All eyes (and billions of dollars) are focused on the Summer Olympics here, but Brazil’s teenagers just want decent schools. Violent clashes and death threats couldn’t deter Victor Grecco from fighting for his right to learn.
It is July 6th, the eightieth day of the student occupation of Paulo Freire High School in Rio de Janeiro’s north zone community of Cachambi. About a dozen teens stand guard behind the old entry gate, cornered off in the fight for their school. Sixteen-year-old Victor Hugo Cabral Grecco is positioned atop a makeshift barricade of stacked tables and upside down benches. Grecco, with a slight muscular build and fierce brown eyes, looks into the faces of opposing students, just below him on the street. Many nights spent sleeping inside the school have birthed an intensity within him. He stands here, ready to protect his school and his friends.
The white banner that once hung on the gate – reading “#Ocupa Paulo Freire” – has been torn down. It signaled a frontline that pitted classmates against classmates, arising out of poor conditions seen in their school. The occupiers were inspired by a wave of similar protests that spun throughout São Paulo beginning late last year, when 182 institutions were occupied by students standing in solidarity against the state’s plan to shut down 94 schools throughout the country.
At Paulo Freire, fire extinguishers have been used to ward off further confrontations, and metal chains – which Grecco insists are there only for defensive purposes – are at the ready should anyone break into the school at night.
Fear momentarily comes over Grecco’s eyes as a boy scales the gate and almost makes it over. Near the intruder’s face, Grecco says to him, “Se irá me matar, me mata agora.” (“If you will kill me, kill me now.”)
The nearly fifty students in the growing crowd outside the school’s gate scream louder, taunting Grecco. They want to return to their studies, to their books, to normalcy.
Eyes steadying, Grecco holds on to the strength that has kept the movement thriving, though it is also breaking him at the same time.
* * *
The protests erupted in response to long-standing cycle of teachers’ strikes over low wages, pay delays, poor conditions in classrooms, and spending cuts. Some authorities, such as Antonio José Vieira Neto, the secretary of education in Rio’s Department of Education (or the SEEDUC), called the occupations “legitimate” at first, and urged for dialogue between parties. The secretary also cited concerns that demands by students could succumb to a “confrontation policy” against the government.
March saw a new strike by teachers, and classes were halted in Rio’s public schools. The Occupy movement rose out of the same front, as strongholds of students claimed control of schools. Evaluating the impact the mass protest was having on lost class time, the SEEDUC reversed course and called the occupations an “invasion.”
Tensions between occupying students in many of the schools rose as the protest dragged on. Some pushed for the resumption of classes. A “Desocupa” (or De-Occupy) movement sprung up, “incited” by the SEEDUC and a handful of individual school authorities. Students banded together to force protesters out of the school buildings. Photos from media reports showed bloody skirmishes, students injured and bearing bruises from concrete they threw at one another.
The state responded by halting a system-wide student performance test, which many argued was unfair, but students demanded more substantial change. Growing even more disillusioned, students at Paulo Freire asked their principal for the keys to the school on April 18 and announced they were joining the nearly three dozen other Rio schools in the Occupy movement.
For occupier Paulo Vieira, eighteen, who lives near Paulo Freire High, sleeping in the auditorium proved an immediate test of will. “We were just a few people there that night. We didn’t know how to act,” he recalled in a recent interview, “and we were very afraid.”
Like the first stretch of Occupy school protests, a Facebook network of pages sprung up documenting a mix of wrongdoings within schools, general calls for supplies and food, and lists of demands for the SEEDUC. Schedules that broke down days and times of classes taught by volunteer teachers in each school were also posted in an effort to maintain some semblance of a routine during the occupation.
Inside the Paulo Freire school, bright “Ocupa” signs covered the walls with quotes like “Um povo sem voz um povo sem futuro” (“People without voice are people without future”) from the school’s namesake – a twentieth-century Brazilian philosopher whose teachings focused on productive dialogue in conflict resolution and autonomy in oppression. There was a checklist of food items they needed posted near the kitchen, as well as scattered school furniture throughout the building that the kids might use as barriers during a defense.
