Brazil shopping malls: New epicenter for social protest?

In recent months, Facebook-organized teen gatherings at malls in São Paulo have caused protest that's fractured Brazilians along class lines.

Nuno Guimares/Reuters
Students from the School of Communication and Art of the University of Sao Paulo perform a skit titled 'Blind Ones' as a protest against consumerism inside a shopping mall of Natal, capital of Rio Grande do Norte state, December 9, 2013. The group plans to take the protest to cities in Europe and North America in 2014.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

When you think about social conflict in Brazil, you probably don't think of a mall. But in recent months, the mall has become the epicenter of a different kind of protest in and around Brazil's largest city, a protest that has fractured along class lines and has divided Brazilians.

What are the rolezinhos?

The so-called "rolezinhos no shopping" began in December in São Paulo. These are mass mall gatherings organized on Facebook, made up of young people, largely working class from the city outskirts. Hundreds, and even thousands of teens show up for these events. They're not explicitly political in nature; they're meant to be social, as well as for flirting and meeting members of the opposite sex.

The first major rolezinho took place Dec. 8 at Shopping Metrô Itaquera, allegedly drawing 6,000 teens and leading to rumors of theft and mass muggings. The mall administrators deny there was a wave of robberies, but three people were arrested for stealing. On Dec. 14, another rolezinho in Guarulhos drew around 2,500 teens, causing panic. Even though there were no reports of robberies, the police took 22 youth into custody reportedly for being "about to start" a mass robbery. Rio-based writer J.P. Cuenca joked on Twitter that police in Brazil are so efficient that "Minority Report" isn't science fiction there. The third rolezinho that month took place on Dec. 22, right before Christmas, at Shopping Interlagos. Ten military police teams were summoned, and despite no reports of robbery, four youth were taken into custody. [See G1's helpful timeline of the events.]

This month, a rolezinho at Shopping Tucuruvi on Jan. 4 caused the mall to shut down. On Jan. 11, Shopping Metrô Itaquera had another rolezinho. But this time, police responded with force, using tear gas and rubber bullets, and cops were caught on video beating teens with nightsticks. Several robberies were reported.

Meanwhile, the same weekend, at least six malls in São Paulo got court orders to block the rolezinhos, stationing police and security outside to bar unaccompanied minors from entering. Átila Roque, the head of Amnesty International in Brazil, said the actions of police and mall administrators were discriminatory and racist. [Read the full Q&A here.] But São Paulo state's secretary of public security has vowed to employ police for upcoming rolezinhos planned this month. [See a map of past and upcoming rolezinhos in São Paulo.]

Numerous solidarity rolezinhos are planned in Rio this week, with nearly 8,000 RSVPed for a rolezinho at Rio's upscale Shopping Leblon. Rio authorities are being cautious and say they don't anticipate sending police, but that remains to be seen.

Why are the rolezinhos controversial?

On one hand, some are calling the response to the rolezinhos as "apartheid," and see the rolezinhos as a protest against oppression and a way to make white, upper-class Brazilians uncomfortable in a normally safe space. One of the organizers of the Guarulhos protest, Jefferson Luís, told G1: "It's not a protest, it's a response to oppression. It doesn't work to just stay shut up at home." São Paulo sociologist Marília Moschkovich wrote on her blog that the rolezinhos are a "weapon in the fight for a truly equal society." They're also intimately related to the June protests, she says, as youth organize and occupy space. With expensive and shoddy public transportation – an issue that sparked those protests – youth have limited access to public space, as well as cultural and leisure activities.

On the other hand, some see the teens as vandals who are invading private property. In this camp, rolezinho participants are frequently associated with funk, a genre of music from favelas. One columnist from conservative magazine VEJA went as far as to call rolezinho participants "barbarians incapable of recognizing their own inferiority, who are deathly jealous of civilization." Wow.

And in a widely circulated blog post, journalist Leandro Beguoci explains, based on personal experience growing up in the poor outskirts of São Paulo, that both the left and the right are incorrect in their hysterical responses to the rolezinhos. Mr. Beguoci says that both end up dehumanizing the real protagonists, and that they miss the point. The rise of a new middle class with access to more expensive consumer goods means these teens have already been consistently frequenting malls; they're not "occupying" them. And they're promoting the use of name brands, not criticizing consumerism, he says. Despite the fears of mall administrators who got the court orders this weekend, the teens aren't going to the city's most expensive malls where they would likely feel out of place. Beguoci defends the argument that the gatherings are social rather than political in nature, and are amplified because of the reach of social media.

