Ahead of the 2022 elections, Brazil is now reprising the same dramatic showdown that the United States faced in 2020. As the pandemic intensifies alongside corruption scandals and the unrestrained plundering of Indigenous lands, Jair Bolsonaro’s government faces pressure from the streets and the left wing of the state. But what will it take to unseat him and break out of the patterns that brought him to power?
The parallels between Brazil and the United States run deep. Both are settler colonial states founded on slavery. The United States has largely completed its frontier phase, while Brazil continues to expand extraction efforts into Indigenous territories. In both cases, the state has become a battleground between the far right, represented by Donald Trump and Bolsonaro, and a centrist technocracy seeking to transition to a slightly more “sustainable” and “inclusive” form of capitalism. Globally speaking, these represent competing models regarding how to preserve capitalism in the face of climate change and global economic crisis—barefaced violence versus the likes of the “Green New Deal.” Though Trump narrowly failed to hold on to power in 2020, it is entirely possible that the struggle in Brazil could turn out differently, setting a precedent for the spread of fascism in the 21st century.
Of course, neither of these models points the way out of the current nightmare of exploitation and police violence. If we want to have any hope of changing the world for the better, we have to build social movements outside the logic of reaction and reform. Had there not been four years of intense grassroots struggles under Trump, he would likely have succeeded in holding onto power one way or another—and if those struggles do not continue under Biden and whoever succeeds Bolsonaro, far-right politicians will once again be able to present themselves as the only alternative to the status quo.
In the following report, Brazilian anarchists frame the government’s genocidal approach to COVID-19 in the context of a legacy of military rule, explore the latest wave of combative protests, and show how the institutional left functions as the first line of defense to preserve the existing order. They make the case that the conditions they face can only be fundamentally changed by means of autonomous organization and revolt.
An earlier version of this text appeared in Portuguese here.
Dual Crises, False Hopes
Brazil is facing a dire situation. With no federal plan to vaccinate the population, the COVID-19 death toll—already the highest average in the world at more than 1000 per day—continues to grow.
People across the country are once again taking the streets to face a government more dangerous than the virus. In addition to exacerbating the pandemic, the federal government and Congress are facilitating attacks on Indigenous populations, threatening their continued existence on their lands and turning over what is left of the forests to mining and agribusiness.
At the same time, the opposition within the Senate is leading a Congressional Inquiry Commission (CPI) seeking to prove that the federal government’s negligence was intentionally designed to spread COVID-19, with a particularly deadly impact on poor, Black, and Indigenous people. The investigation has found evidence confirming this, alongside corruption scandals in the purchase of vaccines.
In this context, many people have renewed their hope that the existing institutions might punish those responsible for more than half a million deaths. Yet those who choose to protest in the streets face unions and center-left parties that seek to channel the revolt solely towards improving their prospects the next elections. With our loved ones dying, it makes no sense to wait for verdicts or elections.
Bolsonaro’s administration and the reactionary populist movement around it have doubled down on genocidal and ecocidal responses to the current crises. The institutional left and the “moderate” sectors of the social movements are actively undermining grassroots efforts by attempting to dictate what forms of struggle are legitimate and by cooperating with the state to advance their own political goals. Facing this dual threat, the only way out is through autonomous organization and revolt, as demonstrated by pockets of Indigenous, Black, anarchist, and unaffiliated resistance.
The Institutions Are Functioning—That’s the Problem
Democracy is typically presented as the antithesis of dictatorship and fascism. Yet as we have seen in Spain, Greece, Chile, and elsewhere, these two forms of governance often transition smoothly from one to the other according to the needs of those who rule. The Congressional Inquiry investigations may offer hope to some, but we cannot afford to rely on these sorts of democratic rituals that ultimately exist to lend false legitimacy to a destructive system. Especially in the Americas, where the foundational violence of Black slavery and Indigenous genocide continue in every country, we must confront the problems at their roots.