* * *
On May 31, student occupiers of Paulo Freire High played between two run-down basketball hoops in the school’s concrete courtyard. An abandoned white RV stood parked within the courtyard; a Brazilian flag hung next to it.
The kids entered a hastily constructed shack with wooden partitions containing piles of books on tables, many of them completely untouched. “[Neither I] nor any of the other students knew about these books,” said sixteen-year-old Larissa Souza in a May interview. “We were shocked … When school starts, they must give new books to the students, but they said there weren’t any.”
Souza says other stacks of books were found in a second-floor closet, as well as musical instruments and equipment in auditorium lockers. Many students at Paulo Freire had voiced suspicions that the principal and teachers had been hiding school supplies. Some students did not have any textbooks to take home and study with, while others had but one textbook for the entire school year, and some were stuck with old textbooks.
A teacher who wished not to be identified said those newly discovered books were outdated and that the faculty would never hide books from students, while the instruments were not used because the school didn’t employ a music instructor.
* * *
Many of the school occupations had been forced into partial protests in May via judicial order. The protesting students were provided established sections of their schools to occupy, while classes were ruled to officially resume elsewhere in their respective buildings at the beginning of June.
But because teachers were still on strike, classes were not functioning normally, and teachers not part of the strike returned, leaving students with only two or three hours of classes a day.
“We still had the keys to the school,” Grecco explained in a later interview, “but we couldn’t avoid anyone from the staff or from the de-occupy from getting in.”
While the principal didn’t let them stay upstairs in the auditorium or in the other rooms they had slept in for a time, Grecco said they were allowed in a limited section of the courtyard and inside the room with those stacks of books.
But Grecco and his mates weren’t satisfied.
* * *
It’s the evening of July 5, at Paulo Freire High, and some of the student occupiers are gathering concrete slabs of the building’s façade that had fallen off. Just hours earlier, they’d published a Facebook post that read, “We’re almost 90 days occupying, and nobody from SEEDUC came AT LEAST to hear our demands.”
They explained how “impossible” the situation was at their school and that they were going to engage in another full occupation of the school.
“We don’t want anything absurd, we want, and we ask for what is our right,” the post continued.
Not long after the post went live, the protesting students got word that deoccupiers would be coming the next morning in the early hours to “take them out,” said Grecco.
“We’re afraid, but we’ll do what we have to [do] to protect ourselves and the school,” Grecco said that night, weary but calm. “We won’t attack anyone, we’ll only defend ourselves.”
Paulinho Vieira, one of the four or five students who, along with Grecco, slept in the building virtually every night of the occupancy – the remaining ten or so regulars joined them in the daytime – recalled one harrowing evening: “They threw stones against the wall and the gate, screaming that they were going to kill us.” He said he felt “terror, pure terror” as he heard attempts by the deoccupiers to break-in at the gate.
Typically four or five students sleep at Paulo Freire each night of their occupancy. Tonight, in the wake of the threat, that number has doubled.
In the evenings when the occupiers go onto the school’s rooftop, they can see lights fluttering up and down the nearby favelas, or shantytowns, which, in tandem with the neighboring ritzy sections of the city, serve as conspicuous reminders of the wide gap between the rich and the poor of Rio.
Grecco’s home is up in those hills of the Jacaré favela, about a forty-minute bus ride to his school. He has lived there with the woman he calls his “grandmother” for most of his life. Not a blood relative, Grecco’s grandmother had taken his mother in when she was eighteen and pregnant with him. His father died two years ago and his mother, who he says he was always close to, remarried and moved two hours away. Grecco, always feverishly independent, chose to stay with his grandmother in Jacaré to continue his schooling at Paulo Freire High. He says the distance between him and his mother has not harmed their relationship,
In the community of colorful cement homes jutting out into the winding roads, the rule of law comes from the local drug traffickers known as the Comando Vermelho, or the “CV,” one of Rio’s oldest and most notorious criminal organizations. Though Rio instituted the Police Pacification Program, or UPP, in 2008 to beef up security ahead of the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympics, no promises to end the widespread drug trade were made. For many in the favelas, concerns over safety continue to hang over them each day.
