The Olympics Begin, and So Do the Protests

On the night of the Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Summer Games, Brazilians took to the street to protest the Olympics, and a lot of other things, too. Things seemed peaceful, until the police shot teargas.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon

Photos by Aaron Gordon

VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.

About a mile away from the Maracanã Stadium, which was getting ready to host the Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro that night, riot police formed a line and wandered the park before the anti-Olympics protest began. They encircled 19-year-old Mateus da Silva Xavier, a student from Sao Paolo holding an anarchist flag.

Xavier was used to this—it wasn't his first protest. The police linked arms, forming a tight perimeter around him, as photographers clamored to get a shot. The police searched Xavier's bags, pulled out his gas mask, inspected it, then returned it to him. Xavier was calm and cooperative throughout.

The whole exercise was a preemptive search—the police attempting to identify the group's leaders and intimidate protesters before they even start.

Xavier encircled by police. Photos by Aaron Gordon

The protest itself featured an almost comically eclectic cast of characters. Anarchists waved flags and protested the state and police brutality. Communists held banners celebrating an "agrarian revolution" and signs praising Micah Thompson, the man who murdered five Dallas police officers last month, as a hero.

The protest, Xavier said after he was searched by the police, was mainly against the Olympics and the use of police brutality to pacify Rio's favelas in the lead up to the Games, a controversial measure that many there believe has resulted in needless loss of life and the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of residents. Still more people have been displaced from their homes and neighborhoods entirely. Services like health care and educations have been slashed as the government diverted the funding toward the enormous cost of hosting the Games.

But the protest was not limited to the Olympics. There were people holding signs bashing Globo, Brazil's largest media company, as well as Michel Temer, who is serving as Brazil's interim president after Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, and who is so disliked that he reportedly asked not to be introduced by name during the opening ceremony, fearing relentless booing. (He was booed anyway.)

It is a testament to the Olympics' ability to unite humanity than even communists and anarchists can find common ground in hating the Games. To the IOC and most everyone who watched the opening ceremony, the Games are a celebration of peace and friendship, the triumph of humanity's shared interests over our history of conflict. To others, the Olympics is a continuation of conflict. The Olympics doesn't just unite its friends; it also unites its enemies.

Around 4 PM, the protest began marching down the road, blocking all traffic. The police escorted the protesters, who numbered somewhere between one and two hundred, and the accompanying media of about the same number. They marched for several blocks, with the police keeping a tight perimeter.

Every once in awhile, the front line of the police perimeter halted. So, too, did the protesters, creating a tense standoff. The protesters sang and chanted; the police stared back at them.

After about an hour, horse-mounted police units cordoned off the road, blocking the protest's progress once again. It felt like this was where the standoff would come to a head. The anarchists lit a Brazilian flag on fire, then blew it up with a firecracker. Still, the police stood fast, only breaking ranks to detain a man who went into a nearby store (it's unclear what transpired inside to warrant his detention). As they carried him away, he screamed back at the protesters, chanting still, as photographers chased after him to get the money shot.

After about 20 minutes, the horse-mounted police left and the protest continued, circling back to the same park where the protest began. It was just about 6 PM when the really serious riot police arrived, looking like characters from Fallout 2. They wore gas masks, full camouflage uniforms, and were armed with teargas guns.

Still, it was hard to imagine them using teargas unless something really went wrong. The park was filled with children playing ball games, people exercising on the outdoor gym, and families playing with their dogs in the dog park. Everyone was ignoring the protest, which seemed to be winding down; there were only about a hundred or so people left. The Fallout 2 police had removed their helmets, set aside their guns, and were sitting on their trucks. People were going home. I was about to as well.

Then, all of a sudden, across the park I saw dozens of people sprinting. It seemed to take only a minute for the park to empty. Children's toys were scattered about, left wherever they had been dropped. People who weren't part of the protest came running in my direction, eyes bright red and exploding with tears. A man with swimming goggles and a T-shirt wrapped around his neck held a spray bottle filled with water, and doused anyone's face who had been hit with the teargas.

Within seconds, the teargas wave hit us, too. It would soon spread through most of the park. A few people received treatment from Red Cross staff who accompanied the protest for their reactions to the gas. Medical staff held one woman's feet up and tried to flush the poison from her system. A couple of others got treatment for more mild, but still severe reactions nearby.

I have replayed the incident dozens of times in my head and gone through all the photos I took. It is possible that I missed something—my colleagues at VICE News reported that one protester "lit a fake Olympic torch on fire and took off into oncoming traffic" right before the outbreak—but from where I was standing, it was hard to see how a fizzling protest next to men playing cards and children kicking a soccer ball devolved into the launching of teargas canisters within minutes. By this point, there had been more police on hand than protesters. They could have easily dispersed the crowd through nonviolent means. What started out as a peaceful demonstration, with good behavior on both sides, was soiled by the use of the gas. We'll see if this decision by the police brings any repercussions over the coming weeks of further demonstrations.

A few hours later, about a mile away, after the opening ceremony concluded, IOC president Thomas Bach declared that the Rio Games will promote peace and unity. He added that every Brazilian "can be very proud tonight."

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