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Violence derails Brazilian protest movement

Smashed shopfronts, burning buses, injured protesters and the death of a cameraman - an ugly escalation of violence threatens to relegate Brazil's protest movement to a position from which it is unlikely to recover.

"I'm sorry for being honest, but I hope the World Cup in Brazil is a total failure," activist Fernando Hideki Hatimine posted on the digital platform Anonymous Brasil.

A user known as Joao Paulo Martins Veloso also unleashed a rant of his own on the site. "There are some things you just can't improve or reform," he wrote. "They have to be completely destroyed so that something new can emerge."

Brazil's protest movement is in trouble, and it's not just because of arbitrary police brutality. Furious protesters and the violence of the so-called Black Bloc - which roused the country during the Confederation Cup in June 2013 - have also played a role in bringing the demonstrations into disrepute.

Coaxed to participate

On February 6, the riots reached a tragic climax. Cameraman Santiago Andrade from the Brazilian TV channel "Bandeirantes" was hit by a flare during a protest against bus fare increases in Rio de Janeiro. He later died from his injuries in hospital.

DW reporter Philipp Barth was another victim of protest violence. During the rally in the center of Rio, Brazilian military police destroyed his camera and pummeled him with kicks and insults.

Journalist Santiago Andrade is hit by a flare

Protests turn deadly: Cameraman Santiago Andrade was fatally injured by a flare earlier this month

Barth suffered shock and minor injuries, but his Brazlian colleague was fatally injured after the flare thrown by a pair of protesters exploded near his head. The alleged perpetrators, two men aged 22 and 23, were arrested just days after the incident, and have now been charged with murder.

The events seem to have contained some of the fury over the planned fare increases. "My client was coaxed into taking part, and was offered 150 Reals (46 euros, $63) to be involved in the riot," Jonas Tadeu Nunes, the lawyer representing the accused, claimed on the Brazilian TV station "Globo". His client, who had been working in a minimum wage job, managed to secure a raise to his modest salary after participating in the protests.

A change in mood

The death of cameraman Santiago Andrade symbolizes a turning point for the protest movement, political scientist Valeriano Costa told DW. "The positive mood has been turned on its head," said Costa, who lectures in public opinion research at the State University of Campinas in São Paulo. He argues the lack of organization behind the mass demonstrations, which at the beginning was seen as a positive sign of political independence, has proven naive.

"Even the demands for political reform have faded away," said Costa. The activists had always been very general in their claims because so many different social groups were involved in the protests, he added, "but now a substantial vacuum has opened up."

A recent poll published by the Datafolha Institute indicates just how much the mood has shifted. The institute surveyed 654 residents of Rio de Janeiro four days after Andrade's death. Ninety percent said they were against the masked protesters who often make up the Black Bloc. About 56 percent of respondents supported the protests, 40 percent opposed them, and 84 percent believed it was likely political parties had also infiltrated the movement.

Who's afraid of the Black Bloc?

"The likelihood that people will once again take to the streets to protest against the World Cup or the lack of investment has significantly decreased," said Castro. Many of the groups that had legitimacy and were in a position to mobilize the public held back, he says, because they didn't want to be associated with vandalism or the Black Bloc.

A scene from anti-World Cup demonstrations in Brazil

"World Cup? No thanks!" Protesters against the expensive tournament take to the streets of Sao Paulo

Given anxiety about the possibility of riots breaking out during the World Cup, the government has moved swiftly to take advantage of the changed public mood. On February 17, a bill demanding tougher sentences for violent protesters was brought before Brazil's parliament. The legislation would force protesters wearing masks to identify themselves to the police, and pay for any injuries or property damage with hefty prison sentences.

Like many other activists on the platform Anonymous Brasil, Aline Florenzano Penha has become cynical and disillusioned. "I've noticed that I'm the only one in my circle who criticizes politicians and the media. Most of them think I'm crazy, and that the protesters are hooligans," the student from Sorocaba writes. "Everything can slowly explode for all I care - Brazilians don't deserve anything better!"

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