“Our Flag Is Education”

A youth leader's powerful testimony on Brazil's student movement, which is defending public education through over 1,000 school occupations.

Ana Júlia Pires Ribeiro outside her school. Henry Milleo

In the last two weeks, students have occupied 1,177 high schools, 82 technical high schools, and 96 university campuses in Brazil. The majority of the occupations has been in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, which is known for its conservative politics. Students are fighting against three attacks by the illegitimate government of President Michel Temer, who overthrew the democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff in an institutional coup in August: 1) drastic reforms to the high-school curriculum through a presidential decree with no debate or discussion; 2) a constitutional amendment, PEC 241, which will freeze spending on social programs for twenty years; 3) and efforts by right-wing legislators to force through laws known as Schools Without Parties, which aim to severely limit political discussion in the classroom.

Tensions have mounted in the last week in Paraná as organized right-wing groups from other cities and states, including the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), key in the mobilizations for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, have attempted to forcibly end the occupations. Invited by the occupiers, militants from the universities and left parties have organized occupation defenses in dozens of high schools.

Military police in a school occupied by students in São Paulo. Agência Brasil Fotografias
Military police in a school occupied by students in São Paulo. Agência Brasil Fotografias

Last Monday, the stabbing death of the student Lucas Mota in a fight in an occupied Paraná high school, for reasons completely unrelated to the occupations, has been used as a pretext to increase repression with the police forcibly ending several occupations. In occupations in other states inspired by the struggle in Paraná, the police, government, and judicial system have sought to nip the escalating struggle in the bud.

Amid this growing fight against the neoliberal attacks of the federal government, a student leader, Ana Júlia Pires Ribeiro, has arisen and widely inspired Brazilians. Last Wednesday, Ana Júlia was invited to speak to the state legislative assembly of Paraná. In an impassioned and emotional speech, she explained why young people in Paraná and in Brazil as a whole have launched occupations against the federal government’s attacks. Criticized during her speech by deputies, she roundly countered the attacks and made an emotional homage to the murdered student, Lucas Mota.

We reprint her speech here, including her pointed exchange with the president of the assembly. It has been slightly edited for brevity.

Good afternoon. I’m Ana Júlia, a high-school student at the state high school. I’m sixteen years old and I’m here to talk with you about the occupations.

My initial question is: Who is school for? Who does the school belong to? I believe that everybody here knows the answer. And it is with the clear confidence that you know the answer, I speak to you about the legitimacy of this movement. About legality. If anybody here still has doubts, I refer you to Clause 6 in Article 16 of the Law 8069. After this, if you still have doubts about the legitimacy of our movement, I invite you to participate in our occupations. I invite you to visit us and meet us up close.

It is an insult to us who are there [in the occupations], seeking motivation every day, to be called doctrinaires. It is an insult to the students, it is an insult to teachers. Our difficulty in forming a position is much greater than yours. We have to digest everything the media gives us, to understand these processes, to select, to be able to see if we are in favor or against.

It is a difficult process; it is not easy for students to simply decide what to fight for. But still we’re lifting up our heads and confronting this. We’re not playing around. We know what we are fighting for. Our flag is education, our only flag is education.

Students occupying a high school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Midia Ninja
Students occupying a high school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Midia Ninja

We’re a non-political party movement. We’re a movement of students for students, who are preoccupied with future generations, with society, with the future of Brazil. What future will Brazil have if we don’t worry about the people who will develop criticisms of society. Of people who need to have a critical political sense. Of people who simply read something and believe in it. We need to know what we’re reading. We need to be against functional illiteracy which is a big problem in Brazil today. This is why we’re here. It’s for this that we’re occupying our schools. This is why we raise the flag of education and why we’re against the MP [the presidential decree on curriculum reforms].

Yes, this MP is allowed in the Constitution. But it is only for emergency reasons. We know that we need reforms in the high schools. Not only in the high schools, but in the education system as a whole. Education reform is a priority. But we need reform that has been debated. Reform that has been discussed. Reform that is carried out by education professionals. This is the reform we need.

We don’t only have the MP as a demand . . . We also have the demand against Schools Without Parties. It is an affront. Schools Without Parties means a school without a critical sense, a racist school, a homophobic school. It is to say to young people that society should form an army of non-thinkers, an army of those who lower their head. We are not this. We have a history. And in this history, we fight against this. In the twenty-first century, in 2016, you want a school with a project like this? Schools Without Parties insults us, it humiliates us, it says that we are not able to think for ourselves. But we can and we won’t lower our head for this.

The PEC 241 is another affront. It’s unconstitutional, an affront to the 1988 constitution. In it, we have social security. PEC 241 does away with this. It’s an attack against social security. It’s an affront against health care, against education, against social assistance. We simply can’t let this happen. We can’t just stand by.

We’re here for ideals. We students are here for ideals. At Cesmag [her school] we’re there occupying for an ideal. We had an assembly, we voted, we considered the pros and cons. Even so, we saw that we were there for a struggle. Our flag is education and we will not drop it easily.

The high schools of Paraná and Brazil are occupied for education. We’re not there to cause trouble or play around. We’re there for an ideal. We’re there because we believe in the future of our country. This is our country. It’s for my children, the children of my children, and I’m worried about this country. And we’re there because we are preoccupied with this country.

I was at Lucas’s wake yesterday, and I didn’t recognize any of your faces there. You all represent the state, and so I invite you to look at your hands. Your hands are dirty with the blood of Lucas. Not just of Lucas but of all the adolescents and students that are victims of this.

Deputy in audience

My hands aren’t dirty!

Ana Júlia

Lucas’s blood is on your hands! You represent the state!

Assembly President Ademar Traiano

I’m going to intervene here. With due respect to your opinion and to your age, but here you can’t attack parliamentarians. [Boos from the gallery.] I’m going to end this session. I’m going to stop her speech. [Loud boos.] I ask for your silence. Nobody offends deputies here. I, as president, am going to exercise my authority. Democratically, I allowed you to come here and I’m not going to let you offend deputies. Here no one has hands stained with blood.

Ana Júlia

I apologize, but the Statute of the Child and Adolescent tells us that the responsibility for our adolescents — our students — lies with society, the family, and the state.

We students who are in the schools are not bums as they called us here, as some in society outside have said. We’re there for ideals. We fight for them. We believe in them.

Students occupying a high school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Midia Ninja
Students occupying a high school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Midia Ninja

I invite you to come to the occupations to see our psychological stress. To see that it is not easy there but that we will continue fighting. We’re going to continue fighting because we believe in it. We’re going to continue fighting because we’re searching for knowledge. And we won’t stop searching for knowledge.

I invite you to go there and know the movement. And you will be very welcome because our idea is to present to you why we are there.

The student movement has brought us much more knowledge about politics and citizenship than in all the time we have sat in rows of desks in standardized classrooms. One week of occupations has brought us much more knowledge about politics and citizenship than in the many years of study in the classroom.

Despite all the ridiculing and attempts to demoralize us, to offend us, despite the problems we will have to confront, we are still able to be happy. We’re happy because we’ve overcome the fact of being just mere teens.