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The Ninjas in Brazil

Tear gas. Stun grenades. Righteous anger. After embedding with the Brazilian activist group Mídia Ninja, one writer reflects on the World Cup demonstrations and their impact.

“Stop. Stop. Stop, stop, stop,” Caio says. He’s seen something. We’re on a side street in Rio de Janeiro — within walking distance of Maracanã Stadium, where Argentina is taking on Bosnia-Herzegovina in the first World Cup game the city is hosting — and a protest that had been marching on, compact and peaceful for the past hour, has just splintered. The packs of Rio police officers, who had been treading silently and steadily alongside the banner-waving protesters, suddenly formed a cordon. The tear gas quickly followed, sending the protesters helter-skelter. Now I follow Caio, a member of the independent media collective Mídia Ninja, a veteran of this kind of thing, out of the scrum. “It’s dangerous what they decide to do,” he says of the protesters. “The street is very small. There is no strategy.”

At the end of the path, loose packs of kids sprint down a wide avenue. Are they running away from the police? Toward the police? Behind us, a lanky teenager with a black bandanna tied across his face picks up a rock and hurls it as hard as he can. Caio calmly issues his warning: first, “Stop.” Then, “Vai, vai, vai” — “Go, go, go.” I turn to follow him in the other direction, and not a split second goes by before a massive BOOM rattles my skull and clenches my guts. Somewhere nearby a cop has set off a stun grenade, and the echoing sound of the explosion would have been disorienting enough even if I weren’t now busy trying to figure out how the hell Caio had seen it coming amid the melee. “Where …” I ask, and he smiles and ignores the questions and urges us gently forward, telling me and a crew of hopped-up kids who won’t listen anyway, “Don’t run, don’t run, don’t ever run.”

It started early last June in São Paulo, with a 10-cent hike on bus fare. By June 20, 2013, the protests had spread to dozens of cities, from Rio to São Paulo to Manaus to Recife to Belo Horizonte, and more than a million people took to the streets. With FIFA’s Confederations Cup in full swing in Brazil, and the World Cup just a year away, the unimaginable collection of people chanted their disapproval of an estimated hundreds of thousands of residents being evicted because of the tournament, and of the billions of dollars in government spending — not on hospitals or schools, but on massive new stadiums built to the exacting specifications of FIFA. Their shout: “Nao vai ter copa! ” — “There will be no World Cup!”

With the images broadcast internationally — fire plumes, smashed-in windows, masked protesters tossing Molotov cocktails, city plazas blanketed by humans — that battle cry, even in soccer-mad Brazil, wasn’t hard to buy. “We are changing the history of this country,” Paulo Henrique Lima, a young protester, said at the time. “Brazil woke up. … We are going to construct a new politics where people have a voice and go to the street to demand this.”

And in the very last few days leading up to the World Cup, that hope — or that fear, depending on where you were standing — still resounded. And then the actual matches started, and their flurry of mind-boggling goals and Holy Spirit–affirming runs seemed to instantaneously rejuvenate the lambasted love affair between Brazil and its national game. Meanwhile, outside the stadiums, while the aesthetics were familiar — the tear gas, the slogans, the riot police, the always-present threat of violence or death — the numbers had dwindled. Nao vai ter copa! they’d yelled, and it had really seemed possible. And then the day of reckoning finally arrived. And where had all the protesters gone? And who was it who actually showed up? And what the hell were they supposed to do now?

Re:publica 2014 Digital Society Conferences

Felipe Altenfelder

On a balmy Rio winter Friday, I head north of Copacabana to the quiet neighborhood of Botafogo to meet Felipe Altenfelder, the de facto spokesperson for Mídia Ninja. Last year, with no claims to objectivity, Ninja embedded its reporters and cameramen deep into the actions, and became as trusted a source on the ground as any corporate entity claiming the same. Now, with the World Cup, it’s time again to prove it can do top-flight journalism on a nonexistent budget. “If you look at our work yesterday, we covered Macapá, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Brasília, Rio, São Paulo,” Altenfelder, a bony 29-year-old with a sharp, wispily bearded face, says proudly. “It’s just us and Globo” — Brazil’s all-encompassing media behemoth — “doing that.”

