Riots in Brazil: Freed protesters remain loyal to the Bolsonarista cause

Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro pray as they wait for buses to arrive to return to their homes at the Church of Jesus the Good Shepherd in Brasília on Tuesday. (Rafael Vilela for the Washington Post)

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BRASÍLIA – Their march into Brazil’s capital was “peaceful,” they said. The damage to Congress, the Supreme Court and the President’s office building was done by leftists who “infiltrated” their movement. Her own imprisonment in a “concentration camp” was “psychoterrorism”.

Notably, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who were arrested in the unrest that rocked Brazil on Sunday, insisted their cause was just.

“The media treats them as terrorists,” said Rev. Geraldo Gama, a Catholic priest here. “They are not. They are heroes.”

Fueled by conspiracy theories, disinformation and anger at President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s new left-wing government, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters boarded buses bound for the capital last week on a crusade to get the country’s attention. After WhatsApp calls for “patriots” they wanted to take a stand against “election fraud”, “communism” and “dictatorship”.

Many had been released on Tuesday, but remained stuck in the capital. At least 250 sought refuge in the Church of Jesus the Good Shepherd and tried to find a way home.

The men and women, most of them retired, chatted in the pews or napped on mattresses on the floor. Church staff and volunteers fed them chicken and rice, helped arrange buses, and led them to prayer.

Bolsonaro, who sowed mistrust in Brazil’s electoral system for years with unfounded allegations of corruption and fraud, lost to Lula in October. He did not concede and called the result unfair last month. Lula was sworn in on January 1st.

But his supporters’ efforts on Sunday, condemned by leaders across the hemisphere, continued to garner support from many in Brazil and abroad.

Eloisa Pecegueiro, a 51-year-old business owner from São Paulo, said she has received donations from people in several U.S. states to help those arrested or stuck following the Brasília riots. Some of the money, she said, would come from evangelical churches in the United States. She said she uses it to organize buses.

She spoke through a microphone to the group in the church, reminding them to sign up for seats.

“You’re so traumatized,” she said to a woman next to her.

Pecegueiro traveled to Brasília to attend the protests on Sunday but said she stayed away from federal buildings because she was with her 14-year-old son. When she found out about the group staying at the church, she sought help from connections in Brazil and the United States.

Gama, the 48-year-old priest, visited some of the people in federal police custody after hearing that hundreds were being detained with minimal food.

“When I found out these people were suffering, it was my duty,” he said.

He asked church staff and volunteers to prepare food and places to sleep, and by Monday night more than 250 people had settled into his church in a low-income neighborhood of the capital.

He had prayed for her at Mass on Sunday before the protest. Many community members supported their movement.

“These patriots have peacefully expressed their outrage at the lack of transparency in the elections,” he said. He did not support the violence on Sunday, but blamed outside agitators.

Nice Silva, a 58-year-old retired civil servant from the São Paulo area, said she took the bus to Brasília to be part of a movement denouncing what she sees as voter fraud.

“We want the source code,” she said, echoing the rallying cry of many Bolsonaro supporters who questioned the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting system. “No one heard us. The TV shows us nothing.”

She heard from some people that they were planning to enter the presidential palace, she said. but thought they were doing so peacefully to demand answers to their questions about voter fraud.

Silva said the Brasília mob was not inspired by the rioters who attacked the US Capitol two years earlier.

“The violence that happened there didn’t work,” she said. “Ours would be peaceful”

But as she walked up the ramp to the presidential palace on Sunday, she watched the scene turn. She blamed the police for not stopping the vandals. She said police searched bags but didn’t stop people from entering.

Just before the mob stormed the government buildings, Lourenço Oliveira said he felt something bad was about to happen. He decided to stay in the camp set up by Bolsonaro supporters in front of an army headquarters in Brasília. Due to an illness, the 70-year-old said he didn’t feel safe joining the march, so he watched the tents instead.

Word got around that some people wanted “more aggressive action,” he said. They hoped to provoke a guarantee of law and order that would allow the military to take control.

When that didn’t happen, Bolsonaro supporters decided to take a different approach.

On Monday, Oliveira said, authorities drove him and many others from the camp to the federal police station. He was released without charge, he said.

Authorities said on Tuesday they had released hundreds of detainees on “humanitarian” grounds. Among them were the elderly, people with medical conditions and mothers with children.

The federal police said on Tuesday that all detainees receive regular food, hydration and medical care if necessary. They denied rumors that a woman had died in custody.

A man who was inside the Brasília church was carrying a document accusing him of, among other things, terrorist attacks.

A friend said they hadn’t been to Brasília when the horde stormed the buildings. Their bus, which was leaving the southern city of Santa Maria, was delayed, said Luis Carlos, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. Otherwise, he said, they probably would have been there.

But he is convinced that there were nefarious actors in the group. He argued it was suspiciously easy to access the buildings.

“We fell into a trap,” he said.

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