Reclaiming Public Space
Rolezinhos as Protest
So a bunch of middle-class white people have finally woken up and taken to the streets . . . I’m part of the Brazil that never fell asleep.
The June 2013 street protests in Brazil were the largest public gatherings since the 1992 national mobilization to impeach president Fernando Collor de Mello, and the 1984 civil unrest that demanded direct elections for president. Based on my own witnessing of these mass events (1984 and 1992 in Campinas and São Paulo; 2013 mostly in Rio de Janeiro), as well as a review of pertinent documentation and analyses, there emerge fascinating similarities between them: the city of São Paulo was the principal geographical area from where the protests irradiated and became national in scope; middle-class high school and college students, as well as recent graduates, were an important part of their initial constituency and had a disproportionate influence on the mobilizations’ outlook (more so in 2013 and 1992 than in 1984, when leftist and centrist parties, as well as labor unions, were prominent in the re-democratization campaign’s organization and leadership); and, specifically in the 2013 and 1992 events, an anti-party or a-party stance dominated, together with a strategic, often humorous nationalism expressed in the widespread and creative use of the national colors and flag. While the 1992 mobilization had the caras-pintadas (“painted faces,” a reference to the protestors’ common playful use of yellow, green, white, and blue) as their main protagonists, in 2013 the green and yellow came back, and many faces were covered by “Anonymous” masks, rags, and anything that would protect against police tear gas and help conceal one’s identity. Because of the use of vinegar soaked in cloth as an antidote to tear gas, the 2013 protests were often referred to as the “vinegar revolt.”
These mass movements had several other common characteristics, chief among them their success in reaching fellow citizens and indeed significantly affecting elected (and nonelected) officials, social managers, and political and social institutions at various levels. Due to the impact of the 1984 mobilization, a civilian, Tancredo Neves, was made president in 1985, and democratic elections for president, after the 1964–85 military rule hiatus, resumed in 1989; following the caras-pintadas movement, Collor resigned in 1992 before his impeachment could be voted in the Senate; and President Dilma Rousseff, while welcoming the 2013 protests, was also very attentive to their broad, somewhat unfocused, yet powerful invectives against government corruption at all levels and demands for more effective public services. On June 21, 2013, at 9:00 p.m., Rousseff appeared on national television, expressed her sympathy for the movement, and offered to meet with representatives of the protesters. Although condemning violence, looting, and the disruption of the football Confederations Cup games, the president laid out a sweeping agenda promising oil royalties directed toward education improvement, the import of foreign doctors to alleviate the country’s ailing public health system, and a political reform that would expand popular participation. It would not be an analytical stretch to suggest that Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 gained political momentum in these protests.
For all their enthusiasm, remarkable capacity for mobilization, social media savvy, global awareness, and potential to affect Brazil’s political landscape, the 2013 protests, like the 1992 Fora Collor and the 1984 Diretas Já movements, shared a characteristic that various dominant news media outlets, the greater public, and the participants themselves hardly noticed (or else took for granted), which of course makes it quite troubling: the underrepresentation of Black people among the protesters. To be sure, Black and Brown faces were present in the crowds. Yet, i contend, when Black people participated, they did so not as Blacks, but as students, workers, and self-declared citizens. As photographic documentation attests, with the exception perhaps of manifestations in the Northeast, and in particular the state of Bahia, Blacks were not present at these events in numbers that reflected their proportion in the general population. Indeed, those crowds were unmistakably dominated by Whites.
Black people’s effective absence—and i will further develop what i mean by this as the chapter unfolds—in these epochal public–political moments of the Brazilian polis is worth analyzing. Because it forcefully problematizes the degree of Black inclusion in, identification with, and political relationship to the Brazilian empire-state, this absence suggests lingering effects of structural antiblackness that even supposedly popular and sweeping movements are not willing or able to address, much less redress. Such a pattern of Black disidentification becomes all the more complex when we consider that, particularly during the first decade of the twentieth century, economic improvements disproportionately benefited the most impoverished—and since among the most impoverished there is a historical overrepresentation of Blacks, such macroeconomic advances disproportionately affected Blacks. Income and wealth redistribution as well as access to consumer and home-buying credit are some of the marked improvements brought about by the last three Workers’ Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) federal administrations—those of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011–16).
Still, rather than beginning this analysis by suggesting a closed system of mutual causality between, on the one hand, the forces of antiblack exclusion in state and societal structures and practices, and on the other, Black absence from the allegedly multiracial public square, let me state the problem by engaging its many complexities. Black absence can be attributed, in no small measure, to persistent levels of state-sanctioned and multigenerational dispossession. For example, one’s economic unfavorable economic condition leads to residence in the outskirts of mega cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, making it difficult to access the centrally located manifestations. Bus service is not only expensive and of low quality, but also time-consuming. Depending on time of the day and transit conditions, it can take over two hours to reach the city’s central areas coming from peripheral neighborhoods.
The Demonstrators’ Social Profile
A likely factor explaining Black absence was the demonstrators’ majority social composition. In 2013, the disproportionate number of White and middle-class protestors became readily apparent after June 13, when dominant television news media channels such as Globo and Record were forced to report on the dissemination of the manifestations in various metropolitan and state capital cities including Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Print and televised images, many of them close-up, provided visual evidence of the majority White presence.
