Protests in Brazil are running in to their fifth night, a sign that Brazil’s previously polite manner of protesting has done little to bring about change.
After more than three centuries of colonial rule followed by intermittent dictatorships, confrontation isn’t the preferred style of protest for Brazilians. Samantha Pearson, the FT’s São Paulo correspondent, spoke to so-called BBQ activists - people who organise public barbecues to protest anything from police aggression to homophobia.
The idea of protesting via the medium of a grilled sausage may seem rather unusual, but food and social activism have a long history together.
1773 The Boston Tea Party
American revolutionaries threw tea in to Boston Harbour, in protest against rising taxes from Britain. While the modern Tea Party movement likes to tout the importance of this moment in the history of American independence, it may be that it wasn’t quite the pivotal moment it is made out to be.
Michael Portillo, a former British defence secretary, examined how “events like the Molasses Act and the Boston Massacre were arguably more significant in fermenting [sic] rebellion, forging a national identity and ultimately leading to independence. Both have now been overshadowed by the more romantic idea of the Boston Tea Party… We have been sold a version of the revolution that is much simpler than at the time.”
Bread Riots and the French Revolution
It became too much for the working Frenchman when the price of bread shot up after two years of failed harvests. What had previously cost the average worker half their wages, shot up to consume 88 per cent of it in 1789.
“The high price of bread continued, and bakers and alleged hoarders were frequently attacked by famished crowds. Political questions and bread riots again threatened to converge as the National Assembly began drafting the new constitution…”
Thence sprang the apocryphal tale of Marie Antoinette saying that her subjects could eat cake instead.
Gandhi’s salt march
Mahatma Gandhi protested against British monopoly of salt production and distribution in 1930, by marching through Gujarat state, from his ashram to Dandi on the Arabian Sea coast. Indians had already been protesting against the high salt tax and their being prohibited from producing or selling salt independently. Residents of villages along the way joined him for the journey. A month after setting off, Gandhi and his followers picked up handfuls of salt along the shore, breaking the law. Gandhi continued and was arrested a month later. By the end of the year, about 60,000 people were in jail for carrying on the salt march. A truce was declared in 1931.
2008 A global food crisis
Soaring food prices stoked unrest around the world from Cameroon to Indonesia. Haiti’s prime minister resigned after protesters chanted, “We’re hungry” at him.
Der Spiegel mapped the unrest and in its analysis of the situation, The Economist wrote,
“this crisis is different. It is occurring in many countries simultaneously, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. And it is affecting people not usually hit by famines. “For the middle classes,” says [head of the UN's World Food Programme Josette] Sheeran, “it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.” The poorest are selling their animals, tools, the tin roof over their heads—making recovery, when it comes, much harder.”
The Arab Spring
When Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself alive in protest against the confiscation of his vegetable cart, he set off a series of uprisings that spread around the Middle-East, bringing down Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali along the way. The initial protests also coincided with a spike in cereal prices, which may well have contributed to ire among populations.
The Cottage cheese protests
Widespread anger over the high price of cottage cheese prompted a popular campaign against Israel’s dairy industry in 2011. What started off as a boycott of a breakfast product, developed into tent cities and protesters demanding affordable housing and social reform.
Food is by no means the only reason for any of these protests, but its principal role in day-to-day life has made it an emblematic part of many a demonstration. The heated protests in Brazil indicate that barbecue activism hasn’t made the mark it has hoped and the government now has to deal with a far less convivial form of protest.
If you can think of any more examples of food-related protest, let us know in the comments.