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Rio de Janeiro lawyer gets protesters back

Spurred by police violence - and an acute awareness that he is among Brazil's privileged - lawyer Andre Barros has been working to free demonstrators arrested in the protests that have changed his country for good.

Tall, imposing, white haired, Andre Barros looks every centimeter the successful criminal lawyer he is. Ideas spill out of him. He loves the sound of words. But underneath this establishment veneer, this 47-year-old carioca, or Rio de Janeiro native, is a radical.

Following the wave of spontaneous street protests that has crashed over Brazil, he is one of a group of members of the OAB, the Brazilian Order of Lawyers, in Rio de Janeiro who are working for free to get demonstrators who have been arrested released.

The non-party protests, organized on social networks, have taken Brazil by surprise. "This is a horizontal movement, that grows, that forms itself in this new form of communication which is the internet, Facebook, Twitter," Barros said, leaning back in a taxi as it sped along Ipanema beach, front to yet another protest. "There is no leader."

The protests first began earlier in June as a series of direct actions against bus fare increases, first in Sao Paulo, then in Rio. Police reacted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arbitrary arrests.

"It was completely unnecessary and disproportional violence," Barros said. "There are roots of a very violent police in Brazil." He and other members of the Rio OAB have been volunteering to free demonstrators ever since.

'No World Cup'

As the movement grew, its list of grievances expanded - from transport fares to Brazil's failing health and education services, its endemic political corruption, and the spending on the 2014 World Cup. "There will be no World Cup," is one of the popular chants for demonstrators.

Demonstrators hold a protest in Rio de Janeiro on June 20, 2013 (Photo: Luciana Whitaker)

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the protests

One hundred thousand marched peacefully through central Rio on June 17 - but as the march came to an end, a small group attacked police and invaded the Rio state assembly building, Alerj. Barros worked to get some of 31 people who were arrested released afterwards. None had actually been involved in the invasion, he said.

"None of them had any dangerous object and all of them were arrested for damage to public heritage. I didn't see anyone from a violent organization. Almost all of them were students," he said.

Our taxi came to a halt at the end of a residential street in up-market Leblon, where a small group of protestors were camped outside the house of Rio state governor Sergio Cabral. Barros and two other lawyers gave the protestors advice about their constitutional right to protest.

The young protestors crowded eagerly around the older lawyers and pressed them with questions. Some took notes. Another group held a political discussion meeting by the side of the road. "Thank you for the information," a girl said afterwards.

'A good life amid misery'

Like many, Barros blamed Cabral for giving the order to police to attack a demonstration of at least 300,000 on June 20. As a peaceful march reached a police line near the town hall, fighting broke out - nobody knows why - and police began throwing tear gas indiscriminately into the huge crowd.

I witnessed how police then moved through central areas of Rio like Cinelendia and Lapa, using tear gas and rubber bullets to systematically clear the streets, sending even those who had been demonstrating peacefully running in fear, lighting fires out of rubbish and occasionally throwing rocks as they went.

A demonstrator is shot by rubber bullets as anti-riot police officers charge after clashes erupted during a protest against corruption and price hikes on June 20, 2013, in Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Christophe Simon)

Police shot rubber bullets at demonstrators in Rio

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of police throwing tear gas at bystanders. "I had never seen the police maddened, incandescent, attacking everyone who came in front of them," Barros said. "This shocked me."

He is a member of the PT, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers' Party, which rules Brazil, and has stood unsuccessfully as both a state and federal deputy. "It is in my roots. I also think it is a duty," he said. "I live so well in a country with so much misery." Barros has also acted as lawyer to Brazil's March for Marijuana for years.

Kidnapping at age 3

As a privileged middle class Brazilian, he says he has a duty to work for free for demonstrators. His family opposed the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for decades. "They were very privileged people, who could have turned their backs to the situation in Brazil."

In 1969, with the dictatorship relatively new in power, members of the armed left-wing resistance kidnapped the US ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, in protest. His aunt, Vera Silvia Magalhaes, was one of the kidnapping gang.

Barros, just three years old, took part: his aunt used him as a prop while she posed as a nanny and snooped details of the ambassador's transport routes to pass on to the kidnappers. Elbrick was later released unharmed in a prisoner swap. Magalhaes was later captured, and tortured so badly she ended up in a wheelchair.

"I lived through all the changes, since I was a child. I knew everything and couldn't say anything," he said, eyeing the changing of the police guard at the end of Governor Cabral's street.

Although demonstrations proliferate, they are getting smaller and Brazilian politicians have moved to try and meet some of the protestors' demands.

A demonstrator displays a banner for better education during a protest in a street near the Maracana stadium of Rio de Janeiro on June 30, 2013 (Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba)

The protests have lost some steam since the end of the Confederations Cup, on June 30

The bus fares that triggered demonstrations have been cancelled. President Dilma Rousseff is promising a plebiscite on political reform. A controversial political measure that restricted investigative powers of federal prosecutors has been cancelled.

But whatever happens next, Brazil has changed. No longer will its long-suffering population shrug its shoulders in resignation at yet another corrupt politician. Brazilians have discovered a voice of protest they did not know they had. And both left and right are struggling to deal with a new reality in which social media mobilize more than traditional politics.

"The left is lost, it does not know what is happening," Barros said. "Capitalism at the same time wants to control tools like Facebook. At the same time it creates the very instrument that will mobilize against it."

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