Cleaning Up After the Bolsonaristas in Brasília

    On the afternoon of Sunday, January 8th, exactly a week after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist popularly known as Lula, to his third term as the President of Brazil, a march held by supporters of his predecessor, the right-wing nationalist Jair Bolsonaro, reached its terminus at the National Congress of Brazil, in Brasília. The protesters, many of whom were dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag, were united by the conspiratorial claim that the election had been rigged and Bolsonaro had won. Shortly before three in the afternoon, instead of dispersing, the marchers forced their way past a meagre police presence into the most important federal buildings in the country, which they proceeded to vandalize and smash.

    That afternoon, I was in Rio de Janeiro, a city where, in the days after the inauguration, the giddy optimism of Lula’s supporters had been visible on the streets. At Bar do Omar, a live-music venue in the hillside favela of Santo Cristo, the opening time was listed as five-thirteen, in honor of his having been the thirteenth candidate on the ballot, and a cardboard cutout of the reëlected President (Lula’s first two terms were from 2003 to 2010) stood by the door. Victorious Lula signs hung in the windows of Copacabana high-rises, and that Sunday, as a few of the many blocos de samba that parade through the streets during Carnaval gathered at a plaza in downtown Rio for rehearsals, I saw a Lula flag hanging from a trumpet.

    I had gone to Praça XV, a public square in Centro, and was watching a group of performers from a cannabis-themed bloco dance the samba on stilts, surrounded by glitter-smeared young people wearing rainbow hot pants and drinking caipirinhas, when a friend sent a news article saying that protesters were storming the Brazilian National Congress. It was a moment that seemed shocking but also preordained: following a Presidency whose politics had so closely resembled those of Donald Trump, why should anyone have expected that an event resembling the invasion of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, wouldn’t be attempted, too?

    The street party did not end, but I started to notice the occasional cluster of people surrounding a phone. By the time I landed in Brasília later that night, just before midnight, on a plane full of foreign correspondents scrambling to get up to speed, the uprising had already been quelled. Brazil’s military police had shut down the roads leading to the esplanade, Brasília’s answer to the Mall in Washington, D.C. Over two hundred people had been arrested; by the next morning, as the government organized its response, twelve hundred more were in custody.

    There is a bitter saying about Brazil, a reference to Stefan Zweig’s monograph “Brazil: A Country of the Future”: that it is the country of the future where the future never arrives. The futurism on display in Brasília is of a certain vintage. The Brazilian government moved here from Rio, in 1960. The new purpose-built capital, which is located on a plateau in the country’s central-west highlands, was designed by an urban planner named Lúcio Costa, who revered Le Corbusier and made a city shaped like an airplane, with government offices located in the head and numbered residential housing developments known as superblocks located in the wings. Designed at the height of automotive optimism, the city is famous for its poor public transportation. The bus station on the city’s center axis is known for its lines, and residents spend much of their time driving down grand six-lane straightaways past architectural masterpieces that are lit up as ghostly white monuments at night.

    The Praça dos Três Poderes, or Three Powers Plaza, where the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators wreaked havoc on January 8th, is flanked by the three branches of the Brazilian government: the congress, the Supreme Court, and the Planalto (the Presidential offices), which are among the best-known works of the Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, and are some of the most beautiful government buildings in the world. The morning after the invasion, I visited the plaza. The streets around it were deserted, with the exception of a few government functionaries and reporters. In the airy Planalto, which has white marble floors and glass exterior walls that had been destroyed, workers wearing thick gloves were carefully moving large shards of glass from wheelbarrows into a dumpster placed alongside the building’s delicate curved columns. Portraits of past Presidents lining a wall in a display had been ripped out of their frames. In the hallways of the bicameral National Congress, a building known for the iconic half spheres on its roof, more glass from a series of shattered mirrored walls crunched underfoot. Other rooms in the senate looked like a video game set in a zombie apocalypse: wooden desks were torn into pieces; soil from a tossed planter was smeared all over the carpet; cans of pepper spray and abandoned police shields littered the ground.

