RIO DE JANEIRO, Brail—When millions took to the streets of Brazil last weekend to demand the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, most of them fit a similar profile: They were white, wealthy and conservative.
A second counter-protest filled the streets of Brazil Friday night with hundreds of thousands of other people who turned out to show their support for the president. And they looked a lot different than the first group.
They were black. They were white. They were gay. They were union members. They were leftists. They were artists. They were teachers. In short, they were much more diverse.
More than 90,000 people gathered in Rio de Janeiro Friday afternoon and evening to protest against what they perceive to be an attempted coup against Rousseff’s government. Her Worker’s Party government is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that has been under investigation for the past two years and is now threatening to culminate with the president’s ouster.
But the Worker’s Party government, started by Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has helped lift many Brazilians out of poverty over the past decade, and still has its defenders. They were the ones who showed up last night to chant “Nai vai ter golpe!” (There won’t be a coup.)
In Rio, even the locations of the two different protests are revealing. Those in favor of impeachment marched last week on upper-class area of Zona Sul along the Copacabana beach, while the pro-government protesters gathered yesterday in Praça 15, an area generally considered to be mixed in terms of class and race.
"I defend them because as a black person, I need to protect my space in the universities and in the schools,” said Felipe Santos Cabral, an 18-year old college student. "The other (political) parties, PSDB, PMDB, and the right thinks that the place of black people is in the favela, and in the slaves’ quarters."
Cabral's words reflect the current racial and class divide between the right and the left in Brazil. Those who are protesting against Rousseff’s government generally come from Brazil’s middle and upper class, the vast majority of which is white and in opposition to the social policies of the last 14 years. Those who are showing their support for the government are represent a more diverse slice of Brazilians, including many Afro-Brazilians who have benefited from the government’s efforts to expand access to education and other social programs.
"The people who are against this government are elite people who not are accustomed to taking of their own house,” said Camila Hochman Mendez, 34, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "They can no longer afford to hire domestic servants who live in their houses and work in a state of semi-slavery."
Mendez said that she owes the success of her career to the Worker’s Party government. She says she benefited from aid she received in research grants from the government.
Brazil’s largest media company, Globo, did not escape the protesters’ ridicule. Globo’s news and entertainment have long been criticized for not reflecting the diversity of Brazil, and for using its media muscle to support the country’s rightwing.
Critics of Globo think the media networks is again using its coverage of the political crisis to push for the impeachment of the president. On Friday night, protesters handed out mock newspapers that mimicked the O Globo but included information supporting their cause. They wore shirts emblazoned with Globo’s logo underneath the word “esgoto,” or sewage in Portuguese. When a helicopter flew over the demonstration, protesters, assuming it was Globo filming the protest, chanted “Fora Globo”—Get out Globo.
Friday’s protesters also professed their admiration and support for former President Lula, who is also under investigation for the money-laundering scandal. Rousseff this week tried to bring Lula into her cabinet to shield him from prosecution in the scandal, but a judge invalidated his appointment late Friday night, at the same time the protests.
For many, the scandal is about corruption. But for others, it’s a battle between Brazil’s left and right, and the future of a country that fights for inclusion versus a country defined by exclusion.
“You can have nuances, but politically you have to choose a side,” said Felippe Moraes, a 27-year-old artist, who came to Friday night’s protest carrying a rainbow-colored flag to show his solidarity with the gay rights movement. “I can’t be on the right because it represents homophobia and xenophobia."
Still, Moraes stopped short of pledging full support for Rousseff. He thinks her economic policies have hurt the country, but doesn’t want her to be impeached. Although Moraes was happy with the diversity of the protest, he lamented the fact that group most affected by the current political and economic crisis—the poorest of the poor— has not yet mobilized and taken to the streets.
Kiratiana Freelon is a Rio de Janeiro-based multimedia journalist whose work focuses on social issues, international news and sporting events. She has published two books: one a travel guide to black Paris, and the other a travel guide to multicultural London.