Copying Donald Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro and his militias are promising to contest the result of the 2022 elections if the electronic system is not replaced by printed ballots. He has appointed more than 6000 active high-ranking military officers, many of them generals, to high civilian government positions—more than the 1964-1985 dictatorship—and bought the support of the Military Police with prestige, immunity for crimes committed on duty, and real estate credits. He is conducting an ongoing campaign to arm his supporters, which has already doubled the number of weapons in circulation in Brazil. Angry gangs of white men help him construct an image of popular support and to threaten the opposition.
There are important parallels here with the political situation in the United States preceding the 2020 elections. During the investigations that began in 2017 and the first Trump impeachment process starting in December 2019, part of the US population waited to see if the institutions would fulfill their promise to punish President Trump. The protests that had taken place against the administration since its inauguration subsided while people waited to see if the authorities would solve the problem. It was only after police murdered George Floyd in May 2020 that the streets again became the main stage for people’s action.
Prominent Democratic Party figures and liberal news outlets like the New York Times accused the insurgent elements of the George Floyd rebellion of frightening the public, offering the perfect image of an “internal enemy” for Trump to use to present himself as a solution to political chaos and the health crisis. However, as it turned out, a significant part of the population identified with the militant protests against police violence and racism, and as a result, Trump’s popularity plummeted.
It was not democratic institutions but rather the courage of the people facing the police and white supremacist militias in the streets that isolated Trump and undermined his political viability, succeeding where every investigation and impeachment had failed. If the few who had no choice but to take action in the streets had been left to fight alone, the far right could have gained even more momentum by occupying the streets alongside the police. Together, police and militias would have gained more legitimacy and control of the situation, helping Trump to dominate the public debate ahead of the election.
To understand Trump and Bolsonaro in the politics of our time, we have to grasp that they do not represent the death of democracy. Rather, they foreground the elements that democratic governments have always shared with fascist regimes: police and prisons, racism and patriarchy, genocide. Winning the popular vote and amassing enough support in parliament to act with impunity have sufficed to enable them to carry out their authoritarian plans. This is explicit in Brazil, where the military faced no consequences for the persecutions, arrests, tortures, disappearances, and murders perpetrated during the last dictatorship.1 Bolsonaro is just the current representative of this project, the “military party” that has controlled the Republic since its foundation in 1889.
Long before he became president, Bolsonaro represented a violent project threatening the freedom and lives of poor and excluded people—but we could not imagine the dimensions that this would assume during the pandemic. With 2.7% of the world population, Brazil already accounts for 13% of COVID-19 deaths globally. Indigenous peoples face not only the pandemic, but also fires in the Amazon and the Pantanal as well as the advance of agribusiness, illegal mining, and unregulated logging. Lawmakers are determined to hand over Indigenous reserves to large estates and extractive projects in the name of GDP growth.
To date, this extermination plan has cost more than half a million lives under the guise of “saving the economy” by packing people into workplaces, schools, and crowded public transit to catch COVID-19. This is not a fringe conspiracy theory about a secret plan to spread the virus. A study of thousands of federal and state laws, conducted by Conectas Human Rights and the University of São Paulo, concluded that the Bolsonaro government had knowingly enabled the pandemic to spread. The CPI investigations also included testimony showing how at least 400,000 deaths could have been avoided if people had taken basic measures to promote prevention.
At the same time, studies attesting to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Indigenous populations have faced institutional censorship, while civil servants who tried to apply health recommendations that have worked around the world have experienced retaliation. Bolsonaro has supported a campaign to boycott vaccinations, promoted ineffective medicines, and, more recently, deliberately delayed purchasing vaccines in order to buy overpriced vaccines through tax havens.
During the CPI, Senator Alessandro Vieira compared the search for those responsible for the deaths in the pandemic to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official responsible for the logistics of Hitler’s concentration camps. Others discussed the city of Manaus during the oxygen crisis in the state of Amazonas, when hundreds of people with severe COVID-19 suffocated in hospitals without care, the dead were buried in mass graves, and, in the phrasing of Senator Otto Alencar, the city was used as a “testing ground” for mass treatment via ineffective drugs like chloroquine.
The investigation in the Senate has attracted the attention of those who do not want to “just wait for the 2022 elections”—they are anxiously awaiting the results, just as millions in the United States waited in vain for Trump to be convicted. But the Brazilian colonial project is more alive than ever: the same Congress that is investigating the Bolsonaro administration is doing nothing to stop the laws that pave the way for the destruction of biomes and peoples.
