Brazil Opinion

HOW STUDENT PROTESTS ILLUSTRATE BRAZIL’S POLITICAL CRISIS

These new demonstrations are spontaneous and leaderless, organized by previously non-engaged actors

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student protests brazil

You might have already heard of Ana Júlia Ribeiro. She is a 16-year-old high school student who became an instant political celebrity in Brazil after giving a speech that went viral on social media. Talking before Parana state lawmakers, Ribeiro has defended the occupation of hundreds of public schools in which students such as herself have been protesting the federal government’s recent reforms.

In the speech, after denying links to any political party or mindless ideology, she directly accuses the lawmakers in the room. “You have blood on your hands,” Ribeiro states firmly, referring to the murder of a teenager named Lucas Mota who was killed by police a few days prior during a protest.

After going viral, Ribeiro has been called “the future of Brazil” and “the face” of the occupations. While these titles appear exaggerated and hasty, we don’t have to buy into hyperbolic journalistic simplification to see how the teenager, and the movement she is taking part in, illustrate Brazil’s political climate.

For starters, no one saw this wave of occupations coming. The student protests share key features with the June 2013 demonstrations, the Word Cup protests of 2014, and the pro-impeachment manifestations seen earlier this year. They were all fluid social movements, spontaneous and leaderless, organized not by professional activists, political parties or unions, but by previously non-engaged actors.

Second, it caught Brazil off guard because our news media is going through one of its worst moments in decades. Between Brazil’s deep economic slump and supporting the government in a way unseen since the 1980s, many newspapers and TV shows have chosen to ignore what the students are doing. This is on purpose, of course. And this is bad journalism, the same kind we have had since 2014.

Third, and most importantly, there is nothing partisan about Ribeiro and her cause. Despite what some analysts and politicians might say, the Brazilian crisis is less about the system and its actors than it is about the values upon which our nation should be built.

Unsurprisingly, then, the focus of her speech is not on ideological labels or names, but rather on the rights conferred by Brazil’s Constitution to its citizen. She believes that all Brazilian children deserve a decent public school, as prescribed in the Constitution; that fighting for this cause is in itself a core political right, as also prescribed by the Brazilian Constitution; and that politicians should be held accountable for not defending these rights – which is, of course, prescribed by the Brazilian Constitution as well.

To be sure, Ribeiro, as is the case with many of the young protesters, appears to be a fierce critic of Michel Temer. Not because she is a supporter of the dethroned Workers’ Party (a “petista“) but because Temer’s ideas are a blatant attack on the text of the Constitution itself.

In his very short period as president, Temer has managed to take advice from an ultra-conservative group that suggests children should not be taught any form of “ideology” (meaning “critical thinking”) and is in the process of passing an unprecedented federal spending cap that will even further erode a public educational system that has always been, to be frank, precarious. He is not alone in his attack.

There is a growing movement, led by conservative intellectuals and some individuals in the media, but that is also increasingly populated by the non-educated middle-classes, that sees in our Constitution a kind of communist manifesto. These people don’t like the idea of state-led social justice, which is perhaps the main tenet of our Constitution. They favor instead a form of market-led “meritocracy.” They don’t support redistributive policies, but rather an unregulated job market. They see the plethora of rights secured by our laws as unnecessary and love the notion of punishment for all.

Education is a topic that all citizens seem to have an opinion on. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that this is the field in which the emerging battle over our constitutional values is being fought. What Ribeiro and her movement are demonstrating is that the game is far more complex, and the stakes much higher, than the conservative revolution that the Brazilian elites want us to believe in.