Life on Streets - Sao Paulo Protests

A young man occupying Paulista Avenue, a major street in downtown Sao Paulo.

When I was a boy, I learned about values. Injustice, fairness, progress … a lexicon of ideas filled my head, and for some reason they shined brighter and resonated deeper than so many other ideas. If I think back on it, it’s probably because I always imagined these things as part of the world of dreams. You see, I was a dreamer as a kid lost in the world of fantasy. At some point, I started imagining how our world could be better - I started to think about stuff that makes life hard - poverty, hate, war - and whether all of it was actually necessary. Where did it come from? Why? 

Fast forward 20 years later, and I’m sitting in a hostel in Sao Paulo as the dusk takes us into the night, listening to the sounds of Brazil. And around the corner, I see a stream of people flood the streets, chairs in hand, marching up the hill towards Paulista Avenue.

Maybe a hundred or so teenagers swelled into the street, smashing garbage cans and arousing the ire of the upper-class community. I put on a shirt, and bolted out of the hostel with camera in hand to learn and to witness. I’ve had some time in protests in Toronto and Guatemala, but what captured me about this march is how intentionally disruptive it was. They made no attempt to shield the community from their anger or presence. Pouring out garbage, parking their chairs in front of cars, knocking on doors and obstructing pedestrians was all on the table. I followed them up to Paulista avenue, without much clue as to what’s going on. They reached the major road and literally shut it down.

Imagine a massive boulevard, in the midst of some of the most powerful economic centres of Brazil, filled with kids sitting in chairs as motorcycles try to rip through and pass the blockade. Compelling, to say the least. 

Now imagine something more… Thousands of kids looking out into the world - curious, hungry and thirsty for the tools and knowledge to understand our collective history, and define our inevitable future. Thousands of families wishing to leave their children with greater access to the source of life, wishing to leave their kids with the almost unstoppable force of curiosity, education and opportunity. 

The reason these youth took to the streets is because their governments have decided to close hundreds of schools all over the state. In an effort to push public education into a further marginalized area, the state government of Sao Paulo came up with this thinly veiled attempt at ‘efficient’ use of resources with a plan to merge classrooms, students and teachers. 94 schools were on the chopping block first, and ~300,000 students were set to transfer.

While we talked, the police came up in full swat gear. Imagine that … grown men with machine guns and body armor against kids in chairs. Flashing red lights, matte black clothing and obstructed faces holding immense weapons came to defend the state from criticism, to change the story from the pillage of education to the violation of ‘law and order’. An institution has been created around destroying dreams, and silencing dissent. 

To talk of injustice seems like an everyday conversation in today’s world. It’s such an absurdity. We have people living in space for a year, medical technology that can manipulate individual cells - we have harnessed the physical forces of the universe to do our bidding, and provide us with the energy needed to reach the stars and oceans. We spend countless wealth and resources telling stories of love, hope, compassion and virtue to millions around the world via cinema, capturing their imagination and steering them towards the world of possibility and away from the world that we have. We walk around our cities with access to almost limitless knowledge, abundance of food and drink, and immense cultural artifacts and affluence. Yet, it all feels so hollow, like a giant golden facade increasingly layered on a rotten core. 

These teenagers and youth took the streets to remind the world that they are important, their future is important and their access to dreams and knowledge is inviolable. What happened to us that we shut ourselves off from the struggle so many of our fellow humans face? Even still, many of us are aware but are woefully apathetic to the continual degradation of our collective institutions, to the removal of our collective access to knowledge and power. Some have been stiffened by fear, others have been twisted by confusion and, worse, many have been entranced by the spectacle of social division, celebrity worship, and increasing narcissism. 

In such a world, it’s important that we remember a few things. The dreams we had as children, and the dreams we have now are our important - they are our roadmap to a more interesting, robust and equitable world. There are those use their power for self-interest, and there are whole institutions engineered to keep the status quo because it creates an unfathomably lush life for the people who control those institutions. We are at an amazing time in the plotline of human life; technology has opened up the world of dreams to become the world of reality. It is important that we fight for that world.

Imagination and dreams are the spark that can light our fire towards a new era, a world built on solidarity instead of division. Look to the youth in Sao Paulo for inspiration, because they are full of dreams and they are on the streets.

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Peace and Love
Sandro Pehar

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