Who Speaks for Brazil's Streets?

By Ana Claudia Teixeira & Gianpaolo Baiocchi
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Participants in popular assemblies do not only want an end to corruption. They also distrust politicians who act legally on behalf of the powerful.
Traditional movements have a distant and cautious relationship with the recent protests. Some organized movement leaders, from the protests' early days, have expressed suspicion at both the middle-class component and the distrust of political parties that pervades the June Movement, a supposed "fascist tendency." Some traditional organizers claim they see evidence of right-wing manipulation in the protests and that the demonstrators are privileged people who do not understand the importance of a leftist government.

But other organizers have attempted to more centrally and visibly insert their movements into the broader wave of protests. Several of the large unions, in concert with some nationally organized movements, called for a "National Day of Struggle" on July 11, which included a general strike. The demands-for political reform and greater spending on health and education-were consonant with the concerns of the protesters.

Still, the strike, more than anything, showed the distance between traditional movements and recent protesters. Services stopped in some cities, but street protests were muted.

The last month has also seen a no-holds-barred contest between the conservative media and the government, replayed in a distant way between Lula and Rohter, about how to name and understand the new movement, and by implication, how to diagnose what is happening in Brazil generally. The media are intent on making the movement a referendum on the Workers' Party and corruption. The media have also drawn sharp distinctions between the civic, pro-democracy, peaceful parts of the movement and the supposed vandals and violent troublemakers. The government and the Workers' Party leadership are in line with Lula, who argues that aging institutions and parties have lost the ability to communicate with dissatisfied youth who have never known hardship and have high expectations from government services.

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The June Movement, inchoate as it is, challenges both narratives. Corruption is a concern, but not a driving one, and may be seen more as a symptom of a malfunctioning representative democracy than as an isolated problem. Participants in popular assemblies do not only want an end to corruption. They also distrust politicians who act legally on behalf of the powerful. A recurrent theme has been that the political system favors the powerful few-FIFA, the body that organizes the World Cup; land developers; bus companies-at the expense of the many.

And while it is true that the movement has a visible middle-class component, its dissatisfaction is not only that of aspirational young people who don't know how good they have it. The dissatisfaction is quite real: urban transportation, health care provision, and public education are in shambles. Despite the progress of recent years, there is a sense that things are not as good as they should be-that more of the population should benefit from prosperity and growth, that services should be better, and that regular citizens are left out of decisions that matter to them.

Finally it is not only the means of engagement that is new in these protests. What is different is the meaning of politics for these protesters and the importance they place on autonomy from political parties. That, more than anything, challenges a government that sees itself as speaking for the people.

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Ana Claudia Teixeira has her PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Campinas. Her research has focused on the political culture of the Brazilian left. Gianpaolo Baiocchi is Associate Professor of Individualized Studies and Sociology at New York University and coauthor of The Civic Imagination.

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