Mobilization in the Wake of Rio’s Olympics

By Nicholas Barnes

Over the last few months, we have been inundated with news articles and reports on the disastrous impacts that the Olympics have had on Rio de Janeiro. In particular, Rio’s working class poor, many of whom live in the city’s 1,100 favelas, representing nearly 25% of the population, have shouldered the biggest burden. The current situation in many of the city’s favelas is bleak. Many low-wage public employees’ salaries have gone unpaid and had their benefits cut. More than 4,000 residents have been evicted from their homes to make room for Olympic infrastructure. Even the once heralded Police Pacification Units (UPPs), a program intended to take back territorial control of favelas from powerful drug trafficking gangs and reduce violent crime in Rio in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics, are faltering. The news is not all bad, however, as the Olympics and other mega-events have also created opportunities for activists and social movements to call attention to misguided and irresponsible public policies. Much of Brazilian society has mobilized as a result. And yet, favela communities have largely been unable to capitalize on these opportunities due to continuing problems related to public security.

On the one hand, we can see that Brazilian society has responded to the Olympics and other recent mega-events through mass mobilization and public protest. For instance, police, firefighters, and teachers have responded to cuts with strikes and protests, students and teachers have occupied dozens of schools throughout the city, while others have engaged police in more confrontational protests outside of Olympic venues. In one widely reported incident, the Olympic torch was even extinguished briefly as it arrived to Rio de Janeiro. We can also see the massive protests of 2013 during the Confederations Cup (the tournament prior to the World Cup), in this light. In June of that year, most of Brazil’s major urban centers were rocked by enormous public protests, the largest the country had experienced since the early 1990s. Several large demonstrations even occurred outside of stadiums while games were being played. Another protest in Rio gathered as many as 300,000 people. These protests, however, were not primarily driven by Rio’s favela populations.

This is not to say that Rio’s poor are not also angered by over-budget infrastructure projects, political corruption, and the lack of access to public services, for they, better than anyone, understand the consequences of these failings. Instead, many favela communities have focused their efforts on their more immediate and pressing concerns regarding public security.

It is not difficult to understand why. The systematic abuse and violence suffered by favela communities at the hands of Rio’s military police is well-documented (see here, here, and here for recent examples). The struggle for these communities to mobilize is evident in an example from Complexo da Maré, a group of 15 favelas with a population of 140,000, where a local protest over rising transportation costs and access to services during the Confederations Cup precipitated a violent police invasion of these gang-controlled communities that led to the death of one police officer and nine residents, some of whom were alleged gang members.

At the time, I was at the beginning of 18 months of fieldwork in Maré. Understanding how favela residents respond to such insecure environments and mobilize to gain access to resources and higher levels of security was one of the principal aims of my research. In numerous interviews with residents following this protest-turned-massacre (“chacina”, or massacre, is the word residents gave to it), they shared their frustration over the impromptu police invasion in the late afternoon, at an hour when many residents were returning home from work or school. They were also angered by the subsequent 24-hour occupation of their community, the illegal home searches, and the threats that police shouted from the streets. Several days after the massacre, community leaders and local NGOs organized a demonstration that gathered some 5,000 participants, an enormous protest by favela standards.

This is not an isolated case. Other favela communities have focused their mobilization efforts in response to similarly violent and illegal tactics by police. In Rocinha, the largest favela in the city, the case of Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year old bricklayer, who was called in for questioning by Pacification police only to be tortured and disappeared, ignited long-standing resentment over police disregard for basic human rights. Cadê o Amarildo? (“Where is Amarildo?”) became a rallying cry not only for residents of Rocinha but for numerous other favela communities experiencing police brutality in the lead up to and during the World Cup. In 2015, in Complexo do Alemão, one of the most turbulent Pacification projects in the city, police shot and killed a ten-year old boy, Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, while playing with his cell phone. Videos of the young boy’s corpse circulated on social networks and protests were quickly organized in several areas of the city.

It is also impossible to overlook how organized crime impedes favela mobilization. For one, the often violent reaction of police in these communities is largely a response to powerful drug trafficking gangs which are both willing and able of confronting police. In just the first six months of this year, 67 police have already been killed. Moreover, the dominant positions of authority that organized crime maintains in many favelas has stifled and prevented much grassroots mobilization. Organized crime, in fact, continues to benefit from intransigent public security institutions as improving relations between residents and police and more responsive political institutions, in general, would immensely weaken the gangs’ position in these territories. These organizations understand this and have actively prevented residents from collaborating with police through a longstanding lei do silêncio (“law of silence”). They have also antagonized and confronted police in Pacified favelas to remind residents of their continuing presence. They have even been known to use violence directly against residents that too openly support Pacification in these communities.

While much of the international focus in recent months and years has been on mobilization leading up to and during the mega-events, for residents of Rio’s favelas, what concerns them most is what comes after. They have little to show for their recent mobilizations and now that the Olympic torch and international focus have moved on, it remains to be seen whether these communities can effectively advocate for their right to adequate public security much less the myriad other problems caused by the World Cup and Olympics.

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Filed under Activism in Latin America, Uncategorized

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