    In an antechamber outside the senate floor, a conservator named Ismail Carvalho was inspecting a landscape painting that had been torn from its frame. In the manner of a museum docent, he explained that the work had been painted by Guido Mondin, a former senator. He pointed out a piece of glass embedded in its surface, then carefully draped the canvas in white fabric and took it away. The Supreme Court building, which was said to have seen the worst of the damage, was cordoned off. The swarms of people dressed in yellow who had perpetrated the damage the day before—Bolsonaro’s supporters have co-opted the jerseys of the national soccer team as their unofficial uniform—were nowhere to be seen.

    Justice Alexandre de Moraes stands amid the destruction in the Supreme Court building.Photograph by Rafael Vilela /  Washington Post / Getty

    It was difficult to know what to call them, the Bolsonaristas: the words being used included terrorists, criminals, fascists, barbarians, demonstrators, and invaders. They referred to themselves as patriots. Many of the fifteen hundred people who had been detained by authorities were being held in the gymnasium of a police academy on the outskirts of town, as news photographs of the assembled detainees, still wearing their soccer jerseys, soon revealed. By the next morning, the vast majority had been arrested at the encampment that had formed their base of operations, which was located on a military base less than eight kilometres from the esplanade.

    The encampment was part of an ongoing national headache. In the two months since the election was declared for Lula, similar tent cities had sprung up on military bases around the country. The stated purpose of the occupiers was to encourage the armed forces to overthrow the government. According to a military spokesperson, the Brasília encampment’s population had swelled to three thousand people over the weekend, as dozens of buses of Bolsonaro supporters arrived in advance of Sunday’s march. Late at night following the invasion, a justice from the Supreme Court ordered it shut down. The police had moved in before dawn.

    When I visited the encampment the next morning, the city of blue tarps and camping tents beneath the trees had been blocked off from public access and appeared to have been emptied of people. A few stragglers wandered out carrying backpacks and bedrolls, and soldiers in camouflage had begun folding tarps and taking down tents. In videos taken the day before, the police had been recorded standing to the side as the marchers entered the National Congress. Now, under the auspices of the federal government, the police performed a pageant of authority in front of the encampment. Dozens of officers stood shoulder to shoulder in a line that snaked longer than a city block. Another squadron of military police was mounted on horses. The spokesperson told reporters that the occupiers had been detained without the use of force, and that they were only under investigation, not arrest. They would be interviewed, and then the decision would be made whether they could be let go or sent to jail.

    The Brazilian government spent most of Monday attempting to reassure the country that the threat of a coup had been contained. They began cleaning house in Brasília, whose Bolsonaro-aligned local government had been responsible for security on the day of the protest. By Tuesday, Brasília’s governor had been suspended from office and its police chief fired and jailed. A warrant of arrest had also been issued for the district’s minister of security, Anderson Torres, a former member of Bolsonaro’s cabinet. Torres was in Orlando, Florida, on January 8th, on what he claimed was a family holiday. Jair Bolsonaro was also in central Florida, where he had travelled two days prior to Lula’s inauguration. The former President had tepidly condemned the invasion of public buildings on Twitter, then had checked himself into a hospital, citing health complications from a stabbing at a campaign rally in 2018.

    Later that afternoon, I went to a press conference held by Flávio Dino, a little over a week into his new job as the Minister of Justice and National Security under Lula. Dino is a tall, heavyset man with a didactic delivery. The room was full, mostly with local reporters. Dino chose his words carefully, accompanied by a sign language interpreter. The worst, he promised, had passed, but the insurrection had not come out of nowhere. “Words have power, especially when the words come from the president of the republic,” he said. “What we saw yesterday was this discussion on social media gaining legs, arms, rocks, bullets, bombs. It was the migration of the hate on social media to real life, and the result is not good.” His expression became emphatic. “There are people, political leaders, who are responsible for the discourse of hate, and for the destruction we saw yesterday in Três Poderes, the attempt at a coup. And it’s important to state this with total clarity to the country of Brazil.” He promised an investigation into the financing of the protest.