We meet in Ninja’s Rio HQ, a cramped, well-trafficked three-bedroom apartment commandeered into an all-purpose office/dining hall/battle room/dorm room. “We sleep in the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom,” one Ninja photographer tells me with a smile. “We’re used to it.” Tonight, though, is a bit tense: A Ninja in Belo Horizonte, who’d been live-streaming a protest, had been arrested and possibly beaten. While a table of young women in short, punky haircuts and nose rings furrow their brows over their laptops, monitoring the situation with their associates in the city, Altenfelder leads me to the boteco on the corner, where we find a table among the languorous old men, and order a paper flute of peanuts and a tall, frosty bottle of Antarctica beer.

“It was an historical moment of expanding our democracy,” Altenfelder, with one eye on the TV showing the day’s game highlights, recalls of last June. “And when it happened, the massive media were totally unprepared to deal with it. They were shooting from the helicopters, and they have somebody speaking on that from a studio miles away. Ninety-nine percent of the channels have a presenter saying, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of vandals.’ And it was not vandals: It was a crowd of a million people. And all these people when they get back home, they turn on the TV, and they saw them being represented by this media! And they felt, This is not how we want to see ourselves. And then we were there. With a very brave crew.”

Quickly, mainstream media became interested in Mídia Ninja, both as a source (ESPNFC has a licensing agreement with them) and a story. “In this moment, we could do something more like the rap groups do,” Altenfelder says. “‘Oh, fuck you, I’m not talking to press.’ This is good. I respect that. But we recognized that this would be our best opportunity to go over our biggest challenge — how to talk not to activist people, but to all people. So we decided to do all the interviews that were requested. And then, boom, the thing just exploded. The Guardian, the Observer, El País — everyone was noticing Mídia Ninja, Mídia Ninja, Mídia Ninja.”

A few days earlier, on the morning of the first game of the World Cup, I checked out a protest that started out in front of Candelária, the 18th-century Roman Catholic church made infamous by a 1993 incident in which eight street kids, some as young as 11 years old, were shot and killed by Rio police officers. The kids had spent nights bundled up out here, in front of the church; the cops were apparently operating on orders to clear the square. Seven years later, Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, one of the survivors of the massacre, would achieve a whole new level of infamy when his botched attempt to rob the passengers of city bus 174 became a prolonged hostage situation, broadcast live on TV. “Didn’t you kill my friends at Candelária?” he yelled out the window at one point. “I was there.” Eventually, he would be arrested, and, later, suffocated while in police custody.

The morning action was civil and bright, with some bite to it: Edgy cameramen in flak jackets and helmets reading IMPRENSA coexisted with costumed revelers (an all-pink-everything Arab sheikh; an all-pink-everything Pope) and punk-rock kids in skinny jeans and skeleton-face bandannas over braces-filled mouths, their Guy Fawkes masks still in their plastic wrapping. One young student, Etu, his curly hair up in a ponytail, happily brought up the recurring joke about Rio mayor Eduardo Paes’s tongue-in-cheek promise to kill himself if Argentina beat Brazil: “OK, now we are supporting Argentina. Go, Messi!”

As they marched forward, down Avenida Rio Branco, rows and rows of city buses had become immobilized. The punk-rock kids, giving in to the timeless teenage urge to jump on shit with two middle fingers in the air, found benches and posts to teeter upon. A dude in a fairly convincing full-body Batman outfit clambered on top of a bus and everyone squealed.

At one point, taking a breather, I grabbed a corn on the cob and a cashew juice from a street vendor and parked on a bus-stop seat. Immediately, a fellow in a striped polo, hurriedly screwing on the top of a can of spray paint, politely nudged me aside: “I, ah, have to finish.” I scooted over, and he polished off a giant graffiti’d COPA PARA QUEM? — “World Cup for whom?” — on the back bus shelter wall, then gave me a smile and a thumbs-up. Another young man, sitting next to me, leaned over, pointing at the happy crowd, now hopping in unison, and said something in Portuguese. Excuse me? He switched to English: “It’s like Carnaval!”

