Thousands of supporters of Brazil’s ousted former president, Jair Bolsonaro, stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices Sunday to protest what they falsely claim was a stolen election, the violent culmination of years of conspiracy theories advanced by Bolsonaro and his right-wing allies.
In scenes reminiscent of Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, protesters in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, draped in the yellow and green of Brazil’s flag, surged into the seat of power, setting fires, repurposing barricades as weapons, knocking police officers from horseback and filming their crimes as they committed them.
“We always said we would not give up,” one protester declared as he filmed himself among hundreds of protesters pushing into the Capitol building. “Congress is ours. We are in power.”
For months, protesters had been demanding that the military prevent the newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from taking office on Jan. 1. Many on the right in Brazil have become convinced, despite the lack of evidence, that October’s election was rigged.
For years, Bolsonaro had asserted, without any proof, that Brazil’s election systems were rife with fraud and that the nation’s elites were conspiring to remove him from power.
Lula said Sunday that those false claims had fueled the attack on the plaza, known as Three Powers Square because of the presence of the three branches of government. Bolsonaro “triggered this,” Lula said in an address to the nation. “He spurred attacks on the three powers whenever he could. This is also his responsibility.”
Late Sunday, Bolsonaro criticized the protests, saying on Twitter that peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy, but “destruction and invasions of public buildings, like what occurred today,” are not. But he also rejected Lula’s accusations, saying they were “without proof.”
At his inauguration, Lula said that uniting Brazil, Latin America’s largest country and one of the world’s biggest democracies, would be a central goal of his administration. The invasion of the capital suggests that the nation’s divisions are more profound than many had imagined, and it saddles the new president with a major challenge just one week into his administration.
After Lula was inaugurated, protesters put out calls online for others to join them for a massive demonstration Sunday. It quickly turned violent.
Hundreds of protesters ascended a ramp to the roof of the congressional building in Brasilia, while a smaller group invaded the building from a lower level, according to witnesses and videos of the scene posted on social media. Other groups of protesters splintered off and broke into the presidential offices and the Supreme Court, which are in the same plaza.
The scene was chaotic.
Protesters streamed into the government buildings, which were largely empty on a Sunday, breaking windows, overturning furniture and looting items inside, according to videos they posted online.
The crowds shouted that they were taking their country back and that they would not be stopped. Outnumbered, police fired what appeared to be rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear-gas canisters, including from two helicopters overhead.
“Police are cowardly trying to expel the people from Congress, but there is no way because even more are arriving,” said one protester in a video filmed from inside Congress and showing hundreds of protesters on multiple floors. “No one is taking our country, damn it.”
Eventually, Brazilian army soldiers helped retake control of some buildings.
Lula, who was not in Brasilia during the invasion, issued an emergency decree until Jan. 31 that allows the federal government to take “any measures necessary” to restore order in the capital. “There is no precedent for what these people have done, and for that, these people must be punished,” he said.
The president, who arrived in the capital late in the day to inspect the damage, said his government would also investigate anyone who may have financed the protests.
Bolsonaro appeared to be in Florida. He flew to Orlando in the final days of his presidency, in hopes that his absence from the country would help cool off investigations into his activity as president, according to a friend of the president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. He planned to stay in Florida for one to three months, this person said.
Bolsonaro has never unequivocally conceded defeat in the election, leaving it to his aides to handle the transition of power and skipping the inauguration, where he was supposed to pass the presidential sash to Lula, an important symbol of the transition of power for a country that lived under a 21-year military dictatorship until 1985.
After the election, he said he supported peaceful protests inspired by “feelings of injustice in the electoral process.”
But before departing for Florida, Bolsonaro suggested to his supporters that they move on. “We live in a democracy or we don’t,” he said in a recorded statement. “No one wants an adventure.”
His calls were ignored. The next day, thousands of his supporters remained camped outside the army headquarters in Brasilia, with many convinced that the military and Bolsonaro were about to execute a secret plan to prevent Lula’s inauguration.
