By Dom Phillips
It may have been the easiest raid the Brazilian riot police had staged all year -- a few hundred middle-class students occupying a university building.
Sao Paulo's military police sent in 400 men at dawn on Nov. 8, supported by mounted officers and helicopters, and arrested 72 people who had been protesting against the police presence on campus at the University of Sao Paulo, or USP.
Coming just days after a television news cameraman was killed during a police operation in a Rio de Janeiro favela, this heavy-handed operation against a relatively soft target led some to criticize the increasing "militarization" of public life in Sao Paulo. But many others blamed the students and welcomed the police action.
The police had originally been brought to the leafy site in September, after a student was murdered during an armed robbery. Another was shot during a robbery in October.
Violence flared last month after police arrested three students who were caught smoking marijuana on campus and police vehicles were damaged by protesters supporting the suspects. Days later, other groups of students demonstrated in support of the police.
Arguments about the role of drugs and crime rapidly polarized the debate. And sympathy for the students didn't run high in conservative, crime-ridden Brazil.
"The dope smokers of USP are the disease, the military police is the cure!," declared a Nov. 2 headline on an anonymous blog called "Constructing Thoughts." The post was one of many that railed against the students in advance of the raid, and raged that the protesters were "vagabonds" and "criminals."
In a post for the news website R7, journalist Andre Forastieri said:
What was unexpected was the torrent of invective against the students ... It was envy. Who wouldn't want to be 21 and study at USP, with zero worry about money, dating some smart girls, smoking a little blunt in the Clock Square, swimming in that beautiful pool, and still feel super rebellious, on the barricades, part of an international movement for freedom?
Although any student who passes the right exams can study for free at USP -- one of only three schools in South America to make the Times Literary Supplement's list of the world's best universities -- the majority of its students come from middle-class homes and have gone to private schools.
And now they think they're above the law, wrote the polemical television presenter Jose Luiz Datena. The argument he made on his blog for TV Band has struck a chord with many ordinary Brazilians:
How can you not have police inside USP? How can you smoke marijuana on the campus, if you can't do it anywhere else in Brazil? What do they think the university is, a no man's land? This drug trafficking that these kids want to make official is what brought crime there. And in a place of excellence of knowledge, we saw robbery, rape and murder come in.
Globo's G1 news website published a photo of police officers with Molotov cocktails that were found in the occupied building at USP. The police said the students scrawled graffiti on the walls and damaged furniture, computers and ATMs in the facility.
The governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, said: "Some students need to have classes about democracy, respect for judicial decisions, and respect for public property."
But not every media voice was pro-police. On his blog for the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, Marcelo Rubens Paiva, a playwright and journalist, argued that Brazilian police have long used searches for marijuana as an excuse to levy bribes:
If something is found, extortion is certain. Does Brazilian society want part of the police force to continue 'wasting time' with common users? ... Wouldn't they be doing a better service if they went after the real criminals?
Brazil's Minister of Education, Fernando Haddad, a USP professor who has been touted as the next mayor of Sao Paulo, sounded a more diplomatic note to G1.
"You can't treat the USP campus like it was 'Cracolandia'" -- or "Crack Land," a central Sao Paulo region known for high drug use and trafficking, he said. "We have to understand that, in dealing with a university campus, we need to use care when interacting with the university community, with students, professors and staff."
In a country that suffered decades of military dictatorship, the sight of armed police on a university campus is ringing alarm bells. As a Sao Paulo student union complained in a press release:
It's inexcusable that police use the repressive force of the state inside the campus, a free environment for learning and the free circulation of thoughts.
The military police, who adopt the same tactics whether dealing with students at a sit-in or rioting soccer fans, are unlikely to be swayed by such sentiment. But political authorities, with an eye on the student protests that have spread through Chile, are growing concerned.
The Estado de Sao Paulo was one of many media outlets reporting an angry meeting of 2,000 students the evening following the raid -- and a vote for an immediate student strike. Left-wing students, the paper said, had already walked out.
(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Dominic Phillips at DOMINIC.PHILLIPS@BNPPARIBAS.COM
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