Inside Rio's high school 'Occupy' movement

Teenage students look up lyrics to 1980s Brazilian punk tunes in sing-alongs at this occupied Rio de Janeiro high school.

A knock at the door of Gomes Freire de Andrade high school in Rio de Janeiro elicits a rather odd reply: “Occupy Gomes, how can I help you?”

It’s a teenager’s voice. The door is locked — padlocked on the inside by one of the 60 or so students who recently took over this small school in a gritty neighborhood in Rio’s North Zone. They first “occupied” the campus almost three weeks ago, deciding to take measures into their own hands to protest what they see as the dismal condition of their public education.

Gomes was the second school to be taken over by protesting students in Rio de Janeiro. In the weeks since, some 34 others have followed, according to the state Department of Education. The youth "Occupy" movement comes on the back of a recent strike by state teachers, who say they haven’t been paid in weeks.

The movement is just one element of a large and growing crisis in this country’s second largest economy, host of the Summer Olympic Games just four months away. The state of Rio de Janeiro is, basically, broke. Public employees from doctors to cops to firefighters have been striking after not receiving paychecks on time, or at all. Overall, about 500,000 workers haven’t gotten paid, and 30 different state labor forces have gone on strike, according to local media reports.

Rio is emblematic of Brazil’s economic fall from grace, says Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. As the economy boomed in the 2000s, Rio shone as a beacon of what the new Brazil could be. Now, as a recession drags on, the state is falling apart.

“This crisis in Rio is part of a much bigger crisis in Brazil, and it’s a warning for what could still be coming,” Santoro says.

Inside the Gomes school, students sit around in clusters, chatting, playing the guitar and singing. The building is spotless. A de-facto media spokeswoman, 17-year-old Alessandra Ribeiro, says the teenagers have divided into teams that take turns cleaning, cooking meals, holding meetings and simply hanging out. For the moment, they’re surviving off food donations collected by friends and on Facebook.

“There’s a schedule for everything,” she says.

Arthur Cesar, a 17-year-old philosophy student and musician, describes the students’ collective demands: He says the core organization of the state education system is a mess, and the pupils want more student leaders representing them in important decision-making. Problems at schools take months or years to fix, he says. He points out the school elevator hasn’t worked for more than three years.

Then there are the payment issues. The teachers’ strike galvanized the students into action, Cesar says. He thinks it's ridiculous that teachers aren’t getting paid at a time when the state government has funding for huge projects like the Olympic Games.

According to the Rio Olympics website, the state administration is kicking in the equivalent of about $2 billion for the games. That’s almost as much as the entire 2016 state education budget, which is seeing painful cutbacks this year.

“They say they have no money, but what they really mean is no money for education,” Cesar says. “Public schools are seen, basically, as society’s trash. Wherever the politicians can take money out of the budget, they’re going to take it.”

Rio’s state education secretary did not respond to a request for comment. But a state spokesman told a Rio radio station this week that the government is negotiating with students and has already accepted some student proposals. (Outcomes from the talks came after a recent visit to Gomes and could not yet be verified.)

Songs from Occupy

Music has become a big part of daily life at the Gomes school — and guitar-players like Cesar are particularly good at holding court.

He says he’s inspired at the moment by the protest songs and angry punk rock of the mid-to-late 1980s, when Brazil was transitioning from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Local bands like Legião Urbana (Urban Legion) and Engenheiros do Hawaii (Engineers of Hawaii) speak to Cesar’s feelings of frustration and disenchantment, he says.

The other kids here agree. But they're also happy singing 1990s classics by bands like Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses, as well as more current tunes. When Cesar started a sing-along to the 1985 Legião Urbana anthem “Sera,” most of his friends had to look up the lyrics on their smartphones before joining in.

At a time when Brazil’s government is reeling from multiple corruption scandals and the president is on the verge of being impeached, Cesar says, angry ’80s punk just feels right.

“The guys of that era, they wrote subliminal messages for smart people to figure out,” he says, grinning and tapping his temple.

Underpinning the "Occupy" movement here is a sense that Rio’s public schools are owned, quite literally, by the students who study there. Several students explain their “invasion” of the school as more of a taking back of public resources that have been run into the ground by incompetent and corrupt leaders.

In a twist of irony, one reason students could so easily overtake this and other schools is that the state laid off school guards at the beginning of the year, the students say.

Guards are essential for security in a neighborhood like Penha, largely home to working-class families, where schools offer a refuge from lives that are easily scarred by drugs, crime and violence, often even at the hands of Rio’s infamous military police. Cesar says that’s why he and his classmates have dedicated themselves to taking action now — to improve conditions in education for the students of tomorrow.

“In my view, you have to study so that young people in these communities can avoid marginalization — the world of drugs and crime,” he says. “At least for the last 40 or 50 years, the best way out is always to study, to have knowledge.”

“When you no longer want knowledge, you’re no longer alive,” he adds.

The students say they’ll stay as long as they have to. They’re organizing lessons and bringing in teachers for lectures so they don’t fall too far behind for their exams.

How long the occupation lasts depends on state leaders meeting their demands and getting a grip on their finances, the students say. So far, the state has said it will negotiate, and has requested meetings with representatives from each of the occupied schools.

Getting Rio’s budget and education system back on track, however, could require intervention and a bailout from the federal government. Considering the current chaos in Brasilia, that could take a while.

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