RIO DE JANEIRO — More than half a million Brazilians poured into the streets of at least 80 Brazilian cities Thursday in demonstrations that saw violent clashes and renewed calls for an end to government corruption and demands for better public services.
Riot police battled protesters in at least five cities, with some of the most intense clashes happening in Rio de Janeiro, where an estimated 300,000 demonstrators swarmed into the seaside city’s central area. Television images showed police firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into crowds of young men, their faces wrapped in T-shirts. Other demonstrators were shown detained lying on sidewalks.
In Brasilia, police struggled to keep hundreds of protesters from invading the Foreign Ministry, outside of which protesters lit a small fire. Other government buildings were attacked around the capital’s central esplanade. There, too, police resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets in attempts to scatter the crowds.
Clashes were also reported in the Amazon jungle city of Belem, in Porto Alegre in the south, in the university town Campinas north of Sao Paulo and in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador.
“This was meant to be a peaceful demonstration and it is,” said artist Wanderlei Costa, 33, in Brasilia. “It’s a shame some people cause trouble when there is a much bigger message behind this movement. Brazil needs to change, not only on the government level, but also on the grass roots level. We have to learn to demonstrate without violence.”
The protests took place one week after a violent police crackdown on a much smaller protests in Sao Paulo galvanized Brazilians to take to the streets.
The unrest is hitting the nation as it hosts the Confederations Cup football tournament with tens of thousands of foreign visitors in attendance. It also comes one month before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the nation, and ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, raising concerns about how Brazilian officials will provide security.
Mass protests are rare in this 190 million-person country, with demonstrations generally attracting small numbers of politicized participants. The ongoing, growing marches have caught Brazilian governments by surprise, but have delighted many citizens.
“I think we desperately need this, that we’ve been needing this for a very, very long time,” said Paulo Roberto Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old clothing store salesman in Rio.
In Salvador, police shot tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to disperse a small crowd of protesters trying to break through a police barrier blocking one of the city’s streets. One woman was injured in her foot.
Some 5,000 protesters gathered in Campo Grand Square.
“We pay a lot of money in taxes, for electricity, for services, and we want to know where that money is,” said Italo Santos, a 25-year old student as he walked with friends toward the square.
Despite the energy on the street, many protesters said they were unsure how the movement would win real political concessions. People in the protests have held up signs asking for everything from education reforms to free bus fare while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums in advance of the World Cup and the Olympics.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Rodrigues da Cunha said. “On the one hand we need some sort of leadership, on the other we don’t want this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party.”
Earlier Thursday, the protests took on the feel of a party, especially in Sao Paulo and Rio. People of all ages, many of them draped in flags, gathered in front of the majestic domed Candelaria church in downtown Rio, while groups elsewhere pounded out Carnival rhythms or chanted slogans targeting Rio state’s governor.