Tear gas and pointed guns: Inside protests at Confederations Cup

People march toward the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte before a Japan-Mexico match on Saturday.
Felipe Dana/AP

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Its red lights flashing with anger, the half tank, half truck emerged slowly from the haze of tear gas that covered Avenida Alfonso Pena, the main drag of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. It dwarfed the hundred or more black-clad riot police that marched alongside, their shields raised in a solid wall. Every few minutes came the low, flat crump of another tear gas canister being launched. The intended target -- vandals who had been breaking the windows of banks and tearing down security cameras -- fled into the shadows. So did the protesters who had been participating peacefully in the day's demonstration at the city's Mineirão soccer stadium, and ordinary citizens out for a Saturday evening stroll. Same with a group of regular city police officers, coughing and spluttering from the tear gas as they ran into the distance.

Welcome to the home of the World Cup.

The day had started peacefully. Rumors had circulated all week that Saturday's demonstration was going to be the biggest yet in the city, and by 2 p.m. local time, an enormous mass of people had gathered at Praça Sete in the heart of downtown. The festive, optimistic mood was reminiscent of carnaval, although the only music came from the trio elétrico sound truck belting out the national anthem, and very few people were drinking. Faces (and even one dog) were painted green and yellow. Students squatted on the grubby sidewalk, scrawling improvised posters. Smiling parents led young children by the hand. At regular intervals another group of protesters would come streaming in from the north or south to join the throng.

Humberto Vianna, a 49-year-old businessman, was one of the older demonstrators.

"I was here in the 1980s," he said proudly. "Then we were demanding democratic elections. Now we want better public health care and education. We work hard, we pay our taxes, but we get nothing back in return."

When I asked him about the World Cup, his face fell.

"We wanted the World Cup," he said. "But the money being spent on the stadiums is scandalous."

Soon the crowd began to move. The destination was the Mineirão, nine kilometers from Praça Sete, where Mexico was playing Japan in the Confederations Cup. As we walked past the bus station, even the police joined in the fun, helping protesters take pictures and laughing at some of the wittier banners.

These reflected the diverse nature of Brazil's street protests, which began earlier this month over a bus fare increase in São Paulo, but have now sprawled to include a range of grievances. "My love doesn't need a cure, Feliciano," read the banner of one protester, a reference to Marco Feliciano, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the House of Representatives, who is currently promoting research into a "gay cure."

Banners with slogans like "FIFA Standard Education and Health," "Copa = Corrupção" ("The Cup = Corruption") and "New Hospitals, Not New Stadiums" agreed with Humberto's desire for improved public services and criticized the expense of hosting the World Cup.

Some were more general. "Sorry I didn't tidy my room, Dad, but I'm trying to help Brazil," read the poster of one student. Another memorably said "too much s--- to complain about to fit on one poster."

Whatever the motives, the demonstrations have been vast. Over a million people took to the streets Thursday, in towns and cities across the country, and the movement has captured the imagination of all economic classes, something rare in a country as socially divided as Brazil. Woe betide those who choose to criticize what is happening, as Pelé found out this week when suggesting that Brazilians "forget about protesting and support the Seleção." The barrage of criticism he received has still not died, with Romário's infamous comment, "Pelé is a poet ... when he has his mouth shut" never seeming more apposite.

On Friday, President Dilma Rousseff addressed the nation, promising more investment in education, an influx of doctors from overseas to help the health system, a new national public transport strategy and dialogue with demonstration leaders. It is unlikely to stop the protests, which in truth may now be directed at the sense of sloth and institutionalized corruption that pervades the Brazilian political system, rather than any one specific target.

The demonstration wound along the Avenida. We passed under bridges named Viaduto Senegal and Viaduto Républica do Congo. Stretched over one of them was a huge "Fora FIFA" ("FIFA Out") flag. The mood of the marchers remained upbeat, and there was a sense of common purpose. I stopped off to use the bathroom in one bar. "50 centavos," growled the owner. "I'm with the demonstration," I told him. He grinned. "Go on then," he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the bathroom.

Occasionally people would break into chants, or cheer when a passing car or bus honked its horn in support, but mainly the only sound was of quiet, earnest conversation.

"Don't really know," shrugged one protester when I asked him what he planned to do when we reached the Mineirão. I asked him about the police barricades that lay ahead, protecting the FIFA "exclusion zone" around the stadium.

