1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 BY RAFAEL DAVIS PORTELA

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If until recently collective transportation was not recognized as a significant urban matter, today it is an inescapable issue. What caused such a change?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In August 31st, 2016, Brazilian Senate voted for the permanent removal of President Dilma Rousseff from her office, ending a 9-months long process and opening a moment of uncertainty about the country’s future. Even though she was considered guilty of responsibility crimes and management misconduct regarding the federal budget, political reasons were behind the impeachment. The process was only possible due to a record-low popularity, in constant decline since 2013, when she hold the record-high approval rate of all modern Brazilian presidents.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the middle of those two opposite records are the Jornadas de Junho de 2013, a series of protests to the rise of the bus fare in São Paulo, organized by the Movimento Passe Livre – MPL (The Free Fare Movement), which turned into the largest popular mobilizations in Brazilian history, with millions of people occupying the streets of hundreds cities. The Jornadas de Junho are now object of hot debates about its political direction, and even within progressives, it is as easy to find people that despise it as those who celebrate it. However, almost everyone agrees on their importance: those movements completely shook Brazilian society, economy, and politics and it is not possible to understand the extent of those consequences yet. The size and manifest importance of those demonstrations brought unprecedented attention to the MPL – until then a small organization, practically unknown outside of the activist circuit.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The MPL was the product of a new cycle of protests that began in the Revolta do Buzú of 2003 in Salvador 2003 and spread to capitals all over the country, peaking in 2013. The Revolta do Buzú was surely an important landmark for the recent developments, but it was not the first case. The many students on the streets those days probably didn’t know that exactly 30 years earlier, thousands of people (many of them, perhaps their parents!) spent days burning and destroying buses and running from the police on the very same streets of Salvador. The episode is known as the “bus destructions of 1981”, a massive movement that spread to the city and terrorized authorities for some days. The story of protests goes even further back: in Salvador, there are records of small protests, riots, and rebellions involving collective transportation throughout the twentieth century – they are almost as old as the transportation system itself. In 1901, four years after the inauguration of the electric trams, a streetcar derailed and tipped over, hurting some of the passengers, most of them students from the Medicine College of Bahia who had just left their classes. Probably angry with the lack of security of that transport, some of the students threw rocks at the streetcar and threatened to attack the driver. In 1930, the largest riot of Old Republics Salvador started once again as a protest the conditions of transportation. This time, the episode lasted some few hours, during which hundreds of people destroyed not only trams but offices, workshops, and buildings that were related to the company that ran the tram system. Even the building of the largest newspaper was a target; protesters destroyed the office and equipment because the journal had protected the tram company in their editorial line.[1]


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 However, something new was indeed taking place in 2003. Before that, massive protests involving transportation were mostly spontaneous and unplanned. In most cases, dissatisfaction accumulated with the transportation system boiled up and erupted after some episode, either an accident or a new increase in the fare price. Those protests were intrinsically reactive, and they did not discuss how the system worked or produced political alternatives for transportation. The lack of access to traditional political channels made them opt to violence as the primary language and as a way of making their dissatisfaction visible.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 The Revolta do Buzú radically departed from that. In August 2003 after an attempt to increase the fare of the buses, an estimated number of forty thousand students started stopping the buses all over the city and blocking the traffic in strategic spots through almost all month. It was a spontaneous movement, peaceful, with few cases of attacks against property, and mainly composed of the poor black youth of the periphery, even though middle-class students from private schools also joined. Due to the size of the movement and the support of the population, it became difficult for the authorities to repress or contain the rebellion. For weeks, thousands of students managed to stop the city’s functioning literally. Every day, teenagers jumped the walls of their schools and went to the streets to impede buses from circulating and controlling the flow of the cars as well. They solved the lack of access to the cities decisions by occupying the streets and creating their power right there.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 They weren’t following the traditions of Brazilian student movement, which had a defined structure with a clear hierarchy and carefully planned political protests. That did not mean that they were in any sense disorganized, though. Assemblies and informal meetings took place on the street, with decisions made at the very moment of the movement’s actions. Manoel Nascimento, a sociologist that participated in the movement, later described it as “not only a student movement; it was a social movement, a class movement, […] in which the transportation demand catalyzed many social dissatisfactions. [..] The sons and daughters of the population affected by unemployment, precarious labor or progressive impoverishment were the main protagonists of the Revolta do Buzú.”[2] At some point, student entities as the UEB (Student Union of Bahia) called themselves representatives of the movement and went to negotiate with the city hall and the owners of the transport companies. They ended up accepting the rise of the fare in trade of some changes in the rules regarding half-fare for students. A large part of the movement rejected the agreement and kept blocking the streets. The media and the government tried to confuse the population telling that the most of the students had accepted the negotiation, while the police started to repress those who haven’t until the movement lost its breath.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Revolta do Buzú became a major reference for student activists of the whole country, who embraced the principles and strategies that took place in Salvador and started to create circles of activists for transportation. They went to high schools and broadcasted a documentary about Revolta do Buzú to form new activists to join the fight. They highlighted the aspects of the democratic practices, the horizontality of the movement and its autonomy from traditional parties and organizations.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 They would soon be able to put that into practice. In 2004 students from Florianópolis reacted to a fare hike by blocking the bridges that give access to the island using the same tactics students from Salvador did the year before. The geography of the city helped them become highly effective – interrupting the traffic on the bridges almost entirely closed the access to the city. The students defeated the government, and in the future, they would even conquer free pass for students. In 2005, they felt that the number of groups around the country was big enough to take a step forward, so they gathered at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and founded the MPL. The movement kept spreading and protesting in any opportunity they got, until 2013.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 The Jornadas de Junho started after the government of São Paulo announced an increase of 20 cents on the bus fare. Some hundred people, mostly youths, led by a small group of activists of the MPL went to the streets to protest. Every day they chanted “tomorrow is gonna be bigger,” and reality tended to agree with them. The brutal police repression hit even journalism from big media, gave popularity to the demonstrations and attracted much more people. Soon, students were no longer the majority, and there were millions on the street, most of them workers of precarious jobs, which answered to the students call and went to the streets with many different demands, from better public services to protests to the World Cup. The government was forced to back off and give up the raise.


