Tens of thousands of supporters of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro heeded his call and turned out at rallies Tuesday as he stepped up his attacks on Brazil's Supreme Court and threatened to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
Bolsonaro has been locked in a feud with the high court, in particular a justice who has jailed several of the president's supporters for allegedly financing, organizing or inciting violence or anti-democratic acts, or disseminating false information.
In calling on his followers to take to the streets on Brazil's Independence Day in protest, Bolsonaro stirred fears among his foes that the demonstrations could erupt in violence akin to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump. There were no reports of any serious violence.
Bolsonaro got a rousing reception from demonstrators in the capital, Brasilia, and in Sao Paulo, as he lit into the Supreme Court and Justice Alexandre de Moraes for making what he characterized as political arrests.
He declared he will no longer abide by rulings from de Moraes, who will assume the presidency of the nation's electoral tribunal next year, when Bolsonaro will seek reelection.
"Any decision from Mr. Alexandre de Moraes, this president will no longer comply with. The patience of our people has run out," Bolsonaro said. "For us, he no longer exists."
He also told the cheering crowd in Sao Paulo: "I want to tell those who want to make me unelectable in Brazil: Only God removes me from there.
"There are three options for me: be jailed, killed or victorious. I'm letting the scoundrels know: I'll never be imprisoned!"
Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political journalist and communications consultant, said Bolsonaro "crossed the Rubicon" on Tuesday.
"He escalated the crisis. You can't have a president who says, 'I won't accept rule of law,' or says, 'I will only accept the laws I like.' That's not a democracy," Traumann said.
Fears of riot
Bolsonaro spent almost two months calling on supporters to take part in rallies across the country on Independence Day that could show his continuing political appeal despite slumping poll ratings and a string of setbacks.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro was elected on a pledge to go after a corrupt, entrenched political class. He has also said he might reject the 2022 election results if he loses.
Bolsonaro had predicted two million people would turn out in Sao Paulo; state security officials estimated the crowd at 125,000, crammed into the city's broad Avenue Paulista. Supporters also gathered outside Brasilia's government buildings and alongside Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach. All three cities also featured smaller protests against the president.
At least 100 military police with riot shields stood in front of Congress, and several dozen formed two lines behind barricades on the road leading to the Supreme Court. At least twice, groups of demonstrators tried to get past the barriers, but officers repelled them with pepper spray.
About 10,000 officers were scattered around the area for the demonstrations, security officials said.
Regina Pontes, 53, stood atop a flatbed that advanced toward the police barriers. She said the Brazilian people have every right to enter the area.
"You can't close the door to keep the owner out," she said.
Polls indicate trouble for Bolsonaro
The world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, a drumbeat of accusations of wrongdoing in the government's handling of the pandemic and surging inflation have weighed on Bolsonaro's approval ratings.
Polls show his nemesis, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, could trounce him in a runoff if he enters the race.
Bolsonaro's clash with the Supreme Court has raised fears among his critics, given his frequently expressed nostalgia for the nation's past military dictatorship.
On the eve of Tuesday's protest, he signed a provisional measure sharply limiting social media platforms' ability to remove content, restrict its spread or block accounts.
The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia last week warned Americans to steer clear of the protests.
"The risk we [will] see scenes of violence and an institutional crisis that's unprecedented in Brazil's recent history still remains and is considerable," said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.
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