How Brazilian Protests Evolved To Fight Back Against The World Cup

From Dave Zirin's newest book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, available now. We'll be running excerpts throughout the World Cup.

Brazil's Presdient Dilma Rouseff, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, and Brazi's soccer icon Pelé are now in the process of begging the people of Brazil to not turn the 2014 World Cup into a symbol of what ails the country. What frightens them is that, clearly, people don't see the World Cup—not to mention the 2016 Olympics in Rio—as some sort of abstract, postmodern symbol of poor public services and high taxes but as an aggravator of social ills.

Then there is the man who brought these mega-events to Brazil: former President Lula. The wildly popular Lula, his cancer in remission, took to the leading newspapers with his own analysis of the protests mushrooming throughout the country—but those looking for real insight would have to go elsewhere. It was an exercise in chutzpah. Lula wrote that he believed the "demonstrations are largely the result of social, economic and political successes. . . . We sharply reduced poverty and inequality. These are significant achievements, yet it is completely natural that young people, especially those who are obtaining things their parents never had, should desire more." He added that "even the Workers' Party, which I helped found and which has contributed so much to modernize and democratize politics in Brazil, needs profound renewal. It must recover its daily links with social movements and offer new solutions for new problems, and do both without treating young people paternalistically." Given all that Lula did to engineer the separation of his party from the social movements that carried him to power, such a statement beggars belief. But the coup de grace lies not in what he said, but in what he did not say. Three words that did not make it into his piece were "world," "cup," and "Olympics." (Perhaps he was just abiding by their copyright statutes.)

What none of the powers-that-be can say is that the World Cup, in their hands, is a tool of neoliberal plunder. Neoliberalism, at its core, is about transferring wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever relied on public services—little things like schools and hospitals—would understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular with much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police to simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense such as trade unions, general assemblies, and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we've seen in Turkey, Brazil, and even New York City in the early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement, police repression can make demonstrations look sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.

The Olympics, World Cup, and other mega-events have, over the last thirty years, provided something that couldn't be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: the consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan horse is the games people are initially proud to host—until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed-out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh. The countries change, but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and a tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party's over. But in Brazil, they're not waiting until the cameras are gone and the confetti has been swept away. People started protesting in advance— and that immediately made what they were doing historic. To find a similar scenario, you would have to go back to the 1968 mass protests in Mexico City before the Olympics, which ended in tragedy: the slaughter of hundreds of Mexican students and workers. (Remembering the horrors of what is known as "the massacre at Tlatelolco Square" is a way of ensuring that it won't happen again.)

The mass actions of the summer of 2013 exposed the neoliberal theft rooted in the planning and execution of the World Cup. No truer words were said during the protests than those of 1994 Brazilian soccer-star-turned politician Romário: "FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our countryand imposes a state within a state. It's not going to pay taxes, it's going to come, install a circus without paying anything and take everything with it. They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public's money. The money that has been spent on the [one] stadium could have been used to build 150,000 housing units. "The demonstrators swear they will return for the World Cup, but this is a great unknown—the problem with social explosions is that they're unpredictable. But you can be assured that Dilma will use military hardware, drone planes, and preemptive arrests to make sure that any protests are a blip on the international radar.

But something changed in 2013. The protests in Brazil were far more than an expression of extreme anger and disaffection. While polls of mass demonstrations should be taken with a grain of salt, one survey of demonstrators showed that 84 percent don't see themselves as part of any political formation. The protests became a catchall for every grievance under the sun, with World Cup and Olympic spending coming to symbolize an austerity economy beyond the reach of any semblance of democracy. This is both a strength and weakness. It's a strength because the Brazilian people are learning lessons in real time about democracy in the streets: São Paulo city officials even repealed the hated bus fare hike in an effort to quell demonstrators. It also is a weakness, as reactionary forces enter the fray hoping to turn demonstrators against the Workers' Party government and make the protests about "government spending." It's a cheap, opportunistic effort to deflect attention away from the behind-the-scenes corporate feeding frenzy in conjunction with the Workers' Party. The right wing in Brazil has no problem with austerity; it just doesn't like who is administering it. But, as Theresa Williamson, who was among the throngs being tear-gassed, said to me, "It is about individual demands and frustrations that converge into a unified whole. This is a future-oriented movement. If a handful are trying to appropriate it you can bet the movement will get them out. If they don't, things will digress only to evolve in a few years into something even more substantial."

Whatever politics eventually carry the day, it is clear that masses of young people marched with the basic hope that their dreams for a more just and democratic nation would take concrete form. They were acting to reshape their country, with incredible bravery, amid tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades. They took the fight to the stadiums and forced those inside to feel the itch of wafting tear gas in their eyes, hear explosions in the distance, and see the reality of international sports in the age of neoliberalism. Sepp Blatter said, "When the ball starts to roll, people will understand." Indeed, they might. But as the smoke wafts into the Maracanã, they will understand something far different than what Blatter, FIFA, and Rousseff had in mind. They will understand that, in the twenty-first century, the World Cup arrives with a terrible price.

Juca Kfouri, a leading Brazilian sports commentator, said that the protests hold the possibility of waking the world up to the reality of Brazil, not just the Disney image marketed to tourists: "There is a false idea of Brazilian happiness that is based on a wrong assumption that Brazilians do not claim ownership," he said. "But next year, there will be big parties inside the stadiums and big protests outside." When Romário was asked if he thought the demonstrations would return for the Cup, he said, "Not only do I think they will return, I think they should return. There will be a World Cup here next year, we know that. But this, these demonstrations, is the way you make politicians wake up." Then he laughed and said, "This is the way you make people think about whether or not they are going to rob you again tomorrow."


Dave Zirin is the Sports Editor at the Nation Magazine. He hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM and co-hosts The Collision on WPFW with Etan Thomas. Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy is his eighth book about the intersection of sports and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.

Screamer is Deadspin's soccer site. We're @ScreamerDS on Twitter. We'll be partnering with our friends at Howler Magazine throughout the World Cup. Follow them on Twitter, @whatahowler.

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