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«Street Fighting Man Lacks Street Fighting Plan»

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Correspondents of this blog have expressed curiosity about the street demonstrations in São Paulo this week, ostensively aimed at defeating a R$0.20 fare hike on buses, trains and the subway. Its DNA is a prior movement calling for free passes for students, hence the Movimento Passe Livre.

A manifesto published by student and youth groups on Vi o Mundo reflects deeper, systematic changes in the system that mesh with the urban development agenda of newly elected São Paulo mayor, Fernando Haddad.

Murilo, meanwhile, blasts the state administration and its law enforcement arm, the Policia Militar. Protesters are not spared criticism. The blogger sees the event as an exercise in “intellectual poverty, police violence and authoritarian militants with no imagination.”

As with so many other protest movements over the past three decades, the tactics of the MPL seem like an anachronistic copy of the marches against the military dictatorship in 1964 and the rebellions of May 1968, inspired by the barricades of the proletarian uprisings in France in 1848 and 1871.

The MPL is decrepit, but not because authentic rebellion is out of fashion, or becauses its ideas are petty versions of outworn thinking. The MPL is old fashioned and regressive in its amateurism as well.

Revolutionary and liberal reform movements of the last 60, or 150, years were more creative, better organized and capable of using the state of the art resources, communication technologies and political tactics of their time …

Carried out by youthful militants, MPL is not even able to use the technologies of the day, such as the Internet and cell phones. They do not know how to project their image in the social networks. They do not know how to organize protests that build social support. They have no legal counsel or political connections.  They lack theoretical or strategic intelligence, and therefore lack political capacity: the capacity to convince, to grow, to lead a worthwhile cause to victory.

As the excerpt translated below observes, correctly, the movement seems to have gotten swept up in the net utopian dream of auto-organizing fragmented heteregeneous movements.

Instead of a protest march that degenerates into a conventional, violence and therefore, in the final analysis, authoritarian skirmish, why doesn’t the MPL simple lie down in the street, holding white flags?

I’m not kidding.

For defenders of “urban mobility”, it would be an ironic gesture. It would produce images that would be seen all over the world. It would put state violence to shame. If the PM wish to remove the protestors, it would have to carry away thousands, one by one.

If the police still assaulted the protesters, imagine the headline: “Police beat youth lying down and carrying white flags.” Finally, they would gain sympathy; the current violence is above all contraproductive.

In the first night of action, more than 80 buses were destroyed or partially destroyed.

Yes, it is obvious that the police have been barbarian, antidemocratic and professionally inept. Geraldo Alckmin is nearly directly responsible for the beatings and shootings.  He made not have commanded police to “lock them up and bust their heads” (as president-general João Batista Figueiredo, 1979-1985, famously said), but he has given that sort of tone to the event.

Since his first state government, Alckmin has given the police a free hand, endorsing the macho ideal that “the police doesn’t turn the other cheek.” It distibutes beatings and shooting.  But police work is supposed to be a technical activity, a public service, not a street fighting force or militia.  It is also true, of course, that police should not be stoned, shot or killed in the line of duty.

The lack of professional training of the police, Alckmin’s invitation to play the role of storm trooper, and the intellectual poverty (and authoritarian violence) of the MPL have provoked this senseless violence.

In a manifesto published by some of Brazil’s most important social movements — the MST, for example — the alignment of social activism and policy is quite visible.  The ruling PSDB is castigated for lack of progress in public transport and a new paradigm is proposed for a less autocentric city.

These protests are important because they spotlight an issue crucial to city residents: urban mobility. Residents lose hours and hours every day in cars or buses or in crowded commuter train and subway cars.  These are hours that could be dedicated to family life or culture, sport and leisure, of which they are deprived because of the obvious preference for individual private cars to the detriment of public and collective transport.

The history of chaotic urban development, the traffic caused by cars during peak hours, the lack of  adequate subway and commuter train service, the poor quality of the system and the extortion practiced by private bus concessionaires, along with the elevated fares for public transportation, represent a social problem that affects everyone, and especially the poor who live on the periphery.

The slow progress of the subway system is a chronic issue for the PSDB, which has built a mere 21,6 km of track, representing 1.4 km per year. For this reason, São Paulo has the smallest public transport system among major world capitals (a mere 65.9 km).

The seriousness of this issue made urban transport one of the central themes of the municipal elections last year. Candidate Fernando Haddad, elected mayor, promised responses that would get to the root of the issue.

The prefecture’s efforts to enact a fare increase lower than inflation by putting pressure on concessionaires are not responsive to the expectations raised by its victory over the conservative sectors in the last election.

This revolution in urban planning demands structural measures such as the realization of a development model that does not depend on offering a stimulus to the automobile industry and the implementation of direct control over transport fares by “municipalizing” public transport.  In this way, we are able to avoid the subsidies of the concessionaires, whose financial interests are not aligned with the possibility of a transport system that sees to the needs of the citizen.

For this reason, the youth protests are expecially significant: They represent a symptom of the problem and constitute a social force capable of identifying and sustaining structural changes in territorial organization and urban mobility.  These protests are a means of applying pressure to the authorities and sustaining negotiations with the same, and especially with the municipal administration, which we hope will win victories for the people and build forces for new struggles to come.

In this process, the bourgeios media and the conservative sectors set up a smoke screen to conceal the structural solutions for which the protest movement is striving, subjecting actions of a minority of protests to public execration.

This type of coverage spotlights the close relations between the news media and the auto industry (which is interested in selling more cars),the private bus concessionaires (which profit from extorting the city government), and real estate speculators (who oppose territorial reorganization).

We therefore manifest our support for the protests in defense of public transport, and hope to contribute to the peaceful massification of this movement. We condemn the violent reaction of the military police, demand the freedom of political prisoners and reject the fare hikes for buses, subway and train.

In sum, the struggle pits a private concession system against proponents of a zero-fare model. Politically, it will take the form of a municipalization drive that will bring lasting change if successful.

Consider the following: Among the first official acts of our last mayor was naming his brothers to head New Projects  at the Metro Authority and the other to head SPTRANS, the city bus authority. True story.