SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Just a few weeks ago, Mayara Vivian felt pretty good when a few hundred people showed up for a protest she helped organize to deride the government over a proposed bus fare increase. She had been trying to prod Brazilians into the streets since 2005, when she was only 15, and by now she thought she knew what to expect.
But when tens of thousands of protesters thronged the streets this week, rattling cities across the country in a reckoning this nation had not experienced in decades, she was dumbfounded, at a loss to explain how it could have happened.
“One hundred thousand people, we never would have thought it,” said Ms. Vivian, one of the founders of the Free Fare Movement, which helped start the protests engulfing Brazil. “It’s like the taking of the Bastille.”
More than a million protesters marched in the streets late Thursday, according to Brazilian news reports, in the biggest demonstrations yet, and President Dilma Rousseff on Friday called an emergency meeting of her top Cabinet members.
The mass protests thundering across Brazil have swept up an impassioned array of grievances — costly stadiums, corrupt politicians, high taxes and shoddy schools — and spread to more than 100 cities on Thursday night, the most to date, with increasing ferocity.
All of a sudden, a country that was once viewed as a stellar example of a rising, democratic power finds itself upended by an amorphous, leaderless popular uprising with one unifying theme: an angry, and sometimes violent, rejection of politics as usual.
Much like the Occupy movement in the United States, the anticorruption protests that shook India in recent years, the demonstrations over the cost of living in Israel or the fury in European nations like Greece, the demonstrators in Brazil are fed up with traditional political structures, challenging the governing party and the opposition alike. And their demands are so diffuse that they have left Brazil’s leaders confounded as to how to satisfy them.
“The intensity on the streets is much larger than we imagined,” said Marcelo Hotimsky, a philosophy student who is another organizer of the Free Fare Movement. “It’s not something we control, or something we even want to control.”
Even after politicians in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other parts of Brazil ceded to the protesters’ initial demands by rolling back bus fare increases this week, the demonstrations continued to spread on Thursday night, and President Rousseff delayed a trip to Japan amid the crisis. The increasing number of cities, the intensity — and in a growing selection of places, the violence — could represent a turning point in the protests.
In Brasília, the capital, the police used pepper spray and tear gas to block protesters from reaching Congress, but many marched on another Modernist landmark in the city, smashing windows at the Foreign Ministry, setting a fire in the entrance and scaling the Meteor, an iconic marble sculpture in a reflecting pool. Banners in the crowd carried slogans like “While you watch your nightly soap opera, we fight for you.”
“I saw the youth taking to the streets and I wanted to support them,” said Raimundo Machado, 50, a public servant in Brasília worried about the beleaguered public health system. “I pay for a health plan, but I can pay. What about those who can’t?”
In Ribeirão Preto, an 18-year-old protester was struck by a car and killed. Large turnouts shook other cities, with hundreds of thousands protesting in Rio de Janeiro, drinking beer and singing as they marched toward the city government.
But after the sun set, the police used tear gas to disperse them, causing hundreds to run on an already packed street, scrambling not to be pushed into a dirty canal and using bandannas to cover their faces. Dozens were reported injured.
“They don’t invest in education, they don’t invest in infrastructure, and they keep putting makeup on the city to show to the world that we can host the World Cup and Olympics,” said Jairo Domingos, 26, a technical support assistant in Rio, referring to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. “We work four months of the year just to pay taxes and we get nothing in return.”
In Salvador, Brazil’s third-largest city, clashes broke out between protesters and the police, while in Belém, the capital of Pará State in the Amazon, demonstrators threw stones at the mayor. Here in São Paulo, thousands flowed into Avenida Paulista, the city’s most prominent thoroughfare, with some protesters burning the flags of political parties in a repudiation of the political system.