The birth of a social movement
In Brazil, middle and upper class families send their children to private schools, including but not restricted to religious schools. Public schools commonly offer a sub-standard learning experience to students: classrooms are overcrowded, buildings are old and not well maintained, teachers are underpaid, and there is a lack of libraries, labs and sports facilities. Most public school classrooms still have old blackboards and school equipment is often missing. São Paulo is the wealthiest among Brazil’s twenty-seven states and territories. The state government administers 5,585 public primary and high schools that are attended by nearly four million working-class children.
It is in this chaotic context that the São Paulo state government decided to re-engineer the education system. The rationale behind the reforms was ‘process optimisation’, which roughly translates to efficiency based on numbers, cost reduction, specialisation, and allegedly, better use of spaces and of the workforce. The ‘restructuring’ of the state school system would mean the closure of ninety-four schools, an unknown number of teacher redundancies, and the relocation of more than 310,000 students to schools far from where they live, in neighbourhoods where there is no public transport system.
Schools would enrol students within specific age groups (i.e. six to ten, eleven to fourteen, and fifteen to eighteen). Every school would feel the impact of this restructure as even the ones that remain open will have to enrol many more students in their already overcrowded classrooms.
This plan, which was scheduled to start in 2016, was conceived without any consultation whatsoever with school communities. The pedagogical science behind these major changes has been summarised in a nineteen-page report that has been thoroughly contested by all state universities, based on the idea that schools would perform better if young children were separated from mid-teens, and mid-teens separated from older teenagers – an idea with no scientific evidence to back it up.
It is clear to all stakeholders that this reorganisation is the first phase of a major restructure that intends to transfer the public education system to private providers. This process of privatisation is already under way in other Brazilian states such as Goiás and Parana, which are under the same conservative government that has ruled São Paulo for the last twenty years.
As soon as communities learned of the restructuring and the consequent student dislocations and school closures, the students at first – and then teachers and parents – began to resist and to organise. They felt totally excluded by a decision that would profoundly affect their lives; they did not want to be forced to change to other schools nor for the government to close down the schools that represent the history of their communities and the location of their only social ties. Through discussions of the government’s proposal, students realised that the consequences would be disastrous to their already precarious learning quality: classrooms would be even more overcrowded and teachers overloaded. On top of that, many schools not scheduled for closure were set to lose funding for their night classes and other special education courses for young adults.
Beginning in October, the students organised meetings, petitions and demonstrations. They tried to open a conversation with the state education department. But they received no response. São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin was re-elected by a wide margin a year earlier. His government appeared to be in a position to implement changes with no contestation from the public. The state’s teachers had maintained a two-month long strike that ended without the salary increase they were demanding and an apparent win for the government. However, the governor had no idea the extent of student dissatisfaction – or of their capacity to fight for their rights.
Some of the students had already tested their collective power when they participated in major demonstrations against bus fee increases in June 2013. These protests started in São Paulo, within the public high schools to be precise, and changed the face of the country through a wave of mobilisation and social activism.
On 9 November, when students realised that the government would not open any dialogue with them, they began to occupy their schools. What started with a handful of schools rapidly became a powerful movement of more than 200 occupied schools around the state. Parents and teachers camped out the front and lawyers gave advice. More than 1,200 people have been working voluntarily delivering classes to the students within in the occupied spaces.
The mobilisation attracted the support of TV personalities and musicians, intellectuals, a few members of the courts, the teachers’ union and social activist organisations. Even the mainstream media, which is usually loyal to the state government, published articles empathising with the students’ cause.
The students who are demonstrating are very young. Most of them are between fifteen to eighteen years of age, but there are students as young as twelve who are engaged in the movement as well. They come from working-class low-income families, with many of the students already working part-time, with black students and young women well-represented. These young people are redrawing the face of Brazilian political activism.
Students engaged in the Occupy Schools movement have been politically inspired by their Argentinean and Chilean counterparts who used these tactics during their 2006 and 2011 revolts against government plans to privatise public education. Using these experiences as political background, students have organized themselves in a democratic manner, without hierarchies or leadership; they have formed their own daily assemblies and put together committees to clean the schools, to cook, to take care of school security, and to organise social and educational activities for each school.
The level of organisation, creativity and learning that has been shown within the occupied schools is amazing. The students are cleaning, renovating and painting, mowing the lawn, and even gardening. They are doing the maintenance of the schools – something that the state has not provided for many years. When opening the schools’ storage rooms, they often found dozens of books and other pedagogical materials that should have been distributed to them but instead were relegated to oblivion. As they clean, they are also documenting what they find; they are very angry with their principals who have denied them access to materials that were rightfully theirs.
Every school has put together a daily agenda with workshops and open classes. There are sports tournaments and cultural activities such as theatre productions, concerts and political debates. On the weekends, teachers, intellectuals and artists visit the schools and even schools located far away from the city are holding cultural and sports activities.
And so these schools, which had always been surrounded by high fences and walls that were dirty and not well-maintained, have become colourful spaces full of life and meaningful activities: debates on gender, racism, student politics and the environment, movies screenings, dance, capoeira, drama and circus workshops, poetry soirees, book exchanges, video workshops, yoga, skateboarding, painting and music, classes in English language, writing and history. Yes, students are studying during the occupation, but with a different and much more engaging approach. They are making the decisions.
On social media, it is possible to read student diaries that describe and comment on life inside the occupied schools; their videos, drawings, cartoons, song parodies and choir performances are also viewable online (see for example the Facebook pages of two of the occupied schools, Ocupação: Ana Rosa and Ocupa Romeu). All of these things are moving expressions of learning, conviviality and collective life, supplemented by creativity and high-level thinking skills. The students make decisions together, they respect each other’s right to talk – and they have a lot to say.
Schools in São Paulo will never be the same after these last few weeks.
A winnable war
Throughout all of this, the students have had to face a ‘guerrilla war’ propagated by the São Paulo Department of Education against each occupied school. This ‘war’ began with misinformation broadcast through communities and mainstream media: claims that students were destroying schools, taking drugs and being manipulated by extremist groups. School principals threatened families and circulated rumours that students who had participated in the protests would be prevented from finishing their school year and face punitive repercussions. School principals and other state officials gathered people in front of the schools to intimidate the students. State military police were called and used extreme violence against the students inside the school premises, many of the students were under sixteen years of age. In some communities, violent groups were assembled to threaten students and break into the schools, stealing equipment and destroying offices and buildings, then later blaming students for the violations.
As well as resisting inside the schools, at the end of November the students decided to occupy the streets of the city. Their motto ‘street lesson’ quickly spread through the population, where there has been widespread support for the students. Each day around the Sao Paulo metropolitan area, several very busy central streets were blocked at different times. Students also occupied the Department of Education offices in regional cities far from the capital. Military police used high levels of violence to contain these street demonstrations, while deceptively painting the students as delinquents.
The state government thought the population would turn their backs on the students due to the huge traffic jams caused by the demonstrations. However, with the fast online circulation of pictures and movies showing police brutality against teenagers fighting for better education, community support for the students grew even stronger.
Finally, on 4 December, after twenty-five days of school occupations and streets protests, the São Paulo government decided to postpone its school restructure and the education minister and his chief of staff were dismissed. The students have continued the occupations, as they still want to see their other demands met: specifically, they want a plan to improve public education and a clear schedule of meetings with authorities to discuss the quality of their education and the future of the schools restructure.
But these young Paulistas are already winners. They confronted and defeated a conservative government that looked unbeatable after twenty years in power. Most of all, they’ve renewed social hope in a country that is currently undergoing a serious economic and political crisis.
All images c/o O Mal Ecuardo.