UIC Institute for the Humanities

Notes from the field

From: Yue Zhang, Department of Political Science
2012-2013 Institute Faculty Fellow
2012-2013 LAS Faculty Research Award for "Urban Leviathans: The Making and
Governance of Megacities in China, India, and Brazil"

I am back from my second trip to Brazil. My talk at the Sao Paulo city council went well, and I met quite a few local officials and city councilmen. Conversations with them about municipal  decentralization is interesting, and they provided me with an insider's view of the rather complex (somewhat messy) Brazilian urban politics.

What I really want to share with you is an unexpected adventure I experienced in Sao Paulo. On Friday evening, when we were about to leave the city council after the seminar, the building was surrounded by protesters. Heavily equipped police was everywhere to protect the building. I was told that Sao Paulo was experiencing yet another large demonstration, because the president was in town on that day. A Brazilian professor and I left the building and we walked to the city center, where we were caught in the middle of the demonstration. There were a few hundred protesters and most of them were young people. As the crowds gathered in front of the central cathedral, large number of police arrived and began to use tear gas toward the people. Police helicopters were soaring above our heads, some people were shot near me, everyone was screaming and running.  It turned out to be a very chaotic and violent situation. For the first time in my life I smelt tear gas. My Brazilian colleague and I ran across several streets until we finally got in a taxi and left the chaos...

Please don't worry; I was safe. But this experience made me think a lot about the power of the mass, the relations between state and society, and the possibility for change. I have to say what I have seen in Brazil from the past summer until now made me realize the difficulty of pushing for positive changes from the bottom of the society. It is easy to go on the street to protest, but without a strong leadership and a coherent agenda demonstrations are unlikely to lead to any fundamental changes. Although Brazil is experiencing rapid economic growth and the country is enhancing its global status by hosting the World Cup and the Olympics, it still has so much to do to mitigate inequality and improve the life quality of its citizens. Most importantly, I feel that the Brazilian state sometimes is the obstacle for positive changes and future development of the country, as the problems of corruption, fragmentation, and inefficiency in the government are really bad and chronic. I am rambling...But all those experiences made me more enthusiastic about my current project on megacities.

Some of the images from the experience:



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