The Uprising Is for the Earth
Since early June 2021, Indigenous people from at least 25 ethnic groups have been gathering in Brasilia to protest against a bill known as PL 490, which hands over their territories to predatory economic exploitation, weakens Indigenous land rights, and encourages the assimilation of native people who have chosen to live in isolation from whites and urban societies. To assert the right to their lands, Indigenous people will need to prove their ownership status up until the day the 1988 Federal Constitution was passed, at the very end of the dictatorship. This attack on Indigenous peoples is one of the worst of the Bolsonaro administration, but it was drafted in 2007 and advanced considerably under the Workers’ Party. It is a step towards the “point of no return” of devastation in the Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world, which suffered the greatest deforestation of the decade in 2020 and may never fully recover.
On June 8, 800 Indigenous people gathered to pressure the Constitution and Justice Commission (CCJ) of the House of Representatives, which could approve or reject PL/490. At the door of the FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation, the Brazilian government body that establishes and implements policies relating to Indigenous peoples), police attacked the protesters with rubber bullets and other less-lethal munitions while they were gathering and singing traditional songs.
On July 22, the day of the vote on the law, the police again attacked the protesters outside the Chamber of Deputies, who shot back with arrows and hit two policemen. The confrontation postponed the vote to July 23, when it was approved by the majority of lawmakers. The camps in Brasilia persist; as of this writing, they include almost 2000 Indigenous people from 52 ethnic groups.
Police attack Indigenous groups in front of the Chamber.
Chief Kretã Kaingang made a necklace with tear gas canisters fired against Indigenous people in Brasília on July 22.
The Indigenous people who have remained in their territories have organized solidarity actions together with other autonomous movements to support and echo the struggle in Brasilia. On June 25, Guaranis from the Jaraguá Indigenous Land used tires and burning barricades to block highways in São Paulo. On June 28, Guajajaras, Puris, and Xoklengs blocked an avenue in Rio de Janeiro. The Pataxó people in the south of Bahia blockaded the BR101 highway on July 22 to the chants of “Let’s sing, dance the catimbó, to bring Bolsonaro back bound in vines.”
More resistance is expected in August when PL/490 faces the courts. These Indigenous efforts demonstrate that combative actions and solidarity among diverse peoples and movements are fundamental to the struggle against a genocidal state.
“Bahia terra de côco e azeite de dendê A água do côco é doce, eu também quero beber. Vamos cantar, dançar o catimbó, pra trazer o bolsonaro amarrado no cipó.” – “Let’s sing, dance the catimbó, to bring Bolsonaro bound in vines.”
On the morning of Monday, June 28, Indigenous people blocked Avenida Presidente Castelo Branco to protest bill 490.
Criminalizing the Struggle
While the criminal justice system is oppressive under any government, repression targeting ideological opponents has intensified considerably under Bolsonaro. On March 18, in Brasília, Federal Police arrested the PT (Workers’ Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores) militant Rodrigo Pilha for carrying a banner reading “Bolsonaro Genocida” (“Bolsonaro is genocidal”). Pilha was held for more than 100 days until he began a hunger strike protesting isolation, torture, and his continued imprisonment even after being entitled to transfer to a semi-open facility. He and four other defendants are being prosecuted under the National Security Law, a legal remnant from the dictatorship era. Similarly, during protests on July 3 in São Paulo, Matheus Machado was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned for ten days, accused of stealing a police helmet he found on the ground. Machado is free under severe legal conditions. Both were only released after intense public pressure.
These legal devices for targeting protesters are not new tools. Dilma Roussef and the Workers’ Party administration used them in 2013. However, police persecution is advancing and harsher laws are on the way, such as a bill inspired by the Patriot Act written by Bolsonaro himself in 2016 when he was still a congressman.
Another law in the works, PL272, would directly attack social movements by criminalizing strikes and protests and introducing vetoed passages from the Anti-Terrorism Law signed by Dilma Roussef and her Workers’ Party government just before her fall in 2016.