"They won't stop us," he said. "We want to protest at the stadium to show the world what's happening in Brazil."

PHOTOS: Protests in Brazil

Policemen move into position in the street during Saturday's protests in Belo Horizonte.
Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Behind and in front, the road had become a great river of people, stretching into the distance.

As the protests have grown in size, so have levels of violence and vandalism. The windows of stores and banks have been smashed, government buildings invaded, and a minority of protesters have fought with police, who have responded with alarming brutishness. At one protest in São Paulo, seven reporters from the respected Folha de São Paulo newspaper were hit with rubber bullets, and there are many photos of protesters (often young, often female) being sprayed with tear gas at close range.

The sense that Brazil is becoming too volatile has sent FIFA scrambling for the panic button, especially after two of the organization's minibuses were bricked in Salvador. On Thursday night rumors circulated regarding the potential suspension of the Confederations Cup itself, and local journalist Juca Kfouri reported that the Italian squad was feeling unsafe and wanted to leave the country. Sepp Blatter hopped on a plane to Turkey.

Later, perhaps hoping to calm the situation, FIFA spokesman Pekka Odriozola stated that the possibility of canceling the competition had never been discussed.

"We support the right to freedom of expression, but condemn the violence," he said. At the same time, however, FIFA demanded that the Brazilian government increase security by 30 percent at stadiums and hotels used by the organization and the national teams.

Another fear is that, while it is unlikely that the demonstrations will continue until next June, if Brazil cannot find a way to heal its wounds, then they may well return, stronger than ever, around the World Cup.

Before long, the protest reached the police line, a mile or so from the Mineirão. Battalions of riot police blocked the street. The crowd had been 100,000 strong, although many, fearing a confrontation, had gone home. The mood now was tense and the afternoon grew dark. A couple of thousand miles away in Salvador, Neymar and Fred were scoring thrilling goals for Brazil against Italy, but nobody here was thinking about football.

Like many such flashpoints, it is hard to say how or when it started, but suddenly stones and fireworks were raining down from the side of the protesters, many thrown by a minority who had clearly come with the intention of causing trouble. The police responded in kind, firing tear gas deep into the heart of the crowd. General panic ensued.

"Our objective is to avoid any kind of confrontation," said police spokesman Alberto Luís Alves, "but we're also ready to intervene against bandits and vandals."

Eyes burning as the air filled with acrid smoke, a handkerchief clutched to my mouth, I watched as canister after canister of tear gas was launched from behind police lines. Another group of police attacked from the side, amid the undergrowth in the grounds of Belo Horizonte's main university. They were met with a hail of stones.

The crowd was forced back, though improvised missiles continued to be thrown. Eventually, energy began to flag, and the remaining stragglers dispersed. I began the long trudge back to the center of town. At around the halfway point of the journey, a police car passed on the other side of the street. A stone was thrown by a young protester, but dropped far short of its target. The car screeched to a halt, and two policemen jumped out, pointing their guns. Within minutes there were five cars on the scene, and another wave of tear gas broke over the heads of the demonstrators.

I talked to one of them, Raphael, a young trainee lawyer.

"The police response was out of proportion," he said. "I'm against the vandalism, of course, but sometimes it's impossible to just sit on the ground with your arms crossed, like Gandhi or something. The police can be brutal."

It wasn't long until I saw what he meant. The crowd regrouped at Praça Sete, though the carnaval atmosphere of earlier in the day was now just a memory. For some, frustration found its expression in violence, and the air was filled with angry shouting and the sound of breaking glass. Soon the order was given to clear the streets, the riot police moved in, the tear gas poured forth once more, and that giant armored truck rolled down Avenida Alfonso Pena.

It was clearly a good time to go home, but the night was not yet over. As I stood with a group of young protesters near the Palácio das Artes, the city's biggest art gallery, we were suddenly surrounded by riot police. "Get down on the ground now!" screamed one of them, pointing his gun at us from only a few meters away. Terrified, we dropped to the ground, our faces in the dirt. The two girls in the group wept uncontrollably. Eventually we were released, once the police were convinced that we did not represent a major threat. I headed for home. It had been a long night.

James Young writes about Brazilian football for The Independent / Independent on Sunday, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about "love, death and football" in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.

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