12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The members of the MPL saw themselves in the spotlight, as everyone wanted to understand how a little-known group composed of a handful of students defeated the biggest Brazilian concentration of power. What were those demands that echoed so powerfully on the ears of millions and made them face confrontation with the police to raise banners saying “it is not just about 20 cents”? MPL answered with a manifesto, published soon after June: “It did not start in Salvador; it is not going to end in São Paulo.”[3] They sought to connect the recent story of struggles to an old Brazilian tradition of protests. By doing that, the movement tried to avoid people seeing them seen as something entirely new and possibly ephemeral.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The first thing to notice from their manifest is the absence of “public” as a central category. Why is that so? Even though they did not discuss that, I suggest here that in the context of Brazilian urban transportation, the idea of public would be the less radical option for their political project. But first, let’s understand how the notion of public services can be problematic when applied to transportation.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 In the article “Back to the Future?: The Curious Case of ‘Public’ Services”, David A. McDonald analyzed the history of services like water, electricity, and sanitation in the U.S. Those had a history full of comes and goes, from private services to municipalization, nationalization, privatization again and recent attempts of re-municipalization and renationalization.  He purposely put a quote on “public” on the title, to show how that category can be misleading. Accepted notions of “public service” are complicated, ambiguous and contradictory, and the definitions of public and private can many times overlap. Therefore, the characterization of a service as “public,” McDonald argues, is insufficient to understand who operates them and what are the interests at stake. The operations of those systems in their different eras have more similarities than differences, and “so-called public services can operate much the same way as private companies, celebrating their public status when the situation demands and exploiting their private potential when it does not.”[4]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The reality of the “public systems” is too diverse and complex to be described by the binary public-private. What we call public can be an “intricate web of private individuals and organizations, all with an influence on collective outcomes.”[5] Modern forms of government ownership described by the notion of corporatization help complicating that issue. Agencies described as parastatal are fully owned and operated by the state but have different levels of autonomy and tend to deal with public services with market-oriented principles that are much like private owned companies.[6] Carina van Rooyen and David Hall got to the same conclusion in “Public is as Private does: The Confused Case of Rand Water in South Africa.”[7] They showed how corporatization also works on a transnational level. Agencies and entities that defend a public status in their home country attempt to privatize those same services overseas. For protestors in South Africa, those public companies and agencies were perceived exactly like any other multinational corporation.


16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Brazilian constitution defines collective urban transport as an “essential public service that should be provided directly by the municipality, or in regime of concession under municipal inspection.”[8] Concession of public services is not a new idea, and the World Bank advocates them as the solution for increasing the efficiency of the public transport, by introducing a “carefully managed competition, in which the government role of regulator complements the private role of service provider.”[9] In practice, the current model of urban transport requires investments so high that the profitability relies upon the establishment of monopolies, and all of the managing tasks are in the hands of private companies’ workers. That is possibly the reason why people don’t use as much the term “public transport” as they do with “collective transport.” In some states, it is common to see people informally calling the bus “o coletivo.”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Since there is no competition, the price of the fare has to be the same for all buses in the city, independently of the company that controls the line. Companies organize themselves in an employers’ union called SETPS, which is responsible for negotiating a “fair” price with the municipality, taking into consideration the costs and a reasonable profit rate. However, those calculations are never opened to the public. In the attempt to maximize the profits, those private companies push for steady increases in the fare that are many times above inflation without bringing any sensitive improvements to the system, counting that the government is going to turn the blind eye – which it usually does. When SETPS decide that it is time to “adjust” the fare, the government even helps them to convince society that the increase is fair and needed. In case of protests, the government puts the repressor apparatus at the disposal of those companies and use their space in the media to defame the protestors.


