Days before supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brazil’s centres of power, a post circulated on far-right messaging groups, inviting members to the festa da Selma, or Selma’s party.
After his narrow election defeat at the end of October, hardcore supporters of the populist leader had camped out in front of army bases, calling for a military coup in the capital Brasília to prevent the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But on Sunday, a week into Lula’s new administration, they decided to take matters in their own hands. Selma’s party was a code word, a play on selva — the war cry of the Brazilian army. In the absence of actual military support, the far right was going to launch its own intervention.
Even from the outset, their plans were half-baked. On Telegram — a key tool of Brazil’s far right — a dual-pronged objective was laid out: force the closure of petrol stations and storm Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. A later objective was added: occupy the nation’s institutions.
Lacking any clear leadership and focused more on destruction than regime change, here is an outline of how their insurrection quickly fizzled out.
Protesters arrive in Brasília
By daybreak on Sunday, dozens of buses had arrived in Brasília. Some had come from states hundreds of kilometres away. All were packed with far-right activists, wearing the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag.
Co-ordinating via Telegram and Signal, they shared tips on how to maintain online anonymity. Use false names and photos, as well as VPNs to hide their location, they were urged by peers. “Selma’s party is going to be off the charts . . . Entry is free for all Brazilian patriots. It is going to be the greatest show of all time,” one Bolsonaro supporter wrote in a messaging group.
REQUEST FOR contributions
Other messages sought contributions. While Lula and some government officials would later point to the involvement of shadowy financiers, there was also grassroots organisation. Attendees were requested to make a 50 real ($10) donation via Pix, an instant payments system launched recently by Brazil’s central bank, for the bus ride to the capital.
As the sun rose, thousands converged outside the army headquarters in Brasília, uniting with other Bolsonaristas who had camped there since the former president’s election defeat.
‘A LARGE GROUP OF Patriots’
“We are now ready to leave with a large group of patriots from the army headquarters to the [government] centre. Today, the invasion of Brasília is inevitable. Brasília is being invaded by patriots,” said Francisco Andrade da Conceição, one demonstrator who had come to the capital from the Amazonian state of Pará.
march to congress
The 7km march to Congress, through the heart of Brasília, began soon after lunchtime. Their clarion call was for the ousting of Lula, whom they called corrupt, and the return of Bolsonaro to the presidency. The route was direct and the crowd was escorted by police. “Everything calm. The protesters are coming down, controlled and escorted,” a police chief told the governor of Brasília. “We negotiated with them to march in a peaceful and organised way and they agreed.”
Chaos ensued at around 3pm. Arriving at the Praça dos Três Poderes, the modernist plaza that is Brazil’s political nerve centre, the demonstrators found it practically unguarded.
Reinforced barricades set up during the election had been dismantled. Only a few metal fences and a thin human barrier of police officers remained between the protesters and Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. In these moments, the mob took control.
institutions of power
Over the course of two hours, the rioters smashed their way into Brazil’s institutions of power — first Congress, then the presidential palace and Supreme Court, all of which were mostly empty owing to the summer recess. Officers responded with tear gas and water cannon, but it was too little, too late. “There was incompetence, ill will or bad faith from the people who take care of public safety in [Brasília]. It’s not the first time,” said an embittered Lula later that night.
Brazil’s ‘JANUARY 6’
In scenes reminiscent of the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol, the rioters occupied the Speaker’s chair in parliament. They smashed windows, defecated on desks and destroyed valuable artworks.
The destruction was wanton, but it had no focus. Without any clear leadership, the protesters — by now deemed “terrorists” by Brazilian media and politicians — ended up wandering the buildings aimlessly. A vendor selling candyfloss gave an air of farce to the events.
national guard ARRIVES
By evening, with the national guard on site, the mob was a spent force and most arrests occurred without violence.
Brasília’s institutions were largely cleared by nightfall and despite the destruction throughout the day, no one was killed and only a few injuries were reported. But scenes of the destruction continued to fill TV screens and social media sites across the nation.
After returning from a city in São Paulo state affected by floods, Lula visited Congress. He had earlier decreed a limited federal intervention in Brasília and called the incident unprecedented as well as labelling the perpetrators “fanatical fascists”.
“We are going to find the financiers and they will all pay with the force of law for this irresponsible and anti-democratic gesture,” he said. Without referring to him by name, Lula accused Bolsonaro of having encouraged the attacks.
Bolsonaro breaks his silence
Far away in Florida, where he had travelled to avoid Lula’s inauguration, Bolsonaro broke his silence after 9pm, saying the riots “crossed the line”. But he rejected his successor’s contention that he was partly to blame.
As midnight loomed, with security forces in control of the complex, the last stragglers remained on Brasília’s main boulevard as red flashing lights of police illuminated the night. Hundreds were packed on to municipal buses and taken away by the police for detention.
The next day
The following morning, with Brazil the focus of the world’s attention, police moved quickly to dismantle far-right protest camps across the country, as calls intensified for Bolsonaro — who had been admitted to hospital for observation because of “abdominal discomfort” — to be extradited from the US to face investigations.
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza