Sao Paulo Officials Declare ‘War’ on Students’ Occupy Movement

Image Source: Daniel Zanini H. Flickr, Creative Commons Occupy

Image Source: Daniel Zanini H. Flickr, Creative Commons

San Paulo, Brazil (GVO) – Three weeks ago, Brazilian teens from Sao Paulo started seizing public schools due to be shut down by a new state program dubbed “reorganization.” When talks with the government stalled, youths occupied 193 institutions. On Sunday, November 29, an audio recording leaked onto the Internet revealing that a senior official in Brazil’s Education Department says the government is “at war” with Sao Paulo’s students, and has instructed school principals to demobilize the occupation movement.

Despite this controversy and student movement, Sao Paulo’s Governor officially launched the “reorganization” program on December 1, authorizing transferring the faculty from schools slated for closure.

Under the state’s “reorganization plan,” 43 percent of the schools in Sao Paulo will offer only one of the three levels of education in the Brazilian system, instead of offering primary through secondary education all under the same roof. In Brazil, basic education is divided into three levels: two kinds of “elementary school” (first to fifth grade and then sixth to ninth grade) followed by a final three years of “high school.”

Currently, most public schools in São Paulo offer more than one level, but that changes under the new plan. Most importantly, the new policy results in the closure of 93 different schools across the state, and another thousand affected in less drastic ways. More than 300,000 students are expected to need to transfer to new schools.

The governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckimin, promises that at least 66 of the vacant buildings will give way to public nurseries and technical colleges, while the others still have no definite fate. Students and activists who oppose “reorganization” claim the changes are simply budget cuts in disguise.

The Leaked Audio

Leaked by independent media collective Jornalistas Livres (Free Journalists), an audio file now circulating online was recorded at a secret meeting that took place on Sunday, November 29, between Fernando Padula, the chief of staff of the state Secretariat of Education, and school directors. In the tape, Padula says, “We will fight until the end and we will win. We will demoralize and disqualify the movement.” He accuses the occupation movement of being “political and partisan,” and “deviating the focus from Brasilia.”

Sao Paulo is governed by the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). Nationally, the PSDB is out of power currently.

Padula also says that the Governor asked the staff to visit the schools and try to “restart the classes,” instructing officials to “give preference to the schools that are not too radicalized yet.” Schools where the movement has taken a stronger hold, he says, should be merely isolated and dealt with gradually. “My opinion is to just leave them there. What’s gonna happen? Next year, that school will be ‘reorganized’ […].”

Padula also revealed that government agents were sent to photograph cars parked in front of the occupied schools, in order to identify if the vehicles’ owners are connected to any political party or the Apeoesp (Sao Paulo state teacher’s union).

Finally, Padula calls on officials to wage an “information war” against the students. “When it comes to manipulation, it is studied, [and] it has method. What you need to do is to inform, inform, inform in an information war. Because that’s how you will demobilize them.”

“This week is crucial”

After the audio leaked, protests were organized inside and outside the schools on December 1 and 2, and demonstrated faced violent crackdowns by the police, with some students detained.

In the school Maria José, a few parents of students against the movement entered the campus in an attempt to end the occupation. On Facebook, students reported that the police backed the parents, and used pepper spray against occupiers, despite the absence of a judicial order to enter the school. One female student says she was assaulted by the school’s own principal.

“This week is crucial. It is time to show them that we will resist,” a student told the website Nexo.

The occupation movement

Protests against the reorganization started as soon as the plan was announced, in the beginning of October. As the protests against the reorganization have gained momentum, students started to occupy their own schools, taking shifts with cleaning and cooking and the general maintenance of the schools, sometimes with the help from parents, teachers, and some social movements.

They soon created the Facebook page “Don’t Shut Down My School,” which students are using to communicate with the rest of the country, and stories from the occupation started to spread. In one school, a whole room full of brand new school material was found, for the absolute surprise of the students, who claim the school’s management was always complaining of lack of resources.

In another school, students even installed new showers in a bathroom, bought with their own pocket money.

“The occupying schools have a better curriculum than a lot of universities… #OcupaEscola” [Class schedule: Photojournalism; Media and activism; Right to occupation; Refugees; Palestinian territory; Resistance slam; Resistance theater]

During the past month, in Whatsapp groups used by the students to communicate across different schools, students have shared a manual drafted in 2011 by secondary students in Chile, who that year occupied 700 schools in demonstrations for better public education.

In a video posted on Facebook, students at an occupied school sang a song that became one of the movement’s anthems. (The lyrics are: “You want to challenge us? I don’t understand / If you mess with students, you will lose / NOT BACKING DOWN! / You take away my school, I take away your peace.”)

Information War and the “counter-movement”

Present at the meeting, and introduced to the group by Padula, was a man named Leandro—a member of the Movimento Ação Popular (Popular Action Movement), connected with the Sao Paulo-ruling Brazilian Social Democracy Party. While being recorded, Padula explained how Leandro would help coordinate the so-called information war.
Ação Popular was created in the beginning of this year and has participated heavily in anti-government protests. Presenting itself as a “student movement,” it says one of its objectives is “fighting for quality public education.” It publicly declares its support for the Sao Paulo government’s reorganization of education.

Roney Glauber, the coordinator, told the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that his organization has been visiting occupied schools and holding assemblies to “explain the reorganization” to demonstrators. On November 21, they created a counter-Facebook page named “Give me back my school.” So far, most of the group’s posts claim the occupations are being orchestrated by a collaboration between the Worker’s Party, the Federal Government, and leftist social movements.

Despite its official connection with PSDB, Acao Popular says that only “some members are affiliated to the party,” though its central committee is reportedly “indifferent to the position to the PSDB.” Roney Glauber himself, however, works at the party’s directory in the city of Guarulhos and was elected president of the PSDB youth wing in 2013.

Students have reported how the government’s tactics have been playing out on the ground. On the page “Don’t Close My School,” activists are denouncing how some strangers entered the campus at E.E. Coronel Sampaio School, in the city of Osasco, and started setting fire to books and stealing computers:

The police arrived moments later, but didn’t stop them from plundering the school. Students felt threated and had no alternative other than leave the place. Not long afterwards, the school’s principal and the Secretariat of Education’s chief of staff Fernando Padula Novaes arrived.

Later, on the 12 o’clock news, a broadcast at TV Globo presented a drastically different version of the break-in, theft, and arson, accusing students of abandoning the campus “voluntarily,” after which school officials entered the facility and supposedly discovered everything trashed.

On Facebook, activists insist that they can prove the students’ innocence:

We are convinced that the students at E.E. Coronel Sampaio will be able to prove, with photos and videos of their activities, that their occupation only improved the conditions of the school, as with all other occupations. Also, we won’t rest until the true perpretators of the destruction are unmasked.