The conflict of middle classes in the Brazilian youth-led protests

Text originally published in Finnish in August, 2013 at the Nuorisotutkimus lehti (3/2013). 

Last June citizens formed the biggest mass demonstrations of Brazil since the end of dictatorship in 1985. Who were the protesters? The consensus between Brazilian and foreign analysts points to the middle class youth. This explanation is problematic. Indeed it is true that most on the streets were young people who had never protested on the streets before. They were mobilized on social networks online to get off the chair and go to the streets with the hope of changing a highly corrupt and unfair country. But the emphasis on middle class is too simplistic.

I contend that characterizing the Brazilian protests solely as the reaction of an apparently homogenous middle class youth gives a wrong sense of unity to a very diverse and conflicting movement. This is the impression I got during my research fieldwork in Rio. I had the chance of looking at the birth, growth and fragmentation of the demonstrations by observing the participation of young activists from favelas (Brazilian kinds of slums) on the protests.

In economic terms, Brazil has had a growing middle class for over ten years. At the end of 2012, for example, the Brazilian government celebrated that the middle class represented 52% of a population of 194 million. Part of this success is due to how middle class is defined. According to the government, middle class is the segment of Brazilians who have a monthly income between 291 and 1019 reais per capita [1]. The problem is that in Brazil these numbers represent a vast gap between the lowest and highest income within middle class. Thus, the disparity of quality of life inside an apparent homogenous category is immense.

In Brazil, we talk about an “old middle class” and a “new middle class.” The old middle class is formed by people who have comfortable standards of living and are on the upper part of social hierarchies. What does that mean in daily life? Being part of the old middle class youth often means being in lighter-skinned families in which parents can afford basic services from the private sector without sacrificing their own well-being for the sake of their children. For example, old middle class youngsters study in good-quality private schools and in foreign language courses, are better prepared to succeed in the tough public university admission tests, are fully covered by private health insurance, have access and time to enjoy quality leisure, live in safe and well-structured neighborhoods, do not depend on the chaotic public transportation system, and do not need to work before university is over.

The new middle class is best described by the word “sacrifice.” Families often make big efforts to remain above the poverty line. So, what is their life like? New middle class youngsters are often members of darker-skinned working-class families in which parents give up their own well-being for investing in the future of their children. The goal is to prevent the children from depending on the precarious public sector. For example, new middle class youngsters often study in public schools or cheap private schools. University is a dream often postponed so that youngsters can work either to support the household income or to have financial independence. Healthcare depends on the public hospital system or on cheap health insurances. Housing is either in neighborhoods with low-quality urban infrastructure and little security (e.g. in favelas and peripheral neighborhoods) or in better-quality neighborhoods far from the center. In most cases, new middle class youth spends long hours commuting to school or work.

What does the distinction between old and new middle classes tell about the demonstrations in June? Analysts explain the mass demonstrations were reactions of the middle class youth. But which middle class? A poll, conducted in São Paulo, showed that 77% of the protesters were university students . The lighter-skin shade of the crowds made it clear to me that the protesters in Rio were mostly old middle class and better-off new middle class youth. On the one day I decided to join the protests, I had a hard time spotting other black people besides me in the crowd. The few others I saw also seemed to have university background. That indicates that lower-income young people were not present as masses during the demonstrations.

The lower-income new middle class and the poor were represented mostly by people who had been involved in activism before the mass demonstrations started. In socially unequal Brazil, the problems and demands of the well-off can be quite different from the lower-income social groups. How did the young activists from favelas perceive the demonstrations dominated by youth from completely different social backgrounds? I use the chronology of the mass demonstrations to reflect on this question. The class disparity within the movement is a backdrop to the analysis of how the demonstrations started with a target consensus, how they grew in diversity of demands and how they ended in ideological conflict.

One month before the demonstrations started, I arrived in Rio to conduct my fieldwork. My research focuses on the experiences of young people from favelas who had participated NGO media education projects and now use media technologies for activism. One year before, I was in the city to get familiar with youth-oriented projects that teach photography, journalism and other media-related activities for social change. This year, my goal was to meet and interview former participants who are now young favela activists. The dozen activists I interviewed all follow a leftist orientation cultivated both in the classes and in the relationships built during the NGO projects. Most of them are engaged in defending human rights in favelas of Rio.

In Rio I quickly noticed the main concern of the young activists: the mobilization of other favela dwellers. Two days after landing, I attended a debate about public security organized by some of my interviewees in an NGO inside a favela. Despite their hard work to advertise the event in the local community, most in the room were university students and civic actors who lived outside favelas. A few days later I interviewed a 26-year-old favela photographer and activist who described his plan for a short movie. In the film, a man organizes a demonstration in Facebook and thousands confirm presence. But when the day comes, only the organizer goes to the street. The debate and the film plan indicate a big challenge expressed by most of my interviewees: how to mobilize more people to participate in political events and demonstrations?

The concern gave room to excitement when the demonstrations started. In early June, demonstrations were articulated in different cities to protest against the hike in transportation fares. At that stage students, youth of left-wing parties and young activists joined forces on the streets. Most of them are often left-oriented youth of the old middle class. Activists from favelas were also present when the crowds were still in the hundreds. At that point, it seemed the different groups turned the transportation fares into a common flag. As part of the governmental response, the police abused truculence, rubber bullets and pepper spray to clear the streets. The mainstream media supported the violent reaction of the State by emphasizing the public disturbance caused by the protests. In social media, however, the images of young unarmed people being beaten circulated with the hashtag vem pra rua (come to the streets).

