. Seeing the harshness of police approaching the group, dozens of students surrounded the officers, who requested reinforcements. More than 15 police cars arrived shortly and the ensuing clash resulted in several wounded people and a police car getting its windows broken.

The students then decided to occupy the FFLCH (School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences) building as a protest against the police action and the MP's presence on the campus. A few days later, when the rector got a court order of repossession, a smaller group of students decided, even without the support of the Students' Central Directory, to occupy a target with a higher visibility: the building of the Rectory itself. With this, the movement won a little more space in the media, but the speech in the hegemonic media insisted on the thesis of "Dad's little babies, rioters, radicals and bums who only wanted to dope freely."

The apex of the movement's visibility, including a much greater participation of students and other sectors of society, occurred with the violent eviction of the Rectory in the early hours of Nov. 7 by a troop of 400 soldiers and the arrest of 72 people. Assemblies that had a few hundred participants began to gather thousands of students. Parades with more than 4,000 people took first the downtown streets on Nov. 8 and then the Avenida Paulista on Nov. 24. A total of 14 USP school units, including FFLCH, have been on strike since.

However, the actual claims published in the movement's blog (, with the exit of the MP from the campus and a new project of non-militarized security, never had any impact in the newspapers, radio and TV. Similarly, only those living within the movement or following the blog comments and the discussions on the social networks were aware of the expelling in December of four students of FFLCH and two students from the Escola de Comunicações e Artes (School of Communications and Arts).

The students face immense difficulty making themselves heard by larger portions of the population, which, in a country with such a concentrated media, necessarily passes through mass media such as television. A clear example of this was the more than 30 minutes of discussion in the Assembly of Nov. 6 about the participation or not of the movement in a live interview on a major news channel. First the students did not know if the interview would be on air in an open channel (TV Record) or the pay channel (Record News). Then they discovered that there would be only one representative being interviewed and not an entourage, as they had voted.

In the end, with the arrest of the 72 who had occupied the Rectory, only the rector appeared on TV, accusing the students of preparing Molotov cocktails to resist eviction, when in fact all of them left peacefully carrying only left-wing books as "weapons."

This failure in the relationship with the press is unacceptable in a movement that counts lots of students of journalism and has support from teachers in the area. Due to this failure no one points out the obvious contradiction of a media that a few weeks ago opened the microphones so that an MP colonel could say that the state will sue the "leaders," identified by footage of the Paulista parade.

Similarly, students fail to break the image of "violent radicals" painted by the media that showcased dozens of times the photos of the improbable Molotov cocktails supposedly found by the police in the cleared-out rectory. And despite being a predominantly nonviolent movement, its participants cannot explain why they hid their faces when taking over the building. The media does not make the connection between this fact and the dozens of students processed administratively (based on an internal regulation of the era of the military dictatorship, which prohibits any political demonstrations at the university), with criminal lawsuits (by depletion of the public patrimony) and now with civil lawsuits (by "disturbing traffic").

Despite the evident criminalization of the movement, it fortunately does not seem likely that the students will change their tactic to violent actions, which could lead to an even greater distaste by part of the population. On the contrary, the movement has been seeking support in other and more experienced social movements, especially in the legal field. A lawyer of the MST helped steer students detained in the evacuation of the Rectory. In early December, the students met with leaders of the Sem Terra in the Florestan Fernandes School, in the city of Guararema, to learn the organization and movement strategies. The arrest also approached even more students of the USP's Workers Union—linked to the Party of Blue-collar Workers (PCO). This can greatly help in the political structuring, legal protection and organization of acts of greater visibility. On the other hand, it can further increase the media blocking; after all, both the MST and the PCO are portrayed in the news media as radical, violent and anachronistic.

Perhaps the solution is to remain the least linked to a political party and at the same time invest in a professional communication: electing permanent spokespersons and being well prepared, available to journalists, and attentive to any opportunity for a debate or media insertion. Another good suggestion would be to maintain a single blog with consolidated information, such as claims and contacts. After all, the current blog is the third or fourth movement's address in the past three months.

It is also important to extend the work with the portions of the media that are sympathetic to the social movements, such as left-wing magazines and blogs. Another interesting action would be to form partnerships with NGOs, organizations and movements that seek a greater democracy in the communication media or have fought against the dictatorship. Finally, the movement needs to further approach other innovative initiatives like the Occupies and the most organized students' movements in Latin America, such as the Colombian and Chilean ones—all this without dismissing the action it already has on the social networks.

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