Brazil protests expand to over one million people

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Brazil protests

More than a million Brazilians poured into the streets of at least 80 cities Thursday in this week’s largest anti-government demonstrations yet, protests that saw violent clashes break out in several cities as people demanding improved public services and an end to corruption faced tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

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At least one protester was killed in Sao Paulo state after a car rammed into a crowd of demonstrators, the driver apparently angered about being unable to drive along a street.

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.

Young men gathered in clumps in Rio, T-shirts wrapped around their faces, throwing tear gas canisters back at police, some of whom raced after troublemakers on their motorcycles. Thundering booms echoed off stately colonial buildings as rubber bullets and the gas were fired at fleeing crowds.

 

At least 30 people were injured in Rio, including protesters like Michele Menezes, a wisp of a woman whose youthful face and braces belie her 26 years. She said that she and others took refuge from the violence in an open bar, only to have a police officer toss a tear gas canister inside.

 

It exploded on top of Menezes, tore through her jeans and dug out two quarter-sized holes on the back of her thighs while also perforating a rash of small holes in her upper arm.

 

“I was leaving a peaceful protest and it’s not the thugs that attack me but the police themselves,” said Menezes, removing her wire-rim glasses to wipe her bloodshot eyes.

 

She later took refuge in a hotel along with about two dozen youths, families and others said they had been repeatedly hit with pepper spray by motorcycle police as they too took refuge inside a bar.

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.

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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.

 

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