The #vemprarua call worked. The demonstrations articulated in Facebook attracted thousands in many cities all over the country. In all sites, protester-made videos and photos circulated online to denounce the police violence. After some journalists were beaten by the police, mainstream media started portraying the demonstrations in a more positive light. The feeling of general excitement shared online and the supportive coverage of the protests led a high number of well-off middle class youth to claim the streets for the first time in their lives. Posters on the streets and hashtags online announced with joy: o gigante acordou (the giant – the people – has woken up). Governments tried to control the crowds by canceling the raise in transportation fares. That was too late. Posters and hashtags informed the clueless governors: não são só 20 centavos (it is not only about 20 cents). Until this point, the young activists from favelas I met were excited and very participative in the demonstrations.

When the transportation fares were reduced, the demonstrations had already turned into a diversity of demands. The majority of first-time better-off youth on the streets embarked on urges against corruption at the city, state and national levels. They called for innumerable actions to investigate the excessive costs of the sports mega-events, to prosecute corrupt politicians and to reform Brazilian representative politics. They also demanded good-quality public hospitals and schools. The left-oriented old middle class youth supported those general calls and added some of their own agendas, e.g., against the capitalist system.

The young favela activists also joined that general civic chorus, but started to make a more specific set of claims. Their posters and hashtags questioned the new-born civic interest of the majority: O gigante acordou? A favela nunca dormiu (The giant woke up? The favelas have never slept). That alludes both to their constant struggles for human rights and to the armed conflicts on favela nights. They also specified mobilizing calls: vem pra rua, morador (come to the streets, favela dwellers). At that point, the initial excitement of my interviewees had turned into concern. For them, despite the calls for good-quality public services, the demonstrations were going too much “to the right” towards the interests of economic elites.

The diversity of demands soon turned into ideological conflicts. The mainstream media framed the demonstrations as a majority of peaceful protesters and a minority of violent vandals. Most of the coverage focused on the clashes between the police and more radical protesters. The dichotomy between the peaceful protesters and the vandals reflected on the demonstrations. The posters, shouts and hashtags of the majority of well-off first-timers demanded: sem violência (no violence), sem partido (no political parties) and occasionally Fora Dilma (Dilma out) – a call for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, often seen by well-off people as part of a corrupt and populist government. As a consequence, the leftist youth and other experienced civic actors – who started the demonstrations and had more conflicting modes of action – were targeted with intolerance, sometimes even violence, by a crowd that saw them as supportive of the government and even part of the corrupted political system.

At that point, the young activists from favelas were resistant and critical to the demonstrations. For them, the majority of well-off youth on the streets reflected the Brazilian elites who support policies that generate or maintain the social injustice against the poor. On June 20th, some young activists I had interviewed were helping to coordinate a “favela sector” inside the mass demonstration in Rio. They wanted to focus on their own priorities, e.g., against the everyday police violence, the neglect of the state and the arbitrary evictions of families before the sports mega-events. On that date, Rio had the largest demonstration in the country. Some observers estimated that at least 1 million people marched across the city center towards the city hall. It was also the day which had one of the most violent conflicts with the police. I was there, but left before the conflicts started. I arrived home very concerned both about the conflicts among protesters and about the way part of the demonstration resembled a party for university students. On Facebook, the young activists from favelas shared a similar impression. One wrote that the anger of the people could not be turned into a carnaval party. Others displayed sadness to realize that the well-off elites had taken over the people’s protests. Another was angry after seeing a group that shouted sem partido attacking homeless and landless organized protesters.

After June 20th, the mass demonstrations gradually lost strength. The well-off majority left the streets after both seeming satisfied about the politicians’ reactions and also being fearful of the violent conflicts. But their interest in political issues has apparently grown and their engagement continues online. The leftist old middle class youth remains articulating protests online and claiming the streets, but now back to smaller demonstrations against more local problems. Some of the young favela activists are involved in these protests especially because they challenge security and housing policies of the city and state governments of Rio. In addition, these activists have also returned to their own community-based activism promoting civic awareness and looking for solutions to mobilize other favela dwellers.

It is difficult to say whether or when other youth-led mass demonstrations will happen in Brazil again. My guess is that the general dissatisfaction with the preparations to the sports mega-events will motivate the youth from different social classes to protest again during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But more important than trying to predict the future is to pay attention to what is happening now. In that sense, the ongoing youth civic engagement in Brazil tells a lot about social hierarchies and class disparities in the country. The demonstrations displayed a set of complexities that unfortunately has not been deeply debated because of the simplistic definition of middle class. I believe the growing youth protests in Brazil and around the globe deserve to be scrutinized much more by what the actions mean for the actors themselves – young people of different social classes – rather than accepting ready-made economics-based explanations for why people from different social backgrounds claim the streets together.

[1] The values represent the household income divided by the number of people in the family. According to the currency rate of August 8th 2013, the values are equivalent to €91 and €356.