    After the press conference, I visited a thirty-three-year-old member of the House of Deputies named Sâmia Bomfim at the housing block in Brasília where she has a congress-provided apartment. She stays there for the three days a week when the house is in session. On Sunday afternoon, Bomfim, who represents the state of São Paulo, was at a children’s birthday party in Rio de Janeiro with her one-year-old son when her phone began flooding with messages about the invasion. She flew to São Paulo the following morning to leave the baby with her mother, then travelled to Brasília. When we met, she was grappling with a feeling of incredulity. Only a week before, she had celebrated with thousands of others at the Praça dos Três Poderes at the inauguration of Lula on New Year’s Day. “There was so much hope surrounding his victory, as if it were the end of a nightmare,” she told me. “But a few were warning that, no, the nightmare hasn’t ended.”

    Bomfim, who was recently elected to her second term, is the leader of a small left-wing party in congress. She had just stopped home to change clothes between meetings, and soon she would be going back to congress, where the leaders of parties from across the political spectrum would be gathering. The apartment where we met had a functional, temporary feeling, and was mostly empty of belongings apart from a small pile of children’s toys and two posters, one an illustration of Frida Kahlo and another of the Brazilian singer Belchior.

    Bomfim blamed Bolsonaro unequivocally for the insurrection. “We saw him on Twitter acting like it was an isolated group that did this, a few radicals, but they weren’t just a few, no?” she said. From the beginning, Bolsonaro’s political rise had been driven by a strategy similar to Trump’s. His son, Eduardo, Bomfim pointed out, had started meeting with Republican strategist Steve Bannon before his father’s election in 2018. “They cultivated the same intellectual model, the same dissemination of fake news,” she said. “They communicated with the international network of the extreme right.” The day after January 6, 2021, Jair Bolsonaro had said that if Brazil used electronic voting machines in their election the following year Brazil would see “even bigger problems,” and Eduardo met again with Trump, Bannon, and other Republican strategists following Bolsonaro’s 2022 loss. The events on Sunday were met with a chorus of praise from the right-wing commentariat in the United States, with Bannon praising Brazil’s “freedom fighters.”

    “It’s a very similar script,” Bomfim said. “People who have been very radicalized by the extreme right occupied the capitol to question the results of the elections, with the difference being that here Lula had already assumed office.”

    In Brazil, unlike in America, nobody was killed in the invasion, which took place during the congressional summer recess, but the physical damage to government buildings was arguably much worse. That night, in an assertion of political power, Lula presided over a televised meeting with the country’s twenty-seven governors or their envoys, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the deputy president of the senate, and the leaders of both houses of congress and several Supreme Court judges. The apex of the Brazilian political class, dressed formally in suits, assembled around a table and took turns condemning the attempted takeover and expressing their desire for unity. Afterward, they made a symbolic descent together down the ramp of the Planalto and walked across the Praça dos Três Poderes to the Supreme Court to survey the damage.

    Access to the court had been limited all day, and I watched television correspondents gasp in dismay as they observed the extent of the wreckage. The power appeared to be cut off inside; the broken windows were darkened and covered in white-painted handprints and graffiti. Copper busts and statues lay scattered outside on the ground in undignified positions next to assorted office chairs and ripped up copies of the civil code. Flags abandoned by the protesters lay tangled up underfoot. Inside, the building looked as if it were undergoing a gut renovation. Wires hung from ceilings; puddles stood stagnant on the ground. Lula and the other officials picked their way over broken glass into the main chamber, their way lit by the lights of camera crews and the flashlights on their phones. The President of Brazil looked exhausted.

    Early the following morning, the police began releasing the detained demonstrators from the gymnasium of the Federal Police Academy, which is located in a suburb beyond the boundaries of the planned city. Outside its gates, a few family members and supporters waited for news. Occasionally, buses of people, their yellow-and-green shirts visible through bus windows, passed through. Some buses were headed to the prison. Others headed directly to Brasília’s interstate bus station, where detainees whom the government had determined posed no threat could find rides back to where they came from. Only lawyers were being granted access when I visited that afternoon. The lawyers I saw looked like they could be cast members of the same reality-television show: they wore sharp, brightly colored suits, shiny jewelry, and giant sunglasses.

