September 7th, the View from Brasília

The Supreme Court is still operating as usual. The “coup” was getting everyone to think one was about to happen.

By Brian Mier

On the afternoon of September 6th I headed to Guarulhos airport to catch a flight to Brasilia, where I would cover the planned Independence Day protest, announced by President Bolsonaro and his followers as an event that would have 1 million people in it, that had the primary goal of pressuring the Supreme Court, with some followers even threatening to violently occupy and shut down the court itself. I imagined that the flight would be packed with Bolsonaro supporters and was surprised to look around the waiting area and only identify a few people who looked like they were going to the protest. There were two middle aged women with died blonde hair wearing green and yellow scarves, one guy in a yellow Bolsonaro hat, two men who looked like off duty military special ops and a chubby middle aged guy wearing his mask on his chin in camouflage shorts and a Helloween T-Shirt – I just knew he was going. I boarded the flight and sat next to a middle aged guy with a buzz cut. ‘He must be a bolsominion‘, I thought, until I noticed he was reading a book by Bertolt Brecht. Bolsonarism is an anti-intellectual movement. To many of them, if a book is not about Jesus or free market economics, it should be burnt.

I arrived in Brasilia and, once again, was surprised to see the airport nearly empty with very few people who looked like they were arriving to go to the protest. ‘Is this thing going to be a flop?’ I thought to myself. Then, on the way towards my hotel, we passed a road leading to the Esplanade with dozens of RVs, buses and vans parked on it, with people sitting on the grass barbecuing and drinking beers. I had booked a room in a large hotel on Brasilia’s lakefront that is popular with conventioneers – the last place I could find that still had rooms. It was entirely packed with people in yellow and green Bolsonaro shirts and jerseys. There were groups of 40 or 50 people with identical shirts on, with a dozen buses parked outside the hotel. Hoping no one would recognize me from my popular web TV program Globalistas and regular appearances on TV 247, I pulled my hat down and checked in. I got in the elevator to go up to my room. On the next floor, an elderly couple appeared, looking nervous. “We are from the country” the man said, “could you explain how this thing works? How do we get to the lobby?”. They had never been in an elevator before. Later, I went down to the lobby to buy a soft drink and a man, who appeared to be part of a bus that had arrived from rural Mato Grosso, the soy-producing state of former Amazon rainforest, asked me how a vending machine works. “I am trying to buy a coke,” he said, “could you help me? What do I have to do?” He’d never seen one before.

The next day, Rede Brasil Atual, the media outlet connected to the CUT labor union federation, broke a story about conservative business leaders offering poor people R$100 to travel in buses to the protest. This seemed to be the case with many of the people staying in my hotel. Not that they necessarily were not Bolsonaro supporters, but I got the feeling that a lot of them were in this for the free trip. Interspersed among the group were a few people who definitely looked like Bolsonaro fanatics and there were a dozen big motorcycles parked in the lot out front belonging to some kind of right wing, bourgeois motorcycle gang.

The hotel was a circus of drunks running up and down the hallways. The internet had crashed, my TV was broken and the whole place stunk like stale beer. I decided to put in early so I could get up at dawn and go out to cover the protest. Suddenly the news broke that a group of truckers had broken through the security barrier on the Esplanade and, together with hundreds of jubilant Bolsonaro supporters and allegedly even Eduardo Bolsonaro himself, they were heading toward the Supreme Court Building.

A sinking feeling came over me. What would happen if they overthrew the Supreme Court and started clamping down on leftists – a promise Bolsonaro made on the campaign trail and has reiterated repeatedly since. I started thinking of a possible escape route, then wondered if it was worth risking filming the protest the next day. I got on Twitter to see what the news was and saw a calming message from Workers Party (PT) President Gleisi Hoffmann, the former liberation theology activist and student union leader who is featured in the documentary O Processo about the coup against Dilma Rousseff. “It’s true that tomorrow is September 7th,” she said, “but the next day is September 8th… Look at this video. Congress and the Supreme Court are completely secure. No one is coming anywhere near them. The truckers got onto the Esplanade because the police opened the barricade for them.” Essentially, she said it was a stunt.

What had really happened? As a Military Police Officer who I met at a bag-searching checkpoint in the protest the next day told me (information that was later confirmed in the media), a group of truck driving Bolsonaro supporters had obtained permits to park their trucks on the Esplanade for the protest that came into effect at 12:01 AM, September 7th, but they arrived 2.5 hours beforehand and negotiated with the police to park early. Among their group were several truckers who didn’t have their permits in order. After promising not to get anywhere near the Supreme Court and Congress, the police on the scene opened the barricades for them and a group of apparently drunken Bolsonaro supporters followed them in as if it were a victory parade. As the video posted by Gleisi Hoffman showed, no one came within a hundreds of meters of the Supreme Court.

This did not stop a 10 hour international news cycle from unrolling about chaos in Brasilia. For the next hours, it looked like a there would be a violent occupation of Congress and the Supreme Court, something that had been promised for months by elite supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, several of whom had been jailed for publicly calling for it. ‘When would it happen?’ surpassed, ‘would it happen?’ in the minds of many, including myself.

