A MASKED protester struck the road repeatedly with a fire extinguisher, smashing the concrete into large blocks for his fellow demonstrators to load on to a wooden board and carry to the front line of the riot.
“I don’t care about the president, the police or the country, they can all go to hell,” screamed another youth, his face obscured by a gas mask with a grey hoodie pulled closely over his head. He picked up one of the blocks and hurled it into the glass-fronted façade of a Volkswagen dealership, situated a less than a mile from the Mineirao Football Stadium in Belo Horizonte, northern Brazil.
Two hours earlier, the national football team had defeated Uruguay 2-1 there to secure a place in the final of the Confederations Cup, which Brazil is currently hosting amidst the worst protests the country has seen in 20 years. Tomorrow, when the final is held in Rio de Janeiro, more are expected.
The demonstrations, which have swept across the country in recent weeks began as a protest against the cost of public transport but gathered momentum to encompass issues including corruption and the lack of investment in health and education, as well as to denounce the high costs of hosting the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup.
The protests have left the political class of Brazil clutching at straws, seeking a way to quell public anger and return the country to some vestige of normality, but without having any clear route to stability ahead.
On Monday, following a crisis meeting, president Dilma Rousseff offered “five pacts” with the Brazilian people, promising to prioritise health and education, and pledging an additional £16 billion of investments in public transport, the issue that first triggered the protests more than a fortnight ago.
She even managed to address demonstrators’ demands to push ahead with her policies that have faced political resistance, convincing Congress on Tuesday to reject a controversial amendment which would have limited the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes related to corruption and abuse of office.
She also agreed to pass a bill setting aside future oil royalties for education and importing doctors from abroad to provide medical assistance in remote parts of the country, where none is available.
Most Brazilians are all too aware that despite these reforms, they are unlikely to see obvious improvements any time soon. Sluggish economic growth has left the president with little room to manoeuvre on the federal budget. As violent protests continue unabated despite the president’s offering, the political leadership can only experiment with new policing strategies in a bid to control the fall-out on the streets from daily demonstrations.
During the disturbances in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday night, the police changed tack by avoiding a head-on confrontation with the rioters, which would have caught tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in the crossfire.
The authorities chose instead to try and isolate those determined to commit acts of violence from the rest of the march, before moving in to disperse more radical elements with tear gas and rubber bullets and making about 30 arrests.
This strategy appeared to pay dividends, as it kept violence away from the stadium and allowed those who wished to protest peacefully the space to do so.
Images of heavy-handed police tactics from previous demonstrations have only served to enrage peaceful citizens and have played a pivotal role in encouraging huge numbers of people to join in the protests.
It remains to be seen if this strategy can be adopted on a larger scale at tomorrow’s final.