Rio fare protesters seize main station & let commuters travel for free
February 7, 2014
After street protests, station invasions and turnstile vandalism, Rio de Janeiro’s free public transport movement finally got what it wanted for a few hours on Thursday night with a takeover of the city’s main train and bus hub.
Thousands of commuters were shepherded through demolished ticket gates at the Central do Brasil station amid a violent confrontation over proposed fare rises that resulted in fires, arrests and disruption of transport networks.
The station in downtown Rio echoed with police percussion grenades and the protesters’ celebratory samba drumming as they seized control of the main bank of ticket machines.
Close to a thousand people joined the passe livre (free pass) march, sparked by the announcement by the city mayor, Eduardo Paes, that bus fires will rise from 2.75 reais to 3 reais (£0.75/US$1.25) on Saturday.
That may seem cheap compared with London or New York. But for a daily commuter on a minimum monthly wages of 724 reais a month it leaves transport costs at more than a sixth of income.
Bus price rises were the spark for massive protests that expanded to cover dozens of other issues and brought more than a million people on to the streets of 80 cities in Brazil in June 2013. At the time the ticket hikes were postponed but the issue is once again on the agenda.
Although Thursday’s protest was far smaller than last year’s it was more focussed and the organisers’ tactics appeared to take the large ranks of police by surprise.
After marching peacefully from the Candelaria area dozens of activists from the Black Block group sprinted off and entered the station before police could close the gates. They smashed turnstiles, waved flags and entreated commuters to enter the train system without paying.
Riot police and station security temporarily regained territory with pepper spray and percussion grenades, but after a brief hiatus the demonstrators regained control of the concourse and started drumming, dancing and singing as passengers – many clutching hankerchiefs to their faces because of the pungent police gas in the terminal – passed by without paying.
“I totally support this protest,” said Fabiana Aragon, a red-faced, teary-eyed health worker who was heading home after work. The 43-year-old said she spent almost a third of her 1,000 reais income on transport fares but still had to endure long delays, dirty trains and hot, crowded carriages without air conditioning. “The situation now is absurd.”
The clashes spread to the streets outside the station. Half a dozen fires burned in the streets of the neighbouring red-light district. Firemen were called in to extinguish a blaze that reduced a bus ticket booth to embers. Hundreds of panicked commuters stampeded through the main bus station after police fired percussion grenades despite no visible sign of protesters. Two young black men with face-masks cried as they were arrested, handcuffed and put inside an armoured police vehicle.
Participants in the demonstration said there would be more protests in the run up to the World Cup, which starts on 12 June.
“Public transport is slow, dirty, hot and expensive. The government shouldn’t be talking about raising fares, it should be working to improve services,“ said Yasmin Thayna, a 21-year-old student. “When the World Cup comes there will be more demonstrations. The World Cup is worsening inequality.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the movement can return to the scale of the 2013 protests.