I’m sitting on a bus headed to Rio de Janeiro, recalling my first week abroad.
Yesterday was July 4th, America’s Independence Day. Every year on that day, I try to meditate on how the birth of our nation was provoked by revolution; by rebellion. It was fitting especially after this past weekend in São Paulo.
On Sunday morning, I met a colleague for coffee. The weather was perfect: 80 degrees with a gentle breeze. Avenida Paulista, one of the main streets, is closed to traffic each Sunday so you’re likely to find vendors, locals, tourists, people hanging out and relaxing.
My plan was to visit an art museum that day.
As we walked down Avenida Paulista, we noticed a crowd of about 80-100 people standing still in the street, being protected by police officers. My friend and I were curious and proceeded cautiously.
The crowd shouted in Portuguese, while holding signs. As we got closer, my friend recognized that they were supporters of a Brazilian presidential candidate, who is somewhat infamous in São Paulo.
As the group marched by, we stopped and joined a crowd of onlookers, most of whom were noticeably disturbed by the group’s endorsement of the candidate.
My friend yelled at the protesters in Portuguese, “You’re part of the problem!”
“I can’t help it,” he said to me. “This makes me angry.” He went on to explain that the politician has been known to say egregious things in public, particularly against women.
“He’s like an evil version of Trump,” he said.
We talked a little more about the political climate in São Paulo and everything was fine, until we had to run. Literally.
We witnessed a guy being hit with billy clubs by 4-5 police officers several feet in front of us. He was quickly able to escape and began running down the street only to be followed by the police officers who hopped on their motorcycles. For a moment it looked like they were coming in our direction so we all darted off the sidewalk, going in different directions.
After the police officers disappeared down the street, things seemed to calm down. My friend and I walked a few more feet and noticed more police officers and another group of people.
This time they were teenagers.
The police stood on one side, armed with their plexiglass shields, and the young people stood on the other side unarmed, some with bandanas covering the bottom half of their faces.
They weren’t carrying any signs, I’m not even sure of their cause but they looked like they had done this before, like this wasn’t the first time they were on the opposite side of those plexiglass shields. Their posture was like, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”
Now, I have to explain. My usual strategy when encountering such a situation is to calmly and quickly walk in the other direction before things get out of control. But I was curious about why they were protesting. The environment was intense but didn’t seem to be dangerous. We stuck around for a few minutes to try to understand what was going on. We never learned why the teenagers were protesting but we suspect it has something to do with a financial scandal, which has left students without adequate food in their schools.
I eventually made it to the art museum.