Courtesy of Midia Ninja

That morning protest was pleasant, but tiny relative to last year. And it had met that all-too-familiar bitter end: plumes of tear gas, emanating out. “People are tired of tear gas,” Altenfelder says now. “They don’t even run anymore. They just say” — grinning, he stands, hands up in submission — “‘OK! OK!’ Just looking at the cops, like, ‘Why?’”

Last year Brazilian police started arresting people for carrying vinegar, claiming it was a bomb-making material; perhaps not coincidentally, vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs were the household method of choice for combating the effects of tear gas. Meanwhile, high-profile protesters had their homes raided and their computers and phones confiscated. And then, there was the always-present fear of bodily harm: In a February protest, Santiago Andrade, a cameraman, died after a flare struck him in the head. The hard core may still chant “Como é que faz? Está todo mundo viciado nesse gás!” — “Bring it on! We are all addicted to this gas!” — but you can understand why regular civilians might have gotten a bit skittish.

Despite threats of a strike basically hours before kickoff, the Rio airports ran smoothly; doing their best to make us forget all about who paid their massive bills, the sparkly new stadiums shone bright and true. Romário, the soccer legend turned populist politician, tore into FIFA before the Cup; during the actual games, his Havaianas commercial — in which he totally burns Maradona by, uh, sending Diego his left flip-flop? — ran incessantly. And then there was the tournament itself. I could tell you that an all-time record was set for numbers of goals scored in the group stage, or I could just show you Robin van Persie flopping forth like the most net-minded of dolphins. Either way, you’d remember that the early, beauty-soaked days of the 2014 World Cup may well have been potent enough to quell small-scale civil wars.

While it’s clear that June 2013 made Ninja, it’s also clear that June 2013 is gone. The organization is shifting its focus to covering what it calls “micro-fights”: small political battles, throughout the country, in which a trampled underdog could use the Mídia Ninja treatment. And it wants to move forward, past de rigueur protest aesthetics and into a “carnavalization” of politics, with street parties and popular songs. “You know, we are not addicted on shooting police violence!” Altenfelder insists, bearing a heavy grin. “But for now, as it happens, we have to keep shooting it. It’s a kind of responsibility.”

When I return to Ninja HQ on an afternoon a few days later, the vibe is markedly cheerier. Karinny, the girl in Belo Horizonte, was released from police custody. “OK, she’s free,” Felipe says, while rolling a thin little cigarette. “So let’s get back to the party!”

Plastic Tupperware containers of rice and vegetables have been prepared and arranged in a big tote sack that reads Forrest Day. There are Ninjas out in the field who have been working since the morning, now heading to the protest at Maracanã, and they need to be fed. I’m handed a two-liter bottle of Coke and told to follow Caio, a handsome young kid with oversize ’80s glasses and an expansive range of curly hair, out to a stick-shift red hatchback. Right now Caio’s doing a lot of the driving, but roles are interchangeable. The ethos of the group is that everyone’s a pedreiro, he explains: a worker. Caio admits, with a sly grin, that he’s the only one with a valid license. He says this just after talking with both hands about his wholly positive experimentations with the infamous psychedelic Amazonian beverage ayahuasca while checking directions on his phone and shifting gears behind the wheel.

At the first protest targeted at the first World Cup game in Rio, maybe 250 people are present; police and press are overrepresented. But as helicopters circle low in the sky, pinning a floodlight on us, something undeniably epic is afoot. As he walks by me, Caio says flatly, “There will be bombs. I know it.”

Within an hour, he’s right. At an apparently predetermined point, the cops refuse to let the paraders advance any farther toward Maracanã and form a battalion line on one side of a sewage canal. The march sputters, then attempts to go around the other way, and that’s when the stun grenades — two huge booms, back to back — come at us, followed immediately by the trails of tear gas. Potential energy has become kinetic. It’s kicked off now.

