The new reality of covering Brazil protests
In hindsight, it is clear that the sword of Damocles has been hanging over all our heads for some time now; ever since a small army of “citizen” journalists emerged decked out with inexpensive cameras, low cost computers and a remarkably fast and cheap media outlet, the Internet.
Only who knew of the potential for catastrophe?
I have had a sense that things might not be quite so right for the last few months, while covering protests in Brazil.
These days protest marches there have dwindled. . Violence and vandalism on the part of some demonstrators, met with ever-harsher police responses, seems to have dimmed the enthusiasm of the huge crowds of people who took to the streets a year ago.
Now that the World Cup has arrived, all that remains is a loose coalition of union members, small political parties and a group of neo-anarchists known as the Black Bloc that continues to believe in confrontation, often with rocks and petrol bombs aimed at police and symbols of the establishment.
In inverse proportion to the shrinking protest numbers, police presence has dramatically increased under the auspices of the football tournament.
They also have taken the offensive, liberally interpreting two already-controversial laws, one aimed at international criminal organizations and another that bans covering the face in protests which was clearly intended for the Black Bloc, not the majority of peaceful protests.
Using the first law, police have been surrounding protestors before they even gather to protest, searching backpacks, shoes and pockets, then moving on to full, groping, body-frisks, visible to everyone.
Under the pretext of the second law, police swooped in and arrested five of six women who were banging on cans, not because they were wearing masks or scarves, but because their faces were painted.
Uniformed cops have also been walking through the marches with large video cameras, pointing them at absolutely everyone. Given the prevalence of facial recognition software and considering the fact that Brazil was under an infamously brutal military dictatorship within living memory, such camera presence is highly provocative and intimidating.
In Rio, the day the Cup tournament began, the police camera followed a small group of Black Bloc youths after the march had finished. Despite the fact that the Bloc had kept its promise not to use violence, police grabbed one out of the group for arrest.
A throng of mostly media and some protestors descended and a predictable melee broke out.
There were more cameras than on Hollywood’s Oscar night shoved into cops’ faces: video cameras and phone cameras, cameras on hats, cameras on poles, and cameras transmitting live across the internet. There was pushing and clamouring. Insults were hurled along with some spit and a rock or two.
Of course gas, noise grenades, spray and batons came out too.
Some among the crowd were shouting, “Press, press… take it easy.” Others screamed, “We out number them! Let’s get them.” But who was who?
In that moment everyone’s face was covered for protection against eye-and-skin-burning chemicals
Who were peaceful protestors? Who were the violent ones? Who claiming to be press was also screaming insults and agitating for an assault? How was a cop to tell?
It was in that moment that I realized how things might cut in a very bad direction. It also occurred to me that some may want it this way, enough to plant provocateurs.
How close were we to having guns drawn on us? Police hands were on holsters, eyes shifting revealing internal panic . One wrong move, a stumble, a push, is all it would take.
Three days later, in two separate incidents, police actually did draw their guns and fired in the air. How long before a barrel is lowered?
To be clear, it’s not the threat to my own physical safety that has me so alarmed, but the realization that in that moment the core principles of freedom to assemble, speak, inform, and be informed, swayed on the edge of an abyss, a situation created, ironically, by the swarm of press and protestors with cameras.
Under the circumstances, and with all the lines so blurred, who would be accountable? It likely would not take too many protests ending in mayhem or death for some to claim protests should not be allowed in the streets. Then what? Would there be “protest zones” like in the United States with checkpoints, searches, frisks and photographs, banning dissent in any meaningful way?