Age of Aquarius

Largo do Paissandu, 4pm, 16 September 2014. Passer-by, with cloud of tear gas in the background

Largo do Paissandu, 4pm, 16 September 2014. Passer-by, with cloud of tear gas in the background

In São Paulo, the eviction of an occupied city centre building rocks the streets, filling the air with tear gas and the sound of stun grenades … 

16 SEPTEMBER 2014 – I couldn't hear the bombs going off, and there was no visible sign yet of the toxic fog. But I could already smell the odour, unmistakable to anyone who has attended demonstrations in Brazil in recent years. The peculiar bouquet of orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile – CS gas, or tear gas.

It was with my eyes beginning to burn that I raised the shutters on the building in which Estúdio Fluxo is located in downtown São Paulo, on Rua Capitão Salomão, the gentle slope that connects Largo do Paissandu to the Valley of Anhangabaú. At that point, turning the key in the lock, I started to hear bombs exploding in the distance.

Shops closing up fast; the military police (MPs) shutting down streets. People by the hundred, running – to where, they did not know. More gas, now a discernible fine mist coming in through the windows, choking and nauseating those of us inside the building.

Rua Capitão Salomão: tear gas, with Fuleco. Go Brazil!

Rua Capitão Salomão: tear gas, with Fuleco. Go Brazil!

Drifting down the hill, the gas was the result of a riot police operation – the eviction of the residents of an occupied building on nearby Avenida São João. To that end, they were liberally dealing out rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas, all in an attempt to ‘disperse’ the malcontents who were resisting – by refusing to leave the building, or by attacking the MPs with stones. Or, in isolated cases, by trying to break into shops.

The sound of bombs exploding worsens. One, two, maybe half a dozen people set fire to a bus next to the Theatro Municipal.

And the gates of hell swing open. Three helicopters. Rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, fired indiscriminately in São Paulo’s crowded city centre. All in the name of … maintaining order.

A repossession order is being carried out, of a building that had been abandoned for ten years. Inside the building, once upon a time, was the Aquarius Hotel; and for the last six months, it has been home to 200 families, unable to pay rent.

A man assists the riot troops in cordoning off Avenida São João, where police cars and trucks are at work evicting the 200 families

A man assists the riot troops in cordoning off Avenida São João, where police cars and trucks are at work evicting the 200 families

As I tried to approach the site of the eviction, some 300 metres from Estúdio Fluxo, São João was blocked by troops. Only the vehicles charged with removing the belongings of the evicted residents were being allowed through. Unable to get close enough to photograph or talk to the people being evicted, I could hear only the voices of those who, witnessing the scene from afar, preferred to side with the MPs, calling the occupants lazy, a bunch of freeloaders (vagabundos).

Water trucks and street-cleaning crews, gathering up the trash and blasting the stains from the asphalt. The barbarism of the morning, it seemed, was over; and the situation, albeit still deeply depressing, seemed to be ‘under control’. I return to the studio. But at 4pm, the sound of bombs and the smell of gas seep back into the room.

I head out with my camera. Fewer than 50 people, more than 200 metres from the line of police, observe the troops. There are hundreds of people on the pavements nearby when three boys take some bags of trash and place them on the asphalt, in the middle of the still blocked Avenida São João, some 20 metres from the pavement. One of them raises his middle finger to the distant police.

That’s all it takes.

The effects of tear gas strike two boys, Largo do Paissandú

The effects of tear gas strike two boys, Largo do Paissandú

More than 10 canisters of gas are fired down the middle of the street. Children, the elderly, workers, shops, apartments – all enveloped in the highly toxic clouds of CS gas – a known cause of cancer, abortion. Stun grenades. Randomly fired rubber bullets, shot from a distance by police. The riot cops advance, firing more gas on Rua Capitão Salomão, where there was previously none, and no disturbances either. The street’s small bars (botecos) fill up with gas. And inside the lobby of a humble residential hotel, tear gas.

Tear gas on Rua Capitão Salomão, afternoon of 16 Sep 2014

I climb the stairs to the studio to wash my face, burning from the chemicals. I download my photos. And as I write this text, I hear three more rounds of bombs going off, and smell the gas rising again, to our office on the third floor of a building, hundreds of meters from the epicentre of the … ‘confrontation’?

What confrontation? There have been no disturbances since the morning. But that’s not what we’ll hear later that night, on the TV news …

Instead, we hear the kneejerk playback of a media which, present or not on Avenida São João, is living in a fishbowl. That talks excitedly of confrontation, and of troublemakers, and of three random youths who, middle fingers at the ready, dumped three bags of garbage on the asphalt.

A media that doesn’t question the modus operandi of a fierce, irrational police force, which also lives in a fishbowl, unable to see the human beings on the other sides of their riot shields.  A media that doesn’t challenge a state government esconced in its own aquarium in the Palacio dos Bandeirantes, not only legitimizing the actions of the troops, but ordering them. But then, there are electoral points to be won in this sort of operation – votes from a population that, even in the midst of serious water shortages, also lives as if in an aquarium. Comatose, restricted, perversely disconnected – resigned to the point of not even awakening when their airways are filled with tear gas. A failure of empathy of such a degree that it's capable of turning 200 homeless families into nothing more than vandals – idle layabouts, ‘confronting’ law and order.

It’s an inertia that transforms barbarism into normality; and it’s one, it seems, that’s about to drown us all, plunging us into 4 more years of Governor Alckmin in the fast-approaching elections.

Blub, blub, blub.

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