It is no secret that well known figures from the international far right like Steve Bannon, Beatrix von Storch and Jason Miller had met with the Bolsonaros during the weeks leading up to September 7th to help them develop tactics and strategize. One apparent result of this, which has Bannon’s footprint all over it, is the use of social media bots. A study released on September 5 by ITS (Instituto de Techologia e Sociedade to Rio) identified 2621 Twitter Bots calling people to the Anti-Supreme Court protests/insurrection, in 81,000 tweets the week before the event. An earlier study shows over half of Jair Bolsonaro’s Twitter followers are bots.

That night, my twitter feed suffered its first ever coordinated bot/troll attack. After dozens of users with mysterious handles and under 20 followers, and a handful of right wing social media influencers repeated the same insults over and over again – “fake news!” “Gay communist”, “Liar”, “go back to your country” – I had to temporarily lock my account. Some of the comments hinted at physical violence against me the next day, so I decided to shave my beard, dress like a bolsominion and discretely walk around filming with my smartphone until I assessed the security situation.

Putting on my Kris Bryant Chicago Cubs T-Shirt, with its big number 17 (Bolsonaro’s 2018 ballot number), a black cap and fake ray ban aviator classes, I hoofed my clean shaven self a mile over to the Esplanade. It was big but there were definitely nowhere near a million people there. I had been in the largest protest in Brasilia history in 2017, when union members came in thousands of buses from across Brazil to protest US-backed coup President Michel Temer’s neoliberal labor reforms. That day, there were 230,000 of us on the Esplanade. By my calculations, this crowd was about half that size. One of the first things I saw arriving on the scene was a huge line stretching up to two airport style metal detectors. Anyone who wanted to come anywhere near the stage had to go through a full security check. There were also checkpoints in various points around the Esplanade where military police officers where stopping people and searching their bags.

The crowd, almost entirely dressed in green and yellow, with many people draped in Brazilian and occasionally Israeli flags, was well behaved. Speakers led chants about things like Jesus praying for Bolsonaro and throwing Lula in jail. Anti-Communist banners and signs were everywhere. Military jets flew in formation over the crowd and every time a military helicopter flew over exuberant Bolsonaro supporters waved their arms to the heavens in joy. There were giant, green images of Brazilian founding fathers with conservative sounding quotes suspended from the roofs of every Ministry building. I started filming and noticed that I was using Leni Reifenstal style, majestic camera angles. ‘This is what it must have been like in the 30s,” I thought. Nearly everyone was acting friendly, but most didn’t seem especially bright or coherent. Telling people I was working for a German news agency’s Instagram page broke the ice. Bolsominions love anything white.

“People are trying to make Jesus seem gay,” this bolsominion angrily warned passers by.

“My ancestors are from Germany,” a middle aged woman told me. “and we are here for freedom.” I asked another woman about her sign which read, in English, “Criminalization of Communism”.

“We are criminalizing communism – the Toga Communism of the Federal Supreme Court – which is implanting communism in our country and censuring our freedom,” she said, “and this is why we support Bolsonaro – we are against the criminalization of the Toga.”

It’s important to note that this is the same Supreme Court which, in 2018, opened an exception to the Constitution under pressure from the military to jail ex-President Lula during election season in order to remove him from the race and open the door for Jair Bolsonaro. The main target of the protesters ire, Alexandre de Moraes, is a Michel Temer appointee who, as conservative governor Geraldo Alckmin’s State Security Chief in São Paulo, legalized the use of rubber bullets against teenage protesters during the public school occupations. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but he is clearly not a communist.

After an hour working my way through the crowd. It began to look like there wasn’t going to be any storming of the Supreme Court. I asked a police officer what he thought and he said that it was definitely not going to happen, so I worked my way through the crowd to Oscar Niemeyer’s National Mall for a coffee and some air conditioning.

Later that day, it came out that operatives connected to the Trump administration including Jason Miller had been held for questioning by the Federal Police as they tried to leave the country. Brazil doesn’t have the same free speech laws that the US does – it’s closer to the German model – and, perhaps surprisingly for Steve Bannon, he and some of his henchmen are now under investigation for breaking the law by spreading fake news on social media and supporting calls for violence against government institutions as part of an organization that is being called “Carlos Bolsonaro’s Electronic Militia”.

As reports came in about lower than expected turnouts in other cities across the country, it dawned on me. We’d been sucker punched by Bannon and his crew yet again. The “chaos” wasn’t the pre-ordained storming of the Supreme Court Building. It was scaring the media and the public into thinking it was going to happen. The early arrival of trucks on the Esplanade was spun by thousands of bots and paid social media influencers into a media event that was used to generate expectation of something which was never going to happen. The chaos in Brazil was the 10 hours between the truckers arrival on the esplanade and the start of the peaceful protest. As the Bolsonaro’s “Electronic Militia” now works overtime on the social media to artificially blow up the protests into a massive success story and shout down or insult any journalist who tries to accurately depict the crowd size, even using the Military Police’s own estimates, it’s time to regroup and ask ourselves the following questions: How did we fall for this again and what can we do to fight back so these tactics stop working?


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.