Just as Trump utilized executive privileges that were vastly expanded under Obama, a right-wing government is once again building on the legislative and administrative tools of repression passed by previous administrations further to the left. In this case, the president’s intention to carry out a coup is obvious and long predates his election. If he knows there will be no resistance, this is virtually an invitation for him to go ahead. As he himself claimed, it is the military that “decides whether the people will live in a democracy or a dictatorship.” While military leaders before the Dilma administration generally refrained from commenting on politics and claimed to be “totally committed to democracy,” today they routinely release statements that add to Bolsonaro’s threats. The head of the Air Force reacted to the CPI investigations into the corruption of military personnel by saying that “an armed man does not make threats”—itself a threat.
Bolsonaro’s administration has a well-known penchant for positive references to the Nazis. On July 22, Bolsonaro proudly hosted Beatrix von Storch from the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Storch, the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister Lutz Graf von Krosigk, has already claimed to be in favor of “shooting refugees.” She represents an ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist, and partly neo-Nazi party. When necessary, Bolsonaro and his family draw closer to Israel and religious fundamentalism, but when it’s convenient, he dog-whistles anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi rhetoric.
Bolsonaro hosted Beatrix von Storch from the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) on July 22.
In this context, pro-Bolsonaro populist organizing including rallies, motorcades, and motorcycle rides, alongside militarized police forces and military control of most of the executive branch, represent an authoritarian offensive stretching from the street to the top of the security apparatus and the government. The current rigging of the military police, which was previously controlled at the state level, and the precedent of a coup orchestrated by the police in Bolivia in 2019 make a new Brazilian coup a very real threat.
It would be a terrible mistake not to take the streets the way people have done from north to south, hoping instead to defeat Bolsonaro and his supporters in the 2022 elections or with a conviction through the CPI. Remember, Trump never faced consequences for his crimes from within the institutions, and he only lost the election in a context of widespread revolt. We can’t rely on the parliament that approves the Bolsonaro administration’s projects or the same political and economic elites that opened the doors for Bolsonaro’s militarism. Even if we managed to restore liberal democratic politics that way, that would not eliminate fascism—it would only return with it to the barracks from which it will be recruited again the next time it is useful to the powerful.
The Rebellions of June and July
From May 29 through June and July 2021, social movements and unions called for demonstrations around the country protesting Jair Bolsonaro’s government. These protests brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in major capitals. Many people attended carrying the names and photos of loved ones lost to the pandemic. In many cities, autonomous blocs involving anarchists, Indigenous people, football fans, and anti-fascists took the lead. Some of the protests were combative, involving barricades, blockades, graffiti, and attacks on the property of the wealthy.
At the same time, center-left parties continue to spread the dangerous idea that the 2022 elections offer the only way to get rid of Bolsonaro and his government. Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil) became eligible to run after charges against him were dropped due to lack of evidence; he is a favorite in the polls.
After police brutally attacked a peaceful demonstration on May 29 in Recife with tear gas and rubber bullets, and clashes in São Paulo marked the protests of June 19, these organizations called for a new action for July 24—more than one month later. However, corruption scandals involving top members of the government buying overpriced vaccines imparted a sense of urgency, and the demonstrations were moved to the beginning of July. Capitalizing on renewed hopes that the institutions would come through to handle the crises Bolsonaro has created, the trade union federations, parties, and movements organized by the center-left tried to monopolize control over decisions about when and how the demonstrations would take place.
Many people criticized the attempt to postpone the demonstrations in order to temper the momentum of the participants for fear that it could compromise their electoral agenda. When trade union central committees and political parties decide that everyone must wait more than a month for the next demonstration to protest hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, then opportunistically change their decision when a corruption scandal emerges, they reveal a commitment to the same legalism that enabled the far-right to take power in the first place. Mass murder is part of our daily lives, they are saying—but corruption, now that is unacceptable!
If we want to defend ourselves against such rulers, we have to do it ourselves. Even if we only achieve half victories, like an impeachment or the electoral defeat of Bolsonaro, those will hardly happen without the streets on fire. We must confront the legalistic and centralizing tendencies within our own movements and abandon any desire to govern the revolt. When someone tries to centralize influence over the movement, dividing those who take action in the streets into legitimate and illegitimate actors, the next step is always police repression.