    A Catholic priest in a black cassock stood outside talking on his cell phone. His name was Geraldo Gama. He wore his gray hair short and neatly parted on one side, and he spoke with the smooth delivery of a guided meditation. He told me he had been allowed into the gymnasium to offer spiritual solace the day before and suggested that a grave injustice had been committed against the protesters detained behind the gate. “The media says they are terrorists,” he said. “An eighty-year-old terrorist? A little old lady who is over sixty who has marks on her knees from praying and singing the national anthem?” His expression was one of wounded indignation. His parish in Brasília, Jesus Bom Pastor, had set up a reception center for the detainees dropped off at the bus station, helping pay for bus tickets home for those who had no money and giving them a meal. (Earlier in the day, in response to complaints by the right about the treatment of the detainees, Alexandre de Moraes, the Supreme Court justice overseeing the detention, had remarked that jail was not meant to be “a summer camp.”)

    “Terrorists are dangerous,” Father Geraldo continued. “These people were involved in a great plot with infiltrators who unfortunately brought things to this point.” The protesters, he said, were “heroes and innocents.” I asked who the terrorists were, if not the people who had been detained at the camp. “This is the question to ask the police,” he said. “This is what needs to be investigated.”

    I spoke with other supporters waiting outside. Several of them told me the same thing: they hadn’t gone to the demonstration itself, and they were just here to help their friends. Because of their mistrust of the media, the Bolsonaristas seemed to get most of their talking points and information from WhatsApp memes. I began to wonder if this line was a meme, too. As the afternoon went on, the rumors replicated themselves: I was told there were stories circulating on WhatsApp that people had died in detention, that one detainee had slit his wrists, that the damage to the government buildings had been perpetrated by black-bloc infiltrators. I was told a dildo had been found in the desk drawer of de Moraes, I was told that Joe Biden had interfered in the Brazilian elections. “I don’t necessarily believe what’s on WhatsApp,” a lawyer named Valdete Miranda said before she went inside the compound to meet with her client. “But if it’s as bad as I’ve seen on social media it’s very grave, and human life is more important than material or immaterial goods.”

    The failed government takeover had not diminished their faith in the possibility of a military coup. “The military is our only hope,” a Bolsonarista named Telma Vieira, from Araras, a city in the state of São Paulo, told me with fervor. “I don’t believe that the military has betrayed us, but, yes, the generals betrayed our country, and our President—because he is our President, and he will be our President again.” Another woman came up alongside us and began recording our conversation on her phone, nodding vigorously. “I believe in God,” Vieira continued. She did not need to name Bolsonaro. “God will cure him. He will get better and he will return to be our President.” I asked her what she thought of the destruction of the day before. “The patriots fell into a trap,” she said. “Our protests were always peaceful. Our protest was prayer, singing the national anthem, the military anthem, the anthem of the flag.” She said that the marchers had agreed at the outset that, should there be any acts of destruction, the Bolsonaristas would sit down and thereby reveal the infiltrators, but that her detained friends told her—she had not gone to the march because she wasn’t in Brasília that day, she said—that there was too much chaos and too many people for this plan to be carried out. She explained that the vandalism of the government offices had been prepared in advance and that the protesters, in their naïveté, had fallen into this trap instead of turning around and walking away. The bandits wore bandanas; the patriots, who had nothing to hide, went unmasked. Nobody had financed anything, she insisted; there had just been grassroots arrangements for demonstrators to help one another pay for bus tickets, things like that.

    The Bolsonaro supporters seemed uncertain of what would happen now. “Barata-voa,” a local said to me of their apparent state of mind—“flying cockroach”—a Brazilian phrase used to describe running around without direction. The patriots distanced themselves from the property damage. They lamented their treatment by the state. They cast blame on dark and mysterious forces. They seemed to live in a parallel reality riven with subterfuge, secret plots, and battles of good and evil. Their samizdat was propagated by WhatsApp, which constantly alerted them to the latest developments.

