RIO DE JANEIRO — At 9 p.m. Friday, on a dark, cobbled street in the city center, the violence that had been threatening to break out finally spluttered. Amid chants of “fascist!” two riot police in full armor were cornered in an alleyway. Something was thrown. Glass shattered. The boom and hiss of a tear-gas grenade sent the crowd running before it fizzled out.
The protest was over a bus-fare increase. In its last hours, tension had flared — and been damped — again and again. As many as 2,000 demonstrators had passed by Rio’s Central Station, where in February last year a cameraman, Santiago Andrade, was killed by a flare fired by a protester. Inside the station concourse, a troupe of clowns in black-and-white face paint and anarchist insignia beat out frenzied rhythms on tin cans while masked youths leaped up and down, taunting a line of riot police with the chant “Look at me, here again!”
In Sao Paulo the same night, violence flared toward the end of a march by 5,000 to 10,000 people; 51 were arrested. Windows were broken, tear gas and rubber bullets were fired. Local news media reported that bystanders were taking shelter in bars and shops. Demonstrators’ videos showed passersby injured.
These were echoes of a recent past, of the demonstrations that sent hundreds of thousands of Brazilians onto city streets in June 2013. With the economy struggling and Rio’s 2016 Olympics looming, unrest is beginning to spit and fizzle again. There have also been small, localized protests in Salvador, Belo Horizonte and even in smaller towns such as Osasco.
The mass transit fare increases that sparked the 2013 protests — and were then canceled — were introduced again Jan. 3. This time the increases are even higher: 16.6 percent in Sao Paulo, 13.3 percent in Rio. As then, Friday’s marches were organized by the Free Pass Movement — a nonparty organization that plans more “acts” this Friday.
“You can’t move around without the bus,” said Erika Zordan, 22, marching in Rio. “It should be free.”
On Jan. 5, Col. Fábio de Souza, who in June 2013 was in charge of the Rio police riot squad — the “Shock Battalion” — was suspended for propagating Nazi ideology and violence against protesters in cellphone texts to fellow officers.
At the peak of those demonstrations, on June 20, half a million people flooded central Rio. When scuffles broke out at the front of the march, Souza’s officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, causing fear and panic and clearing streets in just a couple of hours.
Nothing of that magnitude has been seen since. Smaller, increasingly violent protests continued until last year’s World Cup, following a repetitive script that has been revived, with the same chants, locations, and conflicts.
Right-wing news weekly Veja revealed that Souza had swapped thousands of messages on the cellphone text-chat service Whatsapp with fellow officers, “revealing clear admiration for Nazi philosophy.” In one text, he celebrated firing a tear-gas canister into the back of a protester from the Black Bloc anarchist group who was 30 yards away.
“What pride!” he texted.
“I was horrified,” said Rio’s state security secretary, José Beltrame.
Last month, demonstrators selected a new target: golf, which will return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. Since Dec. 6, a dozen or so people have formed the core of Occupy Golf — a makeshift camp on a highway median beside the site where the Olympic course is being constructed.
On Jan. 6, Municipal Guards — an unarmed city police force — came to dismantle a homemade shelter built by the demonstrators. A tug-of-war developed as protesters clung to it. A student, Elson Soares Jr., 30, was handcuffed and forced into a police car where he says he was repeatedly hit in the face with a baton by a female guard, who broke his tooth. At one point, a rubber bullet was fired.
Soares said by phone that the guard continued hitting him in the genital area and his legs as he was driven to a police station. “I thought it was a heavy torture,” he said.
The protesters recorded the attack and put the video footage on their Facebook page. The guards ransacked the camp.
“We only managed to save two guitars, a cool box and a generator,” said Bernardo Nadal, 19. He was one of 12 protesters lounging under a tree on rugs and sheets of cardboard at the camp the next afternoon. Passing cars occasionally beeped in support; other vehicles delivered supplies.
The golf course is being built in what protesters and Rio state prosecutors say is an environmentally protected area in the upmarket Rio beach suburb of Barra de Tijuca. Dubbed Rio’s Miami Beach, it is a real-estate hot spot of condominiums and shopping malls and the site of the Olympic Park and Olympic Village.
The demonstrators say the golf course is damaging wildlife and is unnecessary because Rio already has two courses. The camp is in front of a showroom for the Riserva Golf luxury apartment complex being built adjacent to the course.
Rio state prosecutors are engaged in an ongoing legal battle with the golf course developers and the city of Rio over environmental concerns.
“We are in favor of the games,” said prosecutor Marcus Leal. “But it cannot impact on the environment of our city.”
A spokeswoman for the city of Rio said in an e-mail that more than 14 acres appropriated from a municipal ecological park to build the course will be replaced by a new park that has been created beside it. She said that municipal laws allow human use of the protected area and that much of the area was degraded and is now being restored. Biologist Marcello Mello said the golf course threatens endangered species that live on the reserve — including a white sand lizard, a species of cactus and a beach butterfly — and that the grass being planted is causing more damage.
“We think the impact of the golf course is positive, even in the environmental aspect,” said Mario Andrada, communications director for Rio 2016, at a briefing last week.
As the controversies over the golf course and bus-fare increases show, Brazilian protesters have no shortage of targets. Their protests are limited in number, and the violence involved may dissuade ordinary Brazilians from joining in. But they are a sign of the discontent that exists in Brazil — likely to increase now that newly reelected President Dilma Rousseff has started introducing budget cuts that economists say are needed but that ordinary Brazilians are unlikely to welcome. More cities plan bus-fare increases.
“This is just the beginning of what will come this year,” said Occupy Golf’s Nadal after Friday’s march. He and his comrades headed to the Shock Battalion headquarters to protest the arrest of a demonstrator. It may not be the last time they will do so.