The front line of the protest sprints back, and a crew of men and women in white lab coats — volunteer medics — urge them to slow down, slow down. “If you panic, it’s worse,” a pretty, tall brunette explains. “Take your breath. The blood won’t process the oxygen otherwise.” Earlier, another medic, portly with scraggly chin hair, had shown me his tear gas–remedying spray bottle. “Fifty percent magnesium hydroxide, 50 percent water,” he explained, puffing on a cigarette. “For if it gets in your throat.”

I follow Caio closely as he takes turns, letting me know when to hang back and providing running commentary on the situation. He’s a bit fed up with this kind of action; he wants to “mobilize people,” to “dialogue with people,” to “create community.” He points out one cop’s rifle, a fuzil, which he’s surprised and alarmed to see: “It’s not a simple weapon.” He points up to the tear gas dissipating in a breeze, swirling his finger. “This kind of thing of the natural … ?” The wind? “The wind! The wind is our friend.”

A galeteria, seeing the approaching mess, quickly drags down its shutters, and a few street drinkers hustle to get inside before the barricades drop. Other boozers take selfies with the marching cops behind them and hand me and Caio generous sips of their chopp. Later, we read about Molotov cocktails being flung, and one cop firing live rounds into the air. For now, we just make sure to stay far enough back from the police lines so as to not get hit by flung rocks.

“Now they are … ” Caio says, pointing at the cops and searching for the word, “um, hunting. And now the wind” — which has died down — “is not our friend.” A few minutes later, we have our close call with the stun grenade, and Caio’s sick and tired of it all. “The kids, they want to fight,” he says disapprovingly. “You want to fight, join the army. It’s just adrenaline.” Yes. This is true. But what adrenaline.

“From now on, FIFA will have no peace,” Altenfelder promises. “The thing will move. We activated the debate globally. It’s a legacy of Brazilian people during this World Cup. This is nice.” But the distinction between anti-FIFA and anti-Cup sentiment is crucial. And the fervor engendered by brilliant soccer is strong enough to blast it all away. “These people [in the media], they keep saying Brazilian people, they are against the World Cup,” he says. “We went to watch [Brazil vs. Mexico] in a favela yesterday. And what — there are people watching the World Cup! Imagine those little streets — everybody took out their TV, put them on the door of the house, everybody wearing yellow.”

It’s the kind of fervor that can turn quickly: When Brazil suffered its soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the Germans, it was easy to wonder — where will all that anger go now? But protests or not, the independent network of Mídia Ninja, Altenfelder insists, will have a role to play. “Police will keep murdering. Indigenous people will keep being massacred,” he says, with the slightest of smiles. “Don’t worry. There will be lots of trouble to get in.”

The cops have now definitively taken over the corners, standing ominously in still lines of overly padded officers while spare remnants of the march gamely try to keep up the noise with drums and trumpets. The Mídia Ninja folks, having reconvened, start sharing beers, making sure everyone is present and accounted for, safe and healthy.

There’s a baile funk party tonight, Caio says, in Rocinha — it’s the largest favela in Brazil, and Mídia Ninja has been working with partners there to reopen a cultural center. Ever the cheerleader, Caio polls the group — “You coming to funky party? Funky party? Funky party?” — and, quickly, members of a hazardously large coed group pile on top of one another into the Ninja-mobile. Despite Caio’s insistence on seeing red lights as a mostly nonbinding suggestion, we get to Rocinha in one piece. There, Caio and Altenfelder and the gang warmly greet their pal Soca, a neighborhood local with whom they’re collaborating on the cultural center project. For a while, we all hang out in the snaking, steeply sloped street, marked with loud little bars and pastel shops and at least one military police cruiser, its driver propped out front with a massive automatic rifle strapped diagonally down on his person.

Then we head into the party, held in a cavernous, echoing club, where decked-out friends take turns posing for selfies, dropping into seamless group choreography, trying to teach gringos how to dance. Soca makes sure we’re all waved in for free, and after a hard day’s work deep into the night, the Ninjas enjoy the funky party.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Brazil, Midia Ninja, felipe altenfelder, Soccer

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad