SÃO PAULO—During the lead-in to the World Cup, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a range of social ills highlighted—and exacerbated—by the arrival of Swiss distressed debt shop FIFA. Protesters wanted better health care and education, higher wages, lower transit costs. They wanted the rich and crooked to knock off pillaging the country. They weren't going to get any of those things, of course, and the cops beat the shit out of them for asking. One photographer here I spoke with described the all-or-nothing tactics of the special police. When the order comes down, they go from an at-ease posture to swinging truncheons at any unfortunate bastard who happens to step in front of them. This photographer himself had been stomped.
I saw no stompings on Thursday morning. But the situation did get dicey in São Paulo's Vila Carrão neighborhood, just a few subway stops away from the Corinthians stadium where Brazil would play Croatia in the opening match that night. Vila Carrão is where I shot this video, which isn't what one expects to see when visiting a major sporting event. But it's what's been going down here for months, thanks in no small part to the World Cup.
A little background: The people behind this protest were the transit workers in São Paulo, who had been on strike most of the week, using the start of the tournament as leverage to demand higher wages. They'd originally planned to march on the stadium but decided at the last minute—perhaps after seeing the army that had assembled to deter them, part of Brazil's immense World Cup security force—to stay put in front of their headquarters, waving banners, banging samba drums, and singing chants. They were a peaceful bunch.
But the protests here include a hodgepodge of gripes and groups, from political parties to labor unions. The World Cup gives them an event to hang their complaints on. Members of the PSTV, a far-left group, had joined the transit workers. Also on the scene were Black Bloc anarchists. Not too many of them. Maybe 40 or 50 that you could identify from their black clothing, bandannas, and militant saunter. They didn't join the strikers but loitered on the outskirts of the protest, waiting to make trouble. There might have been more disguised as press. A lot of the media on hand looked suspicious. One guy in full roller-derby gear reminded me of Dynamo from The Running Man. Almost everyone wore helmets and gas masks. I saw none of America's notable soccer writers in the throng. (Perhaps the U.S. Soccer Federation's livery service does not stop at Vila Carrão.)
Sometime around noon, the Black Bloc started trash fires in an intersection near the protest (and right next to a gas station, the goofs). They ripped street signs out of the ground and taunted the police, who were standing behind riot shields, until the cops advanced with tear gas, flash bombs, and rubber bullets. A couple people were injured. One woman had a bullet take a ribbon of flesh out of her forearm. Rodrigo Abd, an AP photographer, had his leg cut up by some kind of shrapnel (I'm guessing from a tear-gas canister). Meanwhile, the transit workers scattered. It all felt avoidable and unfortunate.
Before the anarchists and cops got into it, I spotted a construction worker spreading finishing concrete on the sidewalk near the intersection. He kept working until the last minute, even as a phalanx of cops advanced down the street. Maybe that was his form of protest. After the mayhem died down, the concrete was covered in boot prints.
Luke O'Brien is a Deadspin contributor and a former staff writer. He writes for other places, too.