    The interstate bus station in Brasília was a thirty-minute drive back into the south wing of the city. The sky over the flat landscape was dotted with enormous clouds. Inside its busy open-air terminal, a few Bolsonaro supporters could be distinguished from the other passengers by their bedrolls and Neymar jerseys. The chartered buses that had brought the demonstrators to Brasília had been impounded by federal police the night of the attack on the capitol buildings. A few of the bus drivers were also gathered here and said they had not yet received information about how to get their vehicles back. (Flávio Dino, the Minister of Justice, had said in his press conference the day before that the buses had not been chartered for “touristic excursions.”) The bus drivers were receiving assistance from two bustling volunteers affiliated with Father Geraldo’s parish, who offered cups of water and folding chairs. The volunteers, two women who lived in Brasília, told me that they had not attended the protest on Sunday, that they were just helping people get back home.

    They introduced me to a sixty-two-year-old driving school instructor named Edmilson Da Silva who, to fulfill what he saw as his patriotic duty, had travelled to Brasília from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. He was a thin man with sun-worn skin and graying hair. He wore a beige camouflage T-shirt and green shorts, and his eyes were bleary from lack of sleep. The volunteers from the church had given him the money for his ticket back to Belo Horizonte, an eleven-hour bus ride away. After a lengthy speech about compromised electronic voting machines, he told me what he had seen on January 8th.

    Like most of the marchers, he had arrived from out of state to the encampment on the military base. “We organized ourselves so everyone could go to the esplanade, to invade the esplanade,” he said. “Not ‘invade’! ” one of the volunteers objected. Da Silva corrected himself without changing his expression: “It was peaceful.” As the marchers began to depart for their long walk to the esplanade, he had been slow getting his things together and packing his backpack, and so he found himself toward the end of the thousands of Bolsonaristas who had amassed along a grand six-lane boulevard “like a herd of cattle,” he said. By the time he reached the Praça dos Três Poderes, the destruction of the buildings had already begun (a chronology he emphasized repeatedly). Since the windows were already broken and everyone was already inside the congressional building, he went inside, too. He described a barrage of rubber bullets and pandemonium—“We were terrified.” Some protesters ran; others resisted. He started having difficulty breathing, and the rubber bullets seemed to be getting worse. He sought refuge from the chaos in the kitchen of the senate. Then, as the police began throwing some kind of flash bombs, he fled the building. “We ran like horses,” he told me. “And I’m not so young. I was tired. We were all tired.”

    He returned to the encampment and was preparing for bed when the police announced that the occupiers would be given an hour to pack their things. The protesters shouted out a request to have two hours, he said. Their requests were denied. “People left their suitcases unpacked, their things.” The police loaded hundreds of detainees onto buses, and hours passed. “We drove around a lot, a lot, a lot,” Da Silva said. “The anxiety, the thirst, the hunger, all getting worse; terrified women crying.” Finally, they arrived at the police academy. “It was like a concentration camp,” he said. “The torture we suffered there was worse than the bombs.” The night was already turning into a war story, a legend. The flash bombs had fallen all around him but none had touched him. He had felt the protection of the divine.

    He had been released to the bus station after going through a triage process where he passed his information to the police. He did not express remorse about the damage to the government buildings. Someone else was responsible for that, and as I asked who had carried out the acts the chorus of blame for infiltrators and bandits began once again, the volunteers from the church showing me conspiratorial videos on their phones. The Bolsonaristas seemed undeterred by the national condemnation of their action. “If I have to come back and die, I’ll come,” a woman from the border city of Foz do Iguaçu named Solange cried out. “As many times as they come, I’ll come.”

    “They want to bring communism to Brazil through Lula!” Da Silva said. He claimed that Lula was not elected by the people but by “the system.” He said that Brazil was on track to end up like Venezuela, where people “are killing dogs so they can eat.” “It’s going to be necessary to come here to fight with my people even if I die,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to have enjoyed life. If I die, it’s already been a good length. It’s already great.”

    “Look at these hands,” Solange said, showing me her calloused palm. “These are not the hands of a rioter.” She told me of a government plan to kill off the elderly, to keep their pensions. She told me about a YouTube channel I needed to watch. “Let’s find somewhere to sit down,” she said, her eyes flashing with energy and purpose. “There is so much to talk about.” ♦

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