“The army will step in,” Magno Rodrigues, 60, a former mechanic and janitor, said in an interview on Dec. 31, the day before Lula took office. He had been camped outside the army’s headquarters for nine weeks and said he was prepared to stay “for the rest of my life if I have to.”
One of Lula’s central challenges as president will be to unify the nation after a bitter election in which some of his supporters framed Bolsonaro as genocidal and cannibalistic, while Bolsonaro repeatedly called Lula a criminal. (Lula served 19 months in prison on corruption charges that were later thrown out.)
Surveys have shown that a sizable chunk of the population say they believe Lula stole the election, fueled by false claims that have spread across the internet and a shift among many right-wing voters away from traditional sources of news — problems that have also plagued U.S. politics in recent years.
President Joe Biden, who was visiting the southern U.S. border, called the protests “outrageous,” and Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, said the United States “condemns any effort to undermine democracy in Brazil.”
“Our support for Brazil’s democratic institutions is unwavering,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter. “Brazil’s democracy will not be shaken by violence.”
Some far-right provocateurs in the United States, however, cheered on the attacks, posting videos of the riots and calling the protesters “patriots” who were trying to uphold the Brazilian Constitution. Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, called the protesters “Brazilian Freedom Fighters” in a social media post. Bannon has had close ties with one of Bolsonaro’s sons.
At first, the rioters had a relatively easy time breaching the buildings. State police officers tried to hold them back, but they were far outnumbered. The demonstrations had been advertised widely on social media for days.
“It was scary, it was insanity,” said Adriana Reis, 30, a cleaner at Congress who witnessed the scene. “They tried hard, with pepper spray, to drive them off, but I don’t think the police could handle them all.” After protesters streamed in, “we ran away to hide,” she said.
Videos from inside Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential offices quickly filled social-media feeds and group chats, showing protesters wearing their national flag and trudging through the halls of power, not exactly sure what to do next.
They sat in the padded chairs of the Chamber of Deputies, rifled through paperwork in the presidential offices and posed with a golden coat of arms that appeared to be ripped from the wall of the Supreme Court’s chambers. Federal officials later distributed images and videos from the presidential offices that showed destroyed computers, art ripped from frames and firearm cases that had been emptied of their guns.
The protesters were ransacking buildings that have been hailed as gems of modernist architecture. Designed by celebrated Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s, the Supreme Court, for instance, features columns of concrete clad in white marble that echo the fluttering of a sheet in the wind. And Congress is known for being capped with both a dome, under which the Senate is located, and a sort of bowl, under which the House is located.
Outside the presidential offices, they raised the flag of the Brazilian Empire, a period in the 19th century before Brazil became a democracy, and they sang Brazil’s national anthem. Videos of the rampage showed many protesters with phones aloft, filming the scene.
“There is no way to stop the people,” one protester declared as he livestreamed hundreds of protesters charging onto the roof of Congress. “Subscribe to my channel, guys.”
Several news outlets said their journalists were attacked and robbed during the rioting. And Ricardo Stuckert, Lula’s official photographer, had his passport and more than $95,000 worth of equipment stolen from a room in the presidential offices, according to his wife, Cristina Lino.
By late afternoon, military trucks had arrived.
Armed soldiers entered the presidential offices through a back door to ambush rioters inside. Shortly after, protesters began to stream out of the building, including some escorted by law enforcement officers.
By 9 p.m., more than seven hours after the invasions began, Brazil’s justice minister, Flávio Dino, said the buildings had been cleared. He said officials had arrested at least 200 people. The governor of Brasilia said the number of arrests had exceeded 400.
Valdemar Costa Neto, the head of Bolsonaro’s right-wing Liberal Party, criticized the protesters.
“Today is a sad day for the Brazilian nation,” he said in a statement. “All orderly demonstrations are legitimate. Disorder has never been part of our nation’s principles.”
The Brazilian flag draped around many of the rioters Sunday includes three words: “Order and progress.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.