Bolsonaro supporters attempt coup, storming Brazil's three powers headquarters

Protesters storm Brazil's Congress, Supreme Court and the Planalto Palace, the presidential workplace, in Brasília, a week after Lula's inauguration | Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Supporters of former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro caused chaos in Brazil's capital Brasília on Jan. 8 after they stormed key public buildings in an apparent coup attempt. The rioters arrived in the federal capital one week after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's inauguration to protest the false claims that Brazil's 2022 election was rigged.

Since Workers’ Party (PT) leftist Lula defeated Bolsonaro in a tight run-off victory on Oct. 30, some bolsonaristas (the title given to Bolsonaro supporters) have been camping in front of military units and by the side of highways protesting the results. These protests triggered an attempted invasion of the Federal Police building and an attempted bombing back in December 2022.

The protestors marched from the Army headquarters, where their camp was placed, to the Three Powers Square — named because the Presidency, the National Congress, and the Supreme Court buildings are based there — and invaded the facilities, laying siege to the federal capital.

The bolsonaristas attacked the iconic buildings; destroyed art; used historical furniture to barricade entrances; ransacked artifacts, such as an issue of the Federal Constitution; tore apart the Supreme Court noble hall; stole guns, computers, and other equipment stored in the Planalto Palace (the presidential workplace); and seemingly defecated and urinated in the offices. They also assaulted at least eight journalists covering the events.

Official portrays of former Brazilian presidents were destroyed in the attacks, with the exception of JairBolsonaro's | Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

The federal government issued an early evaluation of the pieces destroyed by the vandals, including important national artworks and a French clock from the 17th century by Balthazar Martinot, Louis XIV's clockmaker. According to the Brazilian government website, the piece is one of only two pieces by Martinot left in the world — the other one is in Versailles.

The rioters also destroyed the official portraits of former presidents, sparing Bolsonaro's. One man appears in a video with the former president's portrait, calling him “my hero.”

The attempted coup was reminiscent of Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill invasion in the United States. But while former President Donald Trump was still in power at the time, during the Brazilian riot, Bolsonaro had already stepped down and was out of the country, in Florida.

Speaking to governors on Jan. 9, Lula said that “they want a coup and there won't be a coup.” Several cities registered pro-democracy protests that same day.

An invasion announced

Rioters invaded public buildings, including Planalto Palace, the presidential workplace and one of the most famous works of architect Oscar Niemeyer | Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

The attacks on Jan. 8 were organized via social media platforms, such as Twitter, as reported by GV partner Agência Pública, and messaging apps. A story published by UOL news outlet also shows they used an online map and prepared to confront.

In response, a decree of federal intervention in the Federal District (DF), where Brasília is located, has been initiated until the end of January, and around 1,500 bolsonaristas have been detained. They could be indicted for attempting a coup, damages, attempting to abolish the rule of law, and criminal association.

Detentions could increase in the following days as investigations to discover who funded the acts unfold.

Former Bolsonaro ally and presidential candidate, senator Soraya Thronicke announced she has gathered enough signatures to open a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on the so-called “anti-democratic acts.”

Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes, who oversees investigations over anti-democratic acts and fake news, also ordered the removal of the Federal District's re-elected governor and Bolsonaro ally Ibaneis Rocha for 90 days, to avoid any interference with the ongoing investigation. Rocha said he accepted the decision.

Since videos and pictures posted by the rioters themselves on social media seemed to show the military police forces standing aside during the attacks. The local government will also have to answer about the procedures used.

Rioters found no resistance along the nearly two-hour march route or when entering protected areas. A video also shows Army forces seemingly clueless about how to respond at the Planalto Palace.

The week before the Brasília attacks, as the news outlet Metropoles reports, a video circulated in pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp and Telegram groups, showing a Brazilian woman who met Bolsonaro in Florida. The woman says she asked him not to give up on Brazil, and he responded to her “the best was yet to come.” She doesn't give further explanation.

Bolsonaristas‘ spin

Damages in the building of the Federal Senate of Brazil after bolsonaristas invaded and ransacked the place in January 8 | Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

As images of the riots and violence in Brasília went viral globally, international authorities voiced support for Brazil's democracy and government.

Bolsonaristas, in the meantime, started to spin the narrative, claiming the vandalism was the work of infiltrated leftists.

One of the videos used to support such claims shows a man holding a Workers’ Party flag outside one of the attacked buildings. But bolsonaristas fail to explain why an infiltrated person would out themselves in the middle of an insurrection, risking their own safety in the process.

Pictures of people who aren't present in the attacks, such as activist Raull Santiago, who supported Lula, are also being spread, pinning him as an “infiltrated.”

Bolsonaro, who still identifies as “president of Brazil” in his social media bios, criticized the attacks, claiming he has always acted within the Constitution.

He also tried to compare the unprecedented events in the federal capital to leftist protests over the years:

Peaceful protests, in the form of the law, are part of democracy. However, depredation and the invasion of public buildings as we've seen today, just as the ones practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, are not the rule

He also rejected what he called “accusations without evidence” raised by Lula. On Jan. 8, the president tweeted:

They took advantage of Sunday's silence, when we're still building the government, to do what they did. And you know there are several speeches from the former president encouraging it. This is also his and the parties that sustain him's responsibility.

Lula held a meeting with governors and published a joint statement with the presidents of Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court, calling the rioters’ attacks “terrorism, vandalism, criminal, and coup instigators.”

In the afternoon of Jan. 9, the day after the siege, Bolsonaro was reportedly hospitalized in Florida, allegedly feeling abdominal discomfort. Hospitalizations were common during his time as president, an effect of the stabbing he suffered in 2018, he claims.

U.S. Congress members have suggested he should be expelled. Brazilian senator Renan Calheiros said Bolsonaro would be asked to return to Brazil to ensure officials could investigate his involvement in the attacks. Currently, there are no criminal lawsuits open involving Bolsonaro that could justify an extradition request.

Justice minister Flavio Dino said in a press conference that political leaders are responsible for the escalating hate speech and destruction of public buildings, without mentioning names.

He later recalled criticism from Bolsonaro and his supporters to the Supreme Court over the years as an example:

Um presidente da República exerce poderes materiais, fáticos e simbólicos, entre eles a força da palavra. O que vimos é que esse discurso frequente nas redes sociais ganhou pernas, braços, pedras, tiros, bombas, exatamente ontem. É como se fosse a migração do universo do ódio das redes sociais para a vida material. E o resultado não é bom.

(…) Nós vivemos ontem o Capitólio brasileiro, com duas diferenças: não houve óbitos. E tem mais presos aqui do que lá. O que mostra que as instituições sobreviveram a esse stress a que foram submetidas.

A President of the Republic exercises material, factual and symbolic powers, among them the strength of the word. What we've seen is that this frequent speech in social media gained legs, arms, rocks, shots, bombs precisely yesterday. It is like the migration of the hate universe from social media to the material life. And the result isn't good.

(…) We lived yesterday the Brazilian Capitol Hill, with two differences: there weren't deaths, and there are more detentions here than there. Which shows the institutions survived the stress they were submitted to.

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