Protesters showed up by the thousands in Brazil’s largest cities on Monday night in a remarkable display of strength for an agitation that had begun with small protests against bus-fare increases, then evolved into a broader movement by groups and individuals irate over a range of issues including the country’s high cost of living and lavish new stadium projects.
The growing protests rank among the largest and most resonant since the nation’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, with demonstrators numbering into the tens of thousands gathered here in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and other large protests unfolding in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Curitiba, Belém and Brasília, the capital, where marchers made their way to the roof of Congress.
Sharing a parallel with the antigovernment protests in Turkey, the demonstrations in Brazil intensified after a harsh police crackdown last week stunned many citizens. In images shared widely on social media, the police here were seen beating unarmed protesters with batons and dispersing crowds by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into their midst.
“The violence has come from the government,” said Mariana Toledo, 27, a graduate student at the University of São Paulo who was among the protesters on Monday. “Such violent acts by the police instill fear, and at the same time the need to keep protesting.”
While the demonstration in São Paulo was not marred by the widespread repression that marked a protest here last week, riot police officers in Belo Horizonte dispersed protesters with pepper spray and tear gas. In Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, police officers also used tear gas against protesters.
In Rio de Janeiro, where an independent estimate put the number of protesters around 100,000, televised images showed masked demonstrators trying to storm public buildings including the state legislature, a part of which was set on fire. In Brasilía, the police seemed to be caught off-guard by protesters who danced and chanted on the roof of Congress, a modernist building designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Such broad protests are relatively uncommon in Brazil, with some Brazilian political analysts describing what appeared to be a political culture more accepting of longstanding high levels of inequality and substandard public services than citizens in some neighboring countries in South America.
“The dangerous news announced on the streets, the novelty that the state tried to crush under the hooves of the horses of São Paulo’s police, is that at last we are alive,” the writer Eliane Brum said in an essay about the protests.
Brazil now seems to be pivoting toward a new phase of interaction between demonstrators and political leaders with its wave of protests, which crystallized this year in Porto Alegre. There, a group called the Free Fare Movement, which advocates lower public transportation fares, organized demonstrations against a hike in bus fares.
Similar protests emerged in May in Natal, a city in northeast Brazil, and this month in São Paulo, after the authorities raised bus fares by the equivalent of about 9 cents to 3.20 reais, about $1.47, prompting a wave of demonstrations that have grown in intensity.
While the hike came at a time of growing concern over inflation, which remains high even as economic growth has slowed considerably, the anger over the increase also reflects broader indignation over public transportation systems in São Paulo and in other large cities, which are plagued by inefficiency, overcrowding and crime.
“Today’s protests are the result of years and years of depending on chaotic and expensive transportation,” said Érica de Oliveira, 22, a student who was among the demonstrators.
A large number of protesters in São Paulo on Monday were university students, but middle-aged professionals and parents with children in strollers were also present. The scene seemed at once furious and festive. Some protesters had draped Brazilian flags over their shoulders; one held up a sign that read, “Brazil Colony, until when?”
While the protest in Brasília included strong criticism of congressional leaders, many placards here in São Paulo did not direct anger at Congress, at the federal government in Brasília or even at local authorities on the state or municipal level. Still, protesters in various cities focused on symbols of government power. Here in São Paulo, they marched to the governor’s palace; in Rio, to the state legislature; and in Brasília, to the Congress.
Fabio Malini, a scholar who analyzes data patterns in social media at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, said he was impressed by the movement’s refusal to be defined by a single objective and by its extensive use of social media, which has enabled it to evolve fast in response to various sources of social and political tension in Brazil.
One issue surging to the fore involves anger over stadium projects in various cities ahead of the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil is preparing to host. Some projects have been hindered by cost overruns and delays, the unfinished structures standing as testament to an injection of resources into sports arenas at a time when schools and public transit systems need upgrades.
“The largest protests are happening in cities which will host World Cup games,” Mr. Malini said. “Brazilians are mixing soccer and politics in a way that is new, and minority voices are making themselves heard.”