From Centralization to the Peace Police
Many social movements in Brazil claim to be inspired by the recent struggles in Colombia, the United States and Chile, even if they only extract specific aspects out of context—such as the new Chilean constitution or the struggle of the Colombian people to stop Ivan Duque’s tax reform. But the social strength we have seen in those struggles is only possible because a critical mass of the participants respect a diversity of actions on the streets and within each kind of organization.
Just like Workers’ Party militants in their delusions about the 2013 uprising in Brazil, or Democrats in the United States in 2020, the reformist left in Brazil is spreading paranoia that the recent social unrest is the work of “infiltrators.” The outside agitator is the perennial mythical character invoked by those who have never visited a street protest, who fear revolt more than they fear the police. In addition to rejecting the narrative that blames those who rebel for repression, we must also challenge the notion that if we wish to be safe from the pandemic, then rather than protesting, we must stay home—after crowding together at work and on public transport, under the reign of a government that seeks to kill us off!
On June 19, in São Paulo, we saw what happens when we do not confront tendencies towards centralization in social movements that promote electoralism, when members of the MTST (Homeless Workers Movement) physically attacked an autonomous bloc including Indigenous people, unions, individuals, and anarchist collectives. The members of the MTST were trying to break up barricades on the avenue and to report people to the police, repeating the errors of 2014 when they violently unmasked participants in a black bloc and handed them over to police.
Black, Indigenous, and anarchist movements condemned this episode. The MTST is one of the largest movements in the country and it is not fair to judge all the participants, many of whom are also Indigenous and Black. The problem here is structural. Similar incidents recurred in the July 13 protests in Rio de Janeiro, when members of a Stalinist party tried to commandeer the front of the march by expelling the autonomous bloc involving Indigenous people and anarchists, and again on July 24, when members of PCB (the Brazilian Communist Party) made a human chain to expel and assault a group of transgender and homeless people from the squat Casa Nem.
We must never accept those who criminalize protesters or seek to dispute their legitimacy by citing laws and parroting the talking points of the police. It is even worse to actively collaborate with the police, as occurred in São Paulo days before the July 24 demonstration, when representatives of the PCB, the National Union of Students (UNE), the Workers’ Cause Party (PCO), and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) sat down at the table with police to agree on what would happen at the protest, when and where, who would be a legitimate part of the demonstration and who the police should target.
The records of that meeting were published online, exposing the process of criminalizing anarchists and autonomous movements. The movements and parties agreed on using fines to punish demonstrators with opposing ideologies occupying the same area or organizing simultaneous actions. Of course, this would restrict anti-fascists from organizing counter demonstrations against fascists, giving the far right a free pass to attack oppressed people. In signing this agreement, the PCB, PCO, and PSDB became ideologically equivalent in repudiating direct action and the “violent” acts they attribute to infiltrators. They also became complicit in any subsequent police repression.
These attempts to stifle autonomous, Indigenous, and anarchist organizations in the streets show the dangers of hierarchical practices and methods. If people acting autonomously to express their rage over the loss of the dead and the misery of the living are disturbing not only to the police, but also to those marching alongside us, then the movements will likely stifle any rebellion long before the police themselves do. The choice to attack fellow protesters, as well as total silence on the part of the leadership of the groups that perpetrated the attacks, exposes the authoritarianism of the segments of the left that only accept revolt when they can control it. Taking the streets to exert real pressure is not a priority when they seek only to create an image of revolt directed toward the only form of social transformation they see as legitimate: the ballot box.
Note of repudiation by the Rede de Proteção e Resistência ao Genocídio (Network for Protection and Resistance to Genocide) on the action of the MTST.
Peace Cannot Protect Us
Historically, far-right movements like Integralism (an old fascist Brazilian movement) were not stopped by voting or petitioning, but by direct action. We can see this in the episode in 1934 that became known as the “Battle of Praça da Sé,” when anarchists, socialists, and communists broke up an Integralist gathering in downtown São Paulo, stole a police machine gun, and violently dispersed the fascists, burying their movement for decades to come.