Grecco has grown used to his neighbors carrying pistols through the streets. He says he waits out shootings before leaving his home; sometimes they last so long he misses entire Jiu-Jitsu classes he was set to attend.
He says he never sought to be the leader of his high school’s occupation, but found that other students approached him during the early days of the protest for advice. His initial role revolved around maintaining security for the school’s property, instilling a sense of duty to protect the building and his peers.
Milena Oliveira, another occupier, said there was always a feeling among her classmates that they could rely on Grecco. “Many trusted him,” she said.
“We all are the head of the movement,” Grecco said. “There’s no such thing as one main leader. I didn’t start the occupation alone, all of us did it together … and I was just there to not let anyone give up, just as they were there to not let me give up.”
Rio’s education secretary, who resigned in May, along with his chief of staff, said that the “state failed” in not giving adequate support to negotiations for improving school conditions. A lawyer involved with negotiations between the SEEDUC and the students, who requested anonymity because the talks were ongoing, spoke about the “very slow pace” of progress across Rio. He said the government has been trying to hide the terrible conditions in Rio schools at all costs, and that the Olympics “became priority for our country, education then followed.”
“I do not want the Olympics,” Grecco said. “No Brazilian wants the Olympics. We want good hospitals, good security, good education, not the Olympics.”
According to statistics provided by Brazilian news agency Folha de S. Paulo, 49 days before the Olympics began expenses for the games had amounted to 39.1 billion Brazilian reals (or $12.1 billion), 43.1% of which came from public funds.
Just a couple weeks before that report, Rio’s state governor declared a state of emergency and sought federal funds in order to prevent a “total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management” as budgets were cut and all the sectors responded in strikes.
“The money that should be invested in education is being directed to the Olympics? Is it wrong or not?” Grecco said.
When Grecco first joined the movement, his family, including his grandmother, uncles and cousins, expressed concern.
“My whole family said I was wrong, I would not get anything,” Grecco said. His grandmother even threatened to kick him out. “She just did not like me to stay sleeping in the school.”
Grecco’s mother, Ana Paulo, who called the movement “historic,” supported her son, traveling some nights to sleep in the school with Victor and fellow occupiers. She became known as Tia Ana, or Aunt Ana to the other students.
* * *
On the morning of July 6, a group of students stood outside the gate, screaming and trying to break it down.
“Thirty to forty people against fifteen of us,” said seventeen-year-old Fred Medeiros. Expelled from his family’s home for joining the occupiers, the tenacious Medeiros, who had just a few articles of clothing with him in the school, often carried the school’s keys on a necklace. He grew up with hopes of attending military school and becoming a member of the country’s armed forces like his father. Unable to fulfill some classes for the military requirement, he settled for enrollment at Paulo Freire, where he developed a kinship with his peers.
“I grew up with the saying, ‘Fight for what I want,’ so I’m fighting for what I want,” Medeiros said.
He saw his peers as family and was going to stay up all night so that he could keep guard and alert the others when he spotted any de-occupiers coming up the street. Leaning up against the balcony’s column, adjacent to the metal gate, he held the bird-eyes view for the group. Medeiros didn’t own a cell phone, but would either whistle or yell to everyone else, warning them if the group had arrived.
Students from other nearby schools arrived to help Medeiros, Grecco, and their comrades out.
“Before the occupation, students from different schools didn’t get along,” Madeiros said. “But now we’re all friends.”
Clearly there are some exceptions this morning.
“We want to be able to get in the school,” said seventeen-year-old Lorrane Conceição, one of the students on the side of the de-occupiers. “They can’t be doing what they’re doing; we want to study and they’re not letting us. We just want them to leave.”
The occupiers watched from inside the school borders, some stationed above the gate and throughout the top balcony, while others kept defense directly behind the gate and in the courtyard behind them.
Two police cars sat side-by-side across the street as neighbors looked through their windows at the commotion.