What are the factors at play with the rolezinho?

Race: This is the most obvious and most uncomfortable issue at hand. The majority of those involved in the rolezinhos are teens of color, and large groups of black youth inevitably come under scrutiny, whether in Brazil or countries like the United States, for that matter.

But for some Brazilians in the upper class, it's still a new concept that black Brazilians have become consumers, the kind of people who go to malls and airports and aren't just janitors and maids. In one incident in 2009, for example, a black man was nearly beaten to death in the suburbs from São Paulo for driving an SUV; security guards at a Carrefour thought he was stealing it. Unfortunately, some see Brazilians of color as out of place in places like malls--places they used to rarely or never frequent before the growth of the new middle class.

Social class tensions: Those who participate in rolezinhos are largely from the lower or working classes, and the malls that got court orders include some of the fanciest in the city. But a lot has to do with ongoing tensions with the new middle class, a new group of consumers that the traditional middle class and upper class still haven't gotten used to.

São Paulo-based journalist Juliana Cunha told me her perspective. "It's a fruit of the Lula years. This is a section of the population that became consumers, but not citizens, as Vladimir Safatle once said," Ms. Cunha explained. "I think that the people who are consumers (before they weren't even that) discovered that they don't have the same rights as other consumers and that consumption won't change their situation. That's why this mall invasion is emblematic, and that's also why there's this counter-movement by the middle class that seeks 'simplicity' and doesn't want name brands anymore. Now it's cool to have a Brazilian-sounding name, to eat food made by Alex Atala who's from the North, to travel to the country's interior. Doing all of this to differentiate themselves from the poor who can now buy R$1,000 sneakers and fly to Miami."

In an interview with El País, anthropologist Alexandre Barbosa Pereira Pereira gives a similar view. "Is it that the middle class thinks these youth are 'stealing' their exclusive right to consume?" he asks. He goes on to explain why the rolezinhos are making the middle class uncomfortable. "The discomfort in seeing poor people occupy a place they shouldn't be, like seeing consumers buy certain products that should be more expensive...they can be funkeiros, poor people, or mixed race from the city outskirts, but they can also be maids, delivery boys, taggers," he says. "The rolezinhos aren't protests against malls or consumption, but are affirmations of: 'We want to be in this world of consumerism, in the temples of consumption.'"

Public space: It's important to note that the rolezinhos began in São Paulo, and not a coastal city. Time will tell if real (and not "protest") rolezinhos take off in Rio, but my personal theory is that because Rio has vitally important public space – the beach – there's an outlet for teens who want to hang out in groups. Meanwhile, São Paulo and its suburbs are several hours away from the beach.

But one thing that paulistas and cariocas from working-class neighborhoods do have in common is that in their neighborhoods, public spaces are often small or non-existent. Desirable public spaces, like São Paulo's Ibirapuera Park, for example, are far away and require long, expensive trips on public transportation.

"I think it has to do with the right to the city," Rio-based writer Julia Michaels told me. "[It's the] feeling one can be anyone, go anywhere."

Security: Despite a homicide rate that's been falling over the past decade, São Paulo has an increasing crime problem, especially with robberies and muggings. So malls provide a safe haven and a protected public space for those who worry about carjackings or even mass muggings in restaurants. Malls are like bunkers, Beguoci wrote in his post; upscale malls tend to have few pedestrian entrances, or even none. Because of the added security bonus, shopping centers are sacred, and this is true across the country. Regardless of whether or not crimes actually happen during the rolezinhos, these events have inspired fear of arrastões, or mass muggings, in a place that is traditionally seen as safe and crime-free.

Social Media: Technological advances and digital inclusion are also a major factor behind the rolezinhos. With over 80 million Brazilians online in a country that's crazy for social media, Facebook has become an important platform to connect youth. The rise of internet use in Brazil has overlapped with the expansion of the new middle class, meaning that poor and working-class youth are often the first in their families to get online. And with a booming smartphone market, it's even easier for young people to connect on the go and in real time: over half of Brazilian internet users get online on their phones. That includes the new middle class: the C class accounts for about 35 percent of smartphone users. Smartphones are a major status symbol, and as such are a coveted item among young people.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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