SAO PAULO, Brazil — While many people in this gigantic city have been out stocking up on beer or Brazil team shirts and scarves for the World Cup, Silvia Daskal bought provisions of a different kind.
One of 10 volunteer lawyers who have organized under the moniker Advogados Ativistas, or Activist Attorneys, Daskal was purchasing a gas mask and a protective helmet.
That gear has become essential to her volunteer work: acting as a “legal observer” of Sao Paulo’s protests. With unprovoked tear gas and stun grenade attacks now common by the riot police here, she said, she’s not taking any chances.
“We’ve had observers who’ve been punched in the face, others who have received death threats,” Daskal said. “[At the last protest] I was really scared.”
She and her fellow activist attorneys are among a handful organizations that have sprung up in recent months as protests against the World Cup and other social issues in Brazil have become increasingly militant and violent.
The same day that reports circulated last week about police officers allegedly firing live ammunition into the air at protests in Rio de Janeiro, Daskal sat down in a cafe in Sao Paulo and explained her group’s role.
The Activist Attorneys see their job as both observing the riot police to ensure they stay within the law, and handing out legal advice to protesters.
“We’ve actually avoided lots of illegal arrests,” Daskal said. “The police say ‘You can’t record me.’ [We say] ‘Yes, I can, because you are a public servant and you’re acting on the street and I’m your boss!’”
More from GlobalPost: Six crazy things that happened at Sao Paulo’s World Cup riot
The Justice Ministry has set up a special agency to coordinate security in the country’s 12 World Cup host cities known as the Secretariat for Security at Large Events (SESGE).
Most Brazilian states have municipal and state police in addition to a local wing of the military police, a quasi-military organization that provides security but doesn’t investigate crimes.
Screengrabs from a YouTube video posted by the activist attorneys of "legal observers" getting hassled.
Email requests to local and military police spokespeople went unanswered. A SESGE spokeswoman requested questions by email, but did not respond to them.
The day after the June 12 opening game riots, senior security officials in Sao Paulo were quoted by local media defending the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, which are non-lethal explosives meant to disorientate the crowd with loud bangs. Officials will investigate the use of force to ensure it was legitimate, but police officers have been cleared to use these tactics in quelling protests, the officials said.
“Rubber bullets weren’t used against demonstrators,” Fernando Grella Vieira, secretary of public security of Sao Paulo, told local media.
Grella Vieira differentiated between peaceful protesters and adherents to the black bloc form of demonstrating.
More from GlobalPost: Meet the anarchists who plan to go nuts at the World Cup
“They were used against a group that was there to commit acts of violence and aggression,” he said.
Hugo Tisaka, a security expert who runs a Sao Paulo-based consultancy, said Brazil’s sprawling security apparatus poses specific problems for Latin America’s biggest nation.
Many officers lack effective training and modern equipment, he said, adding that some of those brought in to squash riots like the one in Sao Paulo last week may also lack crucial local knowledge, and may be working with new colleagues for the first time.
“You need to increase the synergy among all the different agencies,” Tisaka said. “The problem with the national police is they pick officers from one state and send them to another. Normally, they don’t know the local rules and culture.”
Daskal’s group of attorneys isn’t the only organization that has reported heavy-handed or possibly illegal actions by Brazilian police in recent riots.
At the violent clashes in Sao Paulo during the opening game of the tournament, a group of dark-suited public defense attorneys stuck out against the black denim of the activists and the helmets and gas masks of the front-line media.
The Sao Paulo state lawyers have also pledged to show up at the protests to observe police tactics and behavior. At the beginning of the protest last Thursday, they could be seen entering into heated discussions with police officers and being pushed and blocked by police when the lawyers refused to clear the street.
During the protest, Carlos Weis, a spokesman for the public defense attorneys, decried the tactics that riot police were using less than a block away — firing stun grenades and tear gas into groups of unarmed protesters and journalists.
“We’re against this. We say that this is completely illegal,” Weis said. “We have already filed a suit against the state in order to have it completely prohibited.”
Daskal said her group, which was launched last June, continues to grow. The Advogados Ativistas Facebook page already has more than 100,000 likes, and she said every new protest brings new supporters and volunteers. Seeking an even broader audience, the group translated its report about the Sao Paulo riots into several languages.
Daskal said she doesn’t see the demonstrations dying down any time soon.
“It’s a very organic thing. The protests breathe in and breathe out, so they get bigger and smaller, bigger and smaller,” she said. “Every time there is a big reaction from the [security] forces, the protests get bigger and if everything is peaceful, then the next protests get smaller.”