Marcio Senna, a teacher at Paulo Freire, who also witnessed the confrontation, said of the de-occupy students, “The majority of them are young people who were incited to create this group with the excuse of ‘you won’t have classes, this will affect your education.’”
“We will do what we have to do to take ’em out of there,” said Leonardo Macedo, a Paulo Freire student. “If it means we will have to use violence, then we will.”
One of the more muscular de-occupy boys pushed his way up the gate and ripped down the protestors’ flag, running it across the street in victory.
“My mom wants to come here and beat everyone up,” someone in the crowd yelled.
“We were all tense, expecting the worst,” Grecco recalls.
The boy who ripped the banner down later managed to get close to the top of the gate again and shouted death threats at Grecco. In a third trip up the gate, he pulled a rod off the top, and threw it like a spear into the courtyard, injuring a girl’s foot.
The crowd of students continued their assault on the iron gate. It buckled at one point and another girl on the other side was hurt.
At one point, a girl from the de-occupy group broke away to call the principal on her cellphone.
“What do we do?” she shouted over the noise into the receiver. “We already called the police but they said they can’t get in or take ‘em out of here… We’re here in front of the school with the police, are you coming?”
The muscular boy who ripped the banner down grabbed the cellphone from the girl. He screamed: “You’re supposed to be here … we’re here because of you!”
Sixteen-year-old Pedro Henrique Dutra stood nearby, looking worriedly at the fracas.
“I’m in the middle of the two [movements],” he said. “In the beginning I agreed with [the occupiers’] motivation to do it … but when I saw that they closed the gates and started sleeping there and were not letting us in, I thought it was unnecessary.”
An Occupy kid used a fire extinguisher to dispel those at the gate.
The police then moved in, blocking the way so no one could move closer to the gate and to mediate between sides, while the fire department and paramedics came into the school by way of a neighbor’s house that bordered just at the school property. Students inside said seven were injured, including a boy who had a stone hit his forehead.
With the possible threat of more violence to come, the Occupy students decided to stand down. A police officer approached the crowd on the street and made the announcement.
On the other side of the gate, Yasmin Silveira, sixteen, the occupier whose red-streaked hair stood out among the stacked chairs, was inconsolable as she held onto her friends, tears streaming down her face. She would later say that as difficult as that day was for her, “it meant to me a moment in our life that we decided that we wouldn’t take it anymore, and that we would fight for what’s ours by right.”
* * *
Victor Hugo Cabral Grecco’s shoes began hitting the cobblestones. Each step outside of the school grew faster until he suddenly broke into a sprint. He spotted his mother down the street with his stepfather. A look of desperation on her face showed both fear and worry. As she ran closer to him, seeing Victor increase his pace, her apprehension picked up even more.
Holding in a wave of tears as they exchanged long looks from a distance, Grecco was breathing heavily as he ran closer towards his mother. She grabbed him in a hug and he started to cry.
“Mom, help me,” Victor said.
He looked at her with everything he had left in him, wanting to let go as she held him in an embrace.
* * *
Paulo Freire High was one of the last occupied schools in Rio de Janeiro. Most others that participated in the waves of protests heard about the resolve of Victor Grecco’s group.
Yuri Poloniato Lyra, a seventeen-year-old Occupy organizer at his own school, says “I think the Paulo Freire occupation is an example to be followed … We have them for inspiration.” Lyra’s school, not far from Paulo Freire in the northern zone of Rio, is now one of the city’s last-standing partially occupied schools. “Our main agenda was that the dining room was built, and now, more than ever we are close to achieving [it].”
After a series of talks that were deemed more positive in the weeks following July 6, the demands set forth by the occupiers of Paulo Freire were beginning to be met by SEEDUC. In the meetings, Victor Grecco represented his school.
More than 74,000 Brazilian reals were awarded to Paulo Freire, intended for improvements to the building. Construction and repairs would start in the kitchen and move on to two classrooms, the gym area in the courtyard, and in the cafeteria.
“It will be completely different,” Grecco says smiling. “I am a stronger person for it all.”