18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 No wonder the MPL do not buy the “public” discourse when public mostly means “government control.” It is very clear to them that the government takes side, and it is not theirs. The protests are “the voices of the street,” the expression of anger against a system that treats people as objects instead of subjects, and that is not made for people, but for profit. The goal is not to serve users and allow citizens to move around the city, but to allow circulation of capital.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 For MPL, collective transport should not be treated as a commodity, because it is a right. And it is not any right. Transport is a transversal issue that relates to all other urban issues – it is the right that enables many other rights. If one does not have access to transport, one cannot access health, education or leisure. As they picture it, putting turnstiles on buses represents putting turnstiles on the whole city. That is why they believe transport should be more than public; it should be free, universally accessible and with decent quality. Those were the demands that resonated with the multitude and made them join the movement. In the article called “It’s the urban issue, stupid!”, Ermínia Maricato argues that the MPL managed to express a general discomfort about urban issues in general. Even though Brazil had experienced some years of growing incomes and decreasing unemployment levels, “the life in Brazilian cities have got much worst,” with chaotic transit, insecurity, and lousy public equipment.[10]

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Years of economic growth had not turned into collective benefits. The government had spent most of the increased collection in the interest of privates. In the case of transportation, the budget kept being highly unequal, with most of the investments flowing to car owners, a minority of the society, which were benefited with reduced taxes and credit programs to keep changing their automobiles. Meanwhile, the rest of the population had to suffer in buses that got every day more crowded and traffic jams that skyrocketed the average commute to work to more than four hours a day. That is the main issue of the celebrated David Harvey’s article “The right of the City,” which is a huge reference for the MPL. Harvey discusses how the urbanization is vital to capitalism to develop because it absorbs the surplus that it need to produce perpetually. For him, the idea of the right to the city can be used to unify different struggles that have the city as their locus to become a big battle for the right to control the utilization of that surplus. The urban movements can be help leading a working class that is fragmented and divided, multiple in its aims and needs “often itinerant, disorganized and fluid rather than solidly implanted.”[11]

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 That is the crucial issue for MPL. The struggle for free transportation as a right is, therefore, a fight for the right to the city. It matters who controls the transport, but not so much if the state, private companies or both control it. Because if it is controlled from above, the socially produced wealth is going to benefit private, not the collective. What matters is if it is controlled by the workers/for the workers or not. And that is why they take the streets. The retake of urban space is a goal but is also a method. By occupying the streets and deciding when to block and when to free the traffic, people are collectively organizing the city and their daily lives. In the process of struggle, they experience the concrete practice of popular organization. When millions of people defeated the government and reversed the raise, they momentarily assumed the political control of transport management. For some weeks, the transport system was not the government’s, nor private; it belonged to the collective on the streets. And that scared state and private managers more than any other thing.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 That is the reason why MPL don’t emphasize the public aspect in their demands. To only ask for public it would be to remove the potential radicalism that the issue of transport has.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Footnotes

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [1] On the rebellions mentioned above, Mário Santos, A República do Povo: Sobrevivência e Tensão, Salvador, 1890-1930 (Salvador: Edufba, 2001) and Fundação Pedro Calmon, O Quebra Bondes na cidade de Salvador, 1930 (n/d, www.youtube.com viewed on May, 5th 2017); Edemir Brasil Ferreira, A Multidão Rouba a Cena: O Quebra-quebra em Salvador – 1981” (Master Thesis, Universidade Federal da Bahia, 2008); Manoel Nascimento, “Teses Sobre a Revolta do Buzú”, Passa Palavra;

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [2] Nascimento, “Teses Sobre a Revolta do Buzú”.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [3] Movimento Passe Livre – SP, “Não começou em Salvador, não vai terminar em São Paulo,” in Cidades Rebeldes: Passe Livre e as Manifestações que Tomaram as Ruas do Brasil ed. Ermínia Maricato et al. (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [4] David A. McDonald, “Back to the Future?: The Curious Case of ‘Public’ Services” in Remaking the Urban Social Contract ed. Michael A. Pagano (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 49.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [5] McDonald, “Back to the Future?”, 50.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [6] McDonald and Ruiters, Alternatives to privatization

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [7] Carina van Rooyen and David Hall, “Public is as Private Does: The Confused Case of Rand Water in South Africa,” Municipal Services Project, Occasional Paper Series 15 (2007), 86.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [8] Constituicao, artigo 30 V BRASIL. Constituição (1988). Constituição da República Federativa do Brasil. Artigo 30, Parágrafo V. Brasília, DF, Senado.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [9] Vainer apud Manoel Nascimento, “Transporte coletivo urbano e luta de classes: um panorama da questão” Cadernos do CEAS 226 (2007) 57-84.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 [10] Ermínia Maricato, “É a questão urbana, estúpido!” in Cidades Rebeldes.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 [11] David Harvey, “The right to the city”, New Left Review (53): 2008; Lefebvre apud David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012).

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