13 February 2023

The Patriots’ Repossession

On the narratives of the Bolsonaro supporters’ attack on democracy in Brazil

Alongside thousands of people dressed in green and yellow who came close to the Esplanade of the Ministries on Sunday, January 8th, Genival Fagundes was one of the self-proclaimed Brazilian “patriots” who livestreamed the event. An unsuccessful candidate for Brazil’s Congress, Fagundes is a member of the Liberal Party (PL), which in 2022 also had former president Jair Bolsonaro among its ranks. His livestream displayed the culmination of months of camping in front of the Army’s General Headquarters in Brasília. He explained to his followers that ‘people have knocked down the barriers in order to carry out the repossession, they are entering the Congress to remove the omissive members of Congress’. And he reasoned: ‘What the people want is to occupy the House of the People, they are impeaching all senators’, adding: ‘Is it vandalism to occupy your own house? No, it is repossession.’

Fagundes used specific legal terminology to characterize what amounted to invasion, destruction of public property, and violence against journalists and public security officers who were in their way: ‘repossession’. Technically, repossessions are judicial proceedings filed by those who hold an asset’s tenure and who consider it to be under threat or taken away. These submissions are then sent to the judiciary – a step for the legitimate holder to recover what is rightfully theirs. Technically speaking, we are talking about replevin. Tenure and property ownership are at the heart of the matter.

‘People have knocked down the barriers in order to carry out the repossession’: here, Fagundes assumes that patriots are the proprietors of the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Offices’ buildings. Since they are the legitimate and rightful holders of this right, they can take concrete measures to get back the tenure that was unfairly taken away from them through the alleged electoral fraud. For Fagundes, this logic justifies knocking down barriers put in place to protect public property: they are merely taking back what is theirs. In his view, the barriers –not the protestors– are out of place.  

Fagundes is a vocal spokesperson for a wider narrative. On Twitter, hundreds of accounts with Brazilian flags in their usernames posted different versions of the same message: ‘It is not invasion, it is repossession! The House (Congress) belongs to the people!”. Francisco Mesquita took a step further: ‘Differently from MST [acronym for the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Portuguese] which invade other people’s property and take ownership of what was conquered through others’ effort and work, we can consider this a repossession, it is the sovereign people taking for themselves what is rightfully theirs’.

An anthropological gaze

There are fundamental demarcations of meaning in this narrative. Firstly, there is an attempt to differentiate their own acts from what they consider to be vandalism: vandals and criminals take ownership of other people’s properties, unlike those who take what is rightfully theirs.

Secondly, they understand their property claim is supported by popular sovereignty, hence the constant references to “the People” – in their perspective, this would also distinguish the patriots’ from other illicit acts. Likewise, it explains why so many people took photos and recorded videos from inside the invaded buildings, an action that seems irrational when regarded objectively since they would potentially be “providing evidence against themselves”, as many local analysts have pointed out, in a mixture of shock and disdain. If we do not foster an anthropological gaze, we will never be able to understand the events of January 8th, 2023.

Finally, tenure had to go back to the legitimate owners. In this view, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary branches exert their power illegally and illegitimately, thus requiring their forceful removal. One of its best representations was the phrase ‘you lost, schmuck’ [perdeu, mané] tagged by a rioter on a statue of Lady Justice and on parts of the buildings’ glass façade: it is a way to re-signify the original remark made by Supreme Court Justice Luís Barroso when accosted by a Bolsonaro supporter in New York after the elections.

Some displacements of meaning are necessary to understand how the patriotic justification for legitimizing the January 8th antidemocratic acts works. Their claim that the House belongs to the people does not hold a public sense of ‘us’. On the contrary: ‘us’ here is restricted to the patriots themselves, whose motherland is conceived as a ‘land promised by God’ to a religiously homogeneous, Christian people – not to the Brazilian society in all its heterogeneity.

Property is outlined as private property. Such is the case that the supposed repossession is no longer a matter of judicial proceeding and thus bypasses any institutional mediation. The patriotic repossession is carried out by their own hands. After 70 days of passively waiting in front of military headquarters, the Armed Forces had still not met the patriots’ requests for military intervention. Thus, the direct action of repossession was the solution, similarly to the private owner who can use their own force as means to avoid the threat to or the actual loss of their tenure. It is not only a matter of seeing a public asset as private: the ‘privatization’ is done in the name of the people after all the other frustrated antidemocratic attempts by these patriots.

Yet, if they actually believe in the property narrative, what would explain the damage to the buildings’ structure, furniture, artwork, equipment and documents? If the House belongs to the people, shouldn’t its patrimony be preserved?

In a video recorded during the Congress’ invasion, a woman tries to alert her invading partners: ‘No breaking! Do not break [anything]! This is ours now! No breaking! The house is ours! It is our country! Come on, Brazil!’. Here, the public justification encounters important limits, as demonstrated by adopting a parallel narrative claiming the damage would have been done by ‘infiltrated lefties.’

These were not only material and impalpable damages, condemned as unjustifiable by national and international authorities. They were acts of profanation. Here, the ‘property’ line of argument can help devise some hypotheses, among which is the idea that property is seen as omnipotence. If property is sacred – and there is a connection between, on the one hand, the patriots’ sense of divine mission and, on the other, the centuries of associating property to an absolute right, which can no longer be sustained in any democratic legal system – then its owners can dispose of it as they wish to.

