Rio de Janeiro • More than half a million Brazilians poured into the streets of at least 80 cities Thursday in demonstrations that saw violent clashes and renewed calls for an end to government corruption and demands for better public services.
Riot police battled protesters in at least five cities, with some of the most intense clashes happening in Rio de Janeiro, where an estimated 300,000 demonstrators swarmed into the seaside city’s central area.
Young men gathered in clumps in Rio, T-shirts wrapped around their faces, throwing tear gas canisters back at police, some of whom raced after troublemakers on their motorcycles. Thundering booms echoed off stately colonial buildings as rubber bullets and the gas were fired at fleeing crowds.
At least 30 people were injured in Rio, including protesters like Michele Menezes, a wisp of a woman whose youthful face and braces belie her 26 years. She said that she and others took refuge from the violence in an open bar, only to have a police officer toss a tear gas canister inside.
It exploded on top of Menezes, tore through her jeans and dug out two quarter-sized holes on the back of her thighs while also perforating a rash of small holes in her upper arm.
“I was leaving a peaceful protest and it’s not the thugs that attack me but the police themselves,” said Menezes, removing her wire-rim glasses to wipe her bloodshot eyes.
She later took refuge in a hotel along with about two dozen youths, families and others said they had been repeatedly hit with pepper spray by motorcycle police as they too took refuge inside a bar.
In Brasilia, police struggled to keep hundreds of protesters from invading the Foreign Ministry, outside of which protesters lit a small fire. Other government buildings were attacked around the capital’s central esplanade. There, too, police resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets in attempts to scatter the crowds.
Clashes were also reported in the Amazon jungle city of Belem, in Porto Alegre in the south, in the university town Campinas north of Sao Paulo and in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador.
“This was meant to be a peaceful demonstration and it is,” said artist Wanderlei Costa, 33, in Brasilia. “It’s a shame some people cause trouble when there is a much bigger message behind this movement. Brazil needs to change, not only on the government level, but also on the grass roots level. We have to learn to demonstrate without violence.”
The protests took place one week after a violent police crackdown on a much smaller protests in Sao Paulo galvanized Brazilians to take to the streets.
The unrest is hitting the nation as it hosts the Confederations Cup football tournament with tens of thousands of foreign visitors in attendance. It also comes one month before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the nation, and ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, raising concerns about how Brazilian officials will provide security.
Mass protests are rare in this 190 million-person country, with demonstrations generally attracting small numbers of politicized participants. The ongoing, growing marches have caught Brazilian governments by surprise, but have delighted many citizens.
“I think we desperately need this, that we’ve been needing this for a very, very long time,” said Paulo Roberto Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old clothing store salesman in Rio.
In Salvador, police shot tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to disperse a small crowd of protesters trying to break through a police barrier blocking one of the city’s streets. One woman was injured in her foot.
Elsewhere in Salvador some 5,000 protesters gathered in Campo Grand Square.
“We pay a lot of money in taxes, for electricity, for services, and we want to know where that money is,” said Italo Santos, a 25-year old student as he walked with friends toward the square.
Despite the energy on the street, many protesters said they were unsure how the movement would win real political concessions. People in the protests have held up signs asking for everything from education reforms to free bus fare while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the Olympics.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Rodrigues da Cunha said. “On the one hand we need some sort of leadership, on the other we don’t want this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party.”
Earlier Thursday, the protests took on the feel of a party, especially in Sao Paulo and Rio.
People of all ages, many of them draped in flags, gathered in front of the majestic domed Candelaria church in downtown Rio, while groups elsewhere pounded out Carnival rhythms or chanted slogans targeting Rio state’s governor.
At one point, a police helicopter flew over the crowd, which booed and pointed green lasers at the craft.
When shirtless youths, many of them with T-shirts wrapped round their faces, pushed and jostled their way through the crowd, people spontaneously broke out into a chant of “Without violence!”
But as has been the pattern earlier this week, the clashes began once night fell.
Several city leaders have already accepted protester demands to revoke an increase in bus and subway fares in the hopes that anti-government anger cools. In Sao Paulo, where demonstrators blocked Paulista Avenue, organizers said they would turn their demonstration into a party celebrating the lower transit fares.
But many believe the protests are no longer just about bus fares and have become larger cries for systemic changes.
President Dilma Rousseff was meeting Thursday with advisors in the heavily guarded presidential palace, according to her press office. Spokespeople did not say whether the president was discussing the protests going on throughout the country.
“This is the start of a structural change in Brazil,” said Aline Campos, a 29 year old publicist in Brasilia. “People now want to make sure their money is well spent, that it’s not wasted through corruption.”
Sibaja reported from Brasilia. Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Ricardo Zuniga in Salvador contributed to this report.
Some comments by Brazilians participating in protests across South America’s biggest country:
“We must invest in education before we invest so much money in the World Cup. We need schools, not stadiums.” - Erika Ribeira, 17, student, at a protest in Sao Paulo.
“Corruption is the greatest problem In Brazil. All that money that went into the World Cup is a Matterhorn for the police to look into. If people were more educated we wouldn’t have so many corrupt people in power.” - Caroline Moura, 23, business administrator protesting in Brasilia.
“I’m here to for the fight against corruption — we’ve got to fix the political system before anything else.” - Leonardo Toducz, 27, engineer protesting in Sao Paulo.
“We are struggling for the rights of indigenous people, which are being trampled on. Brazil has now awoken but it was the indigenous people who were the first to awake when we began a movement for our rights to land.” - Sonia Guajajara, 38, community leader from the northern state of Maranhao, at a Brasilia demonstration.
“This is the time to change so much that is wrong in Brazil and it’s young people who are leading the way. I see a sign of hope in this movement.” - Lorena Dias, 15, student, from Brasilia, carrying a sign reading “I don’t ride the bus but I want respect” referring to the original protests over rising bus fare.