I just got home after wandering around the streets near my home and I have to say that of all the thousands of nights I’ve spent in Brazil, this was one of the more remarkable.

Not just because there are police helicopters overhead in my normally gentile neighbourhood. Not just because the main roads are blocked with burning rubbish. And not even because there is tear gas in the air and periodic bangs caused by the police firing off shock bombs and rubber bullets.

Still from Globonews coverage of the protests

Still from Globonews coverage of the protests

It’s all that. But what I really can’t believe is Why? Or rather How. How did things get so bad so fast? How did the state and municipal governments, and most importantly the police, let it get to this?

This is a protest over a small hike in bus fares that went into effect a week ago.

I won’t go into the rights or wrongs of the fare rise – from 3.00 reais to 3.20 reais – as I don’t know enough about it. (Although I will say that protesters demanding free public transport for all are living in cloud cuckoo land.)

But what has become crystal clear tonight, even through the haze of tear gas, is that the Sao Paulo government has once again overreacted with a breathtaking brutality and incompetence. They never learn.

The police are military police and therein lies one of the main problems. Historically unprepared to deal with dissent and opposition and untrained to meet the demands of a democratic society, their first response is to reach for their batons or their guns.

I won’t get into any of the other cases in which Sao Paulo police officers have been accused of brutal overreaction. (But here’s three links to cases where they are accused of murder, here, here and here.)

The fact is that with a modicum of common sense and leadership from state and municipal authorities, tonight’s protest would probably have passed fairly peacefully.

The overwhelming majority of protesters were non-violent. They even chanted “Sem Violencia!” (No Violence!) But even if there were a few troublemakers (and that’s not unlikely) it wouldn’t justify such a heavy handed response.

Basic common sense dictates that unless protests are violent you sheperd protesters away from sensitive areas. You let them have their say and then wait for them to go home. You don’t send in the riot police, the cavalry, and fire tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed students.

What are these people thinking? Who was giving the orders? And perhaps most importantly, will they learn from their mistakes?

I am not holding my breath….