And, if the representatives from the three branches of government are illegitimately using the buildings, then looting, theft and damages are not only authorized but understood to be a moral and legal duty. If it is yours, then it is not damage – this would only be characterized if done to someone else’s property. It is not by chance that the woman’s appeals for ‘No breaking!’ are disregarded and that she readily gives up her stance once noticing she is the misplaced one in a sea of unrestrained depredation.

A sense of omnipotence

The references to private property and the feeling of omnipotence are not just found among those seeking to justify a coup. The fact is that patriots have not encountered a defense of public assets’ property on the other side of the political contention. The camps in front of military headquarters were set in public property, the roadblocks happened in public highways and roads – owned by federal and state governments, whose concession had been either granted to private companies or not.

Only on January 8th, 2023, did the Attorney General’s Office announce it would file legal actions for repossession of public buildings and injunctions to prevent new invasions from happening. In addition to not being contained nor suppressed by the police force, the self-proclaimed patriots were not indicted in repossession lawsuits that could have been filed by the State in order to recover the invaded public assets.

There was an exception in Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais, but the patriots were the ones seeking the Judiciary on behalf of their right to demonstrate after the Municipal government and its guard tried to remove them. Initially a lower court judge granted them the permission to stay, which was then revoked by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. These so-called patriots then claimed for themselves the role of property upholders, displacing themselves from invaders to property owners and defenders. 

The dearth of repression

The lack of enforcement by police and security forces has not only bolstered the invasions’ legitimacy but also indicated it was a different type of ‘protest’, deserving a different kind of treatment. High schoolers that occupied public schools against the closedown of schools in São Paulo in 2015 and in several states in 2016 to protest against reforming the upper secondary education were not as lucky. These students encountered state officials that upheld public property and were willing to remove teenagers at any costs, including violence and police force.

At that time, the São Paulo State Court of Justice issued favorable rulings to the students, understanding the occupation of schools as part of the right to demonstrate. Alexandre de Moraes, then São Paulo’s Secretary of Security, requested that repossessions involving public tenure would not be taken to the judiciary, allowing them to be conducted directly through the public administration. Moraes’s argument sought to equate the state with a private owner: if a private individual can use their own efforts – either with their own hands or armed – to avoid invasions, why couldn’t the State?

In the students’ case, public authorities from the State Executive worked to supply the State with institutional ways to directly wield force in defense of its patrimony, without any institutional intermediation. No such thing was employed to deal with acts and invasions that have open and outrightly proclaimed their goal: a coup. In a curious and surprising reversal of roles, it was a ruling by Alexandre de Moraes, now a Supreme Court Justice – thus with intermediation from the Judicial sphere –, that cracked the laxness, complacency and/or sympathy through which security forces regarded the patriots’ collective actions. Only then has the removal of camps from headquarters in all Brazilian cities and towns begun.

The fact that repossession proceedings were not systematically employed to deal with roadblocks that have started right after the elections’ 2nd round or even to recover the areas in front of military headquarters is symptomatic. The patriots’ acts indicate a turning point: until then, democratic protests had been quelled or cracked down through actions for protecting tenure and property, either with legal recourse or even with bypass attempts.

What happened to students in 2015 and 2016 happened to truck drivers striking, unions occupying companies’ headquarters, social movements occupying public offices, ministries and legislative chambers in several types of pacific protests. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic families that had occupied public land because they had nowhere else to live faced brutal repossessions. This tells us quite a bit about politically motivated property damage and especially the highly selective fashion the police use to protect property: when push comes to shove, it all depends on who is occupying them.

After Justice Moraes’s ruling, local media outlets have reported curious cases. On the morning on January 9th, the state of Tocantins’s Military Police Force had issued a statement affirming the camp in front of the Palmas Battalion was ‘peaceful’ and in the Army’s jurisdiction; a second statement, later that day, announced a different position and the Police’s commitment to ‘comply with all judicial decisions against which no arguments or challenges are possible.’ In the state of Mato Grosso, the state’s Public Prosecutor’s Office had to warn the governor it would hold him accountable if the Military Police was not sent to demobilize a camp. Finally, in the state of Amazonas, a federal judge had to rule for the removal of a camp by use of police force. That is, intermediaries had to reinforce Moraes’s ruling in face of local authorities and security forces’ stance to not comply with it.

If we are to rebuild and strengthen Brazilian democracy, the ‘de-Bolsonarization’ of Brasília’s bureaucratic establishment – until recently militarized and ideologized in extreme authoritarianism – and of security forces throughout the country is an essential step. This might seem like a distant utopia, yet it remains very much needed. After all, dismantling the ‘patriotic’ camps does not mean dismantling their coordination, their shared beliefs and values – a worldview in which they are not only good citizens doing good deeds, but owners with the right to recoup their rightfully owned property through force, omnipotents in their destruction.

Translated by Marília Ramos

A slightly different version was originally published by Quatro Cinco Um with the title A reintegração de posse dos patriotas, on January 11, 2023: https://www.quatrocincoum.com.br/br/colunas/as-cidades-e-as-coisas/a-reintegracao-de-posse-dos-patriotas. We would like to thank William Scheuerman for encouraging the publication of the translated version and for reading and commenting on the piece.