In 2020, demonstrators in Brazil realized that direct action was necessary and anti-fascist soccer fans published calls to block right-wing motorcades and rallies, later denouncing racism and police violence. The movement gained momentum and inspiration from the George Floyd protests in the US. Many organizations and public figures said that they would not join the demonstrations and recommended that people stay home, claiming that the demonstrations would “offer the Bolsonaro government the pretext for even greater repression” or even “a coup” (or a “self-coup”). As we saw during the uprisings in the US, this narrative is reactionary, willfully imposing weakness on social movements, as it places the responsibility for repression on the oppressed.
It is foolish to imagine that passivity will mollify authoritarians rather than embolden them. Submission is not an effective strategy against despots like Bolsonaro or Trump.
Movements in the US, Colombia, and Chile have illuminated how we can move forward by breaking the façade of social tranquility, generalizing rebellion and organization across a range of social sectors, and avoiding management and confinement by hierarchical left groups. Of course, we should not settle for concessions. A new constitution in Chile or a police reform in the US might only make it more difficult to pursue meaningful social change in the long run. Still, it is obvious that we will not achieve even a partial victory, such as the immediate fall of Bolsonaro, if the forces that seek to pacify and criminalize the revolt gain ground within our movements.
We are certain that not all the people who participate in a mass popular uprising will be part of a formal organization, nor should they be. Not every form of action is foreseen and planned by social movements. Instead of questioning the “organization” or the “legitimacy” of those who take action, we should ask ourselves how to support them, how to offer tools so that the revolt can become more dangerous, how we can help to build lasting alternatives.
As for the dangers of combative actions in the streets, we recall that on May 29, the Recife police needed no pretext whatsoever to attack a peaceful protest and blind two people who were not even participating. If an organized bloc had been present to protect protesters with shields, keeping the riot police at a distance by combative means as the front lines in Chile and Hong Kong have done, the presence of elderly people, families, and people with reduced mobility would not have served as a pretext to promote pacifism and get beaten by police. According to the “revolutionary clock” of those who seek centralization, control, and pacification, it is never the right time to build barricades and fight back. But when fascism is flourishing, taking over both the streets and the institutions, this is a sign that our clock is running late and fiercer forms of action are long overdue.
Dismantling fascism involves disrupting its grassroots organization, blocking its marches and rallies so that they can’t occupy the streets to recruit more members, and neutralizing its strategies for spreading its ideology. The actions of June and July show that thousands of people are willing to take the streets and impose consequences on the rich and powerful. Indigenous peoples have been organizing against the most destructive government they have faced in decades; they show a willingness to build popular and radical alliances.
As a result of the dialogue between social struggles in the city, countryside, and Indigenous lands, on July 24, the day of the last great national protest against Bolsonaro that month, people set fire to a statue of the pioneer Borba Gato, a symbol of wealth built on Indigenous extermination and black slavery. In an action signed by the Revolução Periférica collective, people surrounded the 42-foot statue with burning tires. Some activists accused of participating in the group were arrested a few days later, including Paulo Galo, a member of the Entregadores Antifascistas (an antifascist delivery workers’ informal organization) and his wife Géssica Barbosa. Barbosa was released on July 30, but Galo remains illegally imprisoned.
When we occupy the streets en masse, learning from our mistakes and successes, sharing tools for resistance and self-defense, we advance further towards our revolutionary goals than when we count on leaders and bureaucrats to do the work for us. Now, in the face of crises that are continuing to worsen, some on the left would back down and give in to the delusion that this murderous government can correct itself via its own institutional mechnisms. The opposite is true. We must fight even harder, more intelligently, and more creatively for the new world we carry in our hearts.
Let us be the ones who build the barricades in the streets to confront fascism, not the pacifying hands that tear them down.
The first criminal conviction of an officer from the dictatorship occurred in 2021, 36 years after the regime’s end, when one Civil Police chief was sentenced to two years in a “semi-open” facility (essentially a halfway house without fences or guards) for kidnapping and imprisonment. ↩