Lord of the A, B, C’s : Making Sense of the School Occupations in Brazil

The events playing out across Brazilian public high schools could very well have been penned by William Golding, but they are far from fiction. Thousands of students have taken over their schools and set up camp in the classrooms where, were it normal times, they would be absorbing hours of didactic lectures in preparation for the vestibular, the highly competitive entrance exams for the country’s universities. Brazil’s current reality, however, is far from “normal times.”

The occupations come as a reaction to a proposed reform in the public high school educational system which, if implemented, will begin next year. Headed by Michel Temer, who recently assumed power after the successful impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, not much is clear yet about the specifics of the reforms. They are likely to cause drastic changes in the routines of millions of students, including the possible renunciation of the arts, physical education, and philosophy as mandatory subjects. The surprise surrounding such an announcement, one lacking any prior dialogue within the scholastic community of both teachers and students, has led to vehement indignation; in response, high-schoolers in over 850 schools have set up camp, refusing to move or leave.

The form of these occupations isn’t unprecedented; just last year in the state of São Paulo, students occupied over 200 schools. Governor Geraldo Alckmin, whose party has been in power for over twenty years in the state, attempted to hastily implement a reform that would close hundreds of schools and relocate thousands of students. Nothing went as expected. The proposal caused enormous backlash, with thousands of students refusing to leave the schools, which faced imminent closure. With no clear strategy for negotiation or resolution, the Governor resorted to the police force in an attempt to forcibly evacuate occupied schools, causing an even larger backlash. Pictures and videos of high-schoolers confronting fully armed police in defense of their schools spread like wildfire across the media. The Governor, under heavy pressure from the public and the media, and with little choice left, stepped back the planned reforms, and promised “dialogue, school by school”, cementing the success of the student’s initiative.

The impressive triumph of last year’s movements pushed students to follow the same form of protest in response to the Temer government’s proposed reform. This year’s narrative has added a morbid twist, however, lending itself more to a comparison with Golding’s Lord of the Flies than the reality of last year’s movement: the murder of a student inside one of the schools.

Lucas Eduardo Araújo Mota, 16 years old, was stabbed to death on October 24, by a fellow classmate, in Curitiba, Paraná, in the south of Brazil. The public state school was in its 11th day of occupation when it was rocked by the murder of one the movement’s members. The police quickly evacuated the school, detaining the self-confessed stabber, only 17 years old. To add to the sensationalism, in his confession, the unnamed 17-year-old claimed that a misunderstanding had broken out between him and Lucas after they both used an unnamed synthetic drug. Tensions escalated quickly and a fight broke out, in which, with a knife he had concealed, the confessor stabbed Lucas in alleged “self-defense.”  The state’s governor, seizing the opportunity, quickly released a press statement calling for the evacuation of all occupied schools, proclaiming “[Lucas’ death] is a shocking tragedy, which merits a profound reflection from our society […] The occupation of schools in Paraná has surpassed all good sense.

Those who seek to justify aggressive government action rest on a false equivalency. The government and the students are not two equal forces, and thus cannot be held accountable in the same way.

Despite the tragic event, few schools have followed the governor’s appeals. Instead, students are attempting to further cement their cause, refusing to allow the tragedy to eclipse their larger movement. Public and media opinion is shifting against them, however, as the story of a drug-induced murder flares across the nation, along with surging reports of the depredation of school property. In response, students leading the movement are attempting to isolate the event, and shift the attention to the government’s role in the situation.

Strong critics of the movement, who have gained strength and legitimacy since the murder, call the students rash and argue that the occupations are destructive and dangerous. President Temer himself has pointed to the occupations as proof of the  “lack of respect for institutions” in the country. This rhetoric serves to justify aggressive initiatives by the state, and its police force, to evacuate and secure the schools, many which have already begun to be implemented. Recent reports have claimed that some governors have resorted to siege-like measures, such as cutting off food, water, and electrical supplies, and blocking the interaction between the students and their relatives in an attempt to debilitate the occupations.

Putting aside discussions of the political intricacies of the reform, those who seek to justify aggressive government action rest on a false equivalency. The government and the students are not two equal forces, and thus cannot be held accountable in the same way. The student movement can have flaws and failings, although of course these should be prevented and minimized. The government, on the other hand, needs to act flawlessly, or at least as close as possible to it. If the students are being violent or depredating property, this does not justify violent actions perpetuated by the state; this includes not only the use of force but also measures with harmful intentions, such as impeding of access to basic needs. This might seem largely unfair in principle, but it is for this reason that the state has been delegated power: if it’s been given the monopoly on violence and order, it must have the monopoly on reason, too.

The students are citizens of the state, and the government’s utmost responsibility is to protect its citizens, especially so when they are mostly minors. Ensuring the safety of students should overtake any other political interest; this cannot come at the expense of their civil liberties, however. Marginalizing the movement and the students to the brink of lawlessness is destructive and antithetical to the role of government. It further alienates the students who rose precisely because they felt disenfranchised and thus does the opposite of solving the root issue. The government cannot posit itself as an equal, opposite force to the students, because it is not.

Critics claim, in opposition to this argument, that by giving the movement too much space, protests like these will be incessantly recurrent, with students undermining all laws with which they disagree. Here, yet another fallacy is presented: that of a slippery slope. A plethora of factors play into the triggering of an occupation, and its consequent maintenance, and only a cause of extenuating implications can prompt them. Thousands of students, from hundreds of schools, have come together to carry out this movement. To assume that this will happen repeatedly is to implicitly assume the worst of these students: that they are spoiled, lazy, and acting without a cause. Proponents of this argument confound the cause with the effect, the symptom with the illness.  Furthermore, they undermine the nature of democracy, in which all citizens, equal under the law, have a right to protest and expression, and will naturally do so. This does not mean that the movement is exempt from criticism, it simply means that the government can’t use its actions to justify its own.

There is much uncertainty regarding the future of the occupations, the movement, and the proposed reform. The students are determined to stay put, and it does not seem likely that they will voluntarily leave the schools anytime soon. The government’s only goal moving forward should be to minimize any damage or possible harm, even if it means providing students with the resources they need. If the movement resists deterrence, even after all resources have been provided and the reform is further fleshed out, then maybe the Brazilian government and its legislators should not ask themselves how it is that they are going to solve this problem, but rather why it is that there is a problem in the first place. Maybe then, they’ll start to find some more concrete answers.