Resistance to the Cup (Part 1): Who is in the streets?

Resistance to the World Cup is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s difficult to escape if you have access to news media, let alone if you’re living in Brazil at the moment. I’ve been involved in a number of protests, both in Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo, and have spent considerable time speaking with those who have been critical of the Cup. Through these conversations and experiences I’ve learned some important things about protests: not all are created the same, and not everyone has the same ability to partake.

First, I think it’s important to note that not all demonstrators are protesting against the World Cup. Many diverse groups from across the political spectrum are airing their concerns during the heightened publicity that surrounds this event. Most people are indeed against the massive quantities of public money being spent on the mega events, but you can also see many LGBTQ flags, slogans against bus fare increases, and ‘down with Dilma’ signs from right wing groups. To say that all protestors are asking for the same thing is to erase the multiplicity of voices that are taking their fight to the streets.

Among those who are against mega event-related displacements, privatization, and militarization, not everyone can, nor wants, to express resistance in the same way. This is partly due to where people live, and the racial and class character of these spaces. In other words, there are some obvious differences between protests, and where they occur matters.

Most of the demonstrations that have drawn coverage in Brazilian and international news media are those happening in the downtown regions of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and those near Maracana stadium. As journalists are showing, many of these protests are massive, and many of the demonstrators are being met with tear gas and rubber bullets used by the police to dissipate the crowds. There have also been buses overturned and set alight, metro stations effectively shut down, and helicopters surveilling the relative chaos from high above. The people in these crowds tend to be quite mixed, although many commentators are likely correct in calling them young and largely middle-class.

Many of these protests in the more well-off areas of town (including Zona Sul and Centro in Rio de Janeiro), and in heightened publicity zones like Maracana, are spatially privileged in some ways. They are neither located where the protestors live, nor are in areas that have a permanent police presence; in fact, most of the time these protests are moving as people march through the streets. Because the media (both figuratively and literally) flocks to these spaces, cameras can be rather powerful devices, as protestors circle the police in order to capture human rights abuses. Of course, terrible things still happen here, and there is significant police violence. This is important to point out. But people tend to be able to escape and disperse rather quickly when the tear gas or stun bombs hit. They can go home.

Things are different in Rio’s low-income communities. Most of my experience in Rio favelas has been in Complexo do Alemao. This particular community – a complex of a number of favelas, really – has been ‘pacified’, which means there is a permanent military police occupation here called the ‘police pacification unit’ (UPP) program. This changes the game dramatically. When there exists such a large, armed police presence, the question of ‘rubber bullets’ is a non-starter. Sure, some of the police that may be called in for a protest have rubber bullets, but most of these UPP units are armed. So when UPP military police show up, the bullets are not rubber.

Reporters rarely travel to Zona Norte to cover protests. Because these spaces are not in the media spotlight nearly as often as protests in Centro or Zona Sul, the military police can, and do, react more violently. There is less circling of the cops with cameras when people are running for their lives. And because favelas are typically depicted as being run by drug traffickers, it is very easy for the state and the media to accuse protestors of being paid by the traffickers, as ridiculous a claim as it may be. This is a form of criminalization of protest activity that rarely sees any media coverage in World Cup reports. And it’s done to silence activists.

There are also significant spatial and temporal ramifications of protests for people living in favelas that have UPP units. In these spaces, the impact of protest extends well beyond the actual moment of taking to the street. Spatially, it means that after an intense moment of action, people – protestors and commuters alike – have to make their way through the streets of their community. With pacification, this means that heavily armed military police with real bullets will more often than not be slinking around the hills with guns drawn, locked, and loaded. Or people will have to ride the newly built, and little used, teleferico system, flying in gondola cable cars as shots are fired in the air. This is how residents get killed in crossfire.

Temporally, it means that there can be days and nights of tension following a protest, as the military police and the drug traffickers tend to be on greater alert, which almost inevitably culminates in gun fire. In Complexo do Alemao, following a particularly violent protest this past March, the community was again invaded by BOPE – the heavily armed police unit made famous because of its ability to kill with relative impunity. Tension has been building here since then. This past week, many residents have had difficulties even leaving their houses because of the gunfights happening in the streets. They cannot go out to protest.

Favela residents therefore have to be very careful about when they protest within their own communities. A few weeks ago, a protest announcement started circulating around Facebook – a major social media tool here – that claimed to be staging a demonstration in Complexo do Alemao. None of the community activists here had spoken to these organizers, the latter whom had links to a protest happening in Sao Paulo the previous day. Complexo do Alemao activists were angry. Not only is there danger in trying to ‘talk for’ someone else – particularly when this group appears to have had little-to-no connection with Alemao residents – but there is also physical danger in how these protests violently reverberate through the community by way of the heightened anxiety and aggression of the military police. Protest spaces are certainly not created equal anywhere, but there are more violent ramifications for Brazil’s low-income and darker-skinned residents.

Of course, I’ve created a rather strict dichotomy between demonstrations in low-income communities and protests happening in the streets of Centro or Zona Sul. These are not hard and fast spatial divisions: of course people move from favela communities to Centro to protest, and vice versa. There are also pacified favelas in both Centro and Zona Sul whose protests blur any neat divide. And, as I’ve said before, we need to call out the state violence that is inherent to all of these spaces.

But I do believe it is worth pointing out significant patterns of difference in the ability to protest, particularly as the media – both local and foreign – tends to follow only the massive protests being organized in the more privileged zones of the city. As usual, the voices of those in favelas are being further silenced in such a mediated and militarized environment. We might be hearing many voices on the street, but we’re certainly not hearing all of them.

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