Sample polling and academic writing confirmed what transpired through televised, Internet, and print images of the street protests. According to Datafolha, a respected research institute, based on surveying conducted with São Paulo protestors, 77 percent of participants were college graduates (as compared to 24 percent in the total population), 22 percent were students (versus 4 percent of the population), and 53 percent were aged twenty-five or younger. Also interesting was that, according to polling company Ibope, 91 percent of participants heard of the protests via the Internet, 77 percent of whom used Facebook. The great majority of young college graduates were not in the job market. These numbers, especially the ones concerning formal education and access to the Internet, reveal social advantage; therefore, the overwhelming and disproportionate presence of Whites was unsurprising. White presence not only confirmed the historical correlation between nonblackness and privilege, which in this case becomes a correlation between whiteness and privilege, but also marked the protests as sites where this privilege was exercised publicly throughout the country.
Disrupting the association between nonblackness and the political occupation of public spaces, Blacks have participated, qua Blacks, in manifestations seizing well-known urban spaces. For example, the Brazilian Black Movement (MNU, Movimento Negro Unificado) organized the 1995 Marcha Zumbi dos Palmares and the 2005 Marcha Zumbi + 10. Each event gathered thousands of Afro-Brazilians and their allies in Brasília to affirm their position, as the subtitle of the second march stated, “against racism, for equality and life.” More recently, Blacks and their allies have mobilized against the ongoing genocide of Black youth in various Brazilian cities. For example, in São Paulo, on November 20, 2012, during Black Conscience week, led by Mães de Maio, UNEafro (União de Núcleos de Educação Popular para Negra/os e Classe Trabalhadora, Union of Popular Educational Centers for Blacks and the Working Class), and Fórum Hip-Hop, among others, thousands marched along the Avenida Paulista under the banner “Yes on Quotas, No on Genocide!” (“Cotas Sim, Genocído Não!”). On November 22, 2012, the Committee against the Genocide of São Paulo’s Black and Peripheral Youth (Comitê Contra o Genocídio da Juventude Negra e Periférica) led a rally in the historic Praça da Sé in downtown São Paulo. In Salvador, on August 25, 2015, Reaja ou Será Morto / Reja ou Será Morta organized in Salvador an international march against genocide. Armed with the widespread experiential knowledge, their own research and campaigns, and data from respected sources, such as the Mapa da Violência, the protestors demanded an end to the homicide of Black youth, a phenomenon that was increasing while the country’s overall homicide rates were falling. The state apparatuses have played a central role in these rates of homicide, by commission and omission. In 2011, for instance, officially one out of five homicides in the city of São Paulo was committed by the police; in the state of São Paulo, Blacks experience violent deaths at a rate that is 70 percent higher than for Whites. And more recently, as mentioned in the Introduction, on November 18, 2015, over fifty thousand people converged on Brasília during the first Black Women’s March, protesting against racism and gender inequality.
By not participating in the 2013 protests qua Black subjects, Blacks disidentified from forms of political action that operated under assumptions of multiraciality or its correlate, colorblindness. Aside the obvious critique against the ever present antiblack underpinnings of the racial democracy mythology, disidentification intimates a recognition of three basic facts of gendered antiblackness. First, the public square, as part of a “white spatial formation” where “São Paulo’s white civil society—the middle class, NGOs, social movements—come together to exercise the rights of personhood and citizenry,” is not inviting or conductive to demands based on the singular, arguably incommensurable experiences of Black people. Second, historical and structural Black vulnerability to violence at the hands of the police or those deputized as such is not likely to be diminished—and indeed may be intensified—in occasions, such as public demonstrations, that are evidently opposed to the state machine and powerful capitalist groups like those controlling news media. The third basic fact of gendered antiblackness informing disidentification is the fundamental realization that the dialectical conflictive relationship that exists between public manifestations and the various layers of state bureaucracies, expectations, and agents is ultimately dependent on the foundational nonpolitical quality of the Black subjects. In other words, what renders a subject political—that is, one that can enter a space where her collective voice becomes meaningful and the basis of a response from established representatives of the state and of capital—is that she is not Black. Black disidentification from the 2013 demonstrations is due to Blacks’ acknowledgment that, while the relationship between nonblack protestors and the state bureaucracies and representatives is one of articulated conflict (articulated insofar as negotiation and dialogue are not only possible but, as Rousseff’s public address demonstrated, likely and doable), the relationship between Blacks and the state and its agents is one of antagonism. As an engaged Black organizer stated shortly after the 2013 protests, “Current demonstrations in São Paulo are illustrative of this double standard: even as the beating of [White] middle-class students by the police has become a national outrage [and has been credited with changing the dominant news media which, until the broadcast scenes of police brutality, harbored negative view of the protests], my own experience as a black activist shows that similar police repression, when practiced against black demonstrations, is hardly condemned.”
Disidentification is therefore the product of collective analysis and historically accumulated and ongoing experience. Readily recognized is how the state, and particularly its ultimate control over public spaces, equates with antiblack terror. “This is to say,” affirms Wilderson, “violence against Black people is ontological and gratuitous as opposed to ideological and contingent.” Terror, as related to but qualitatively different from violence, is precisely this ubiquitous and gratuitous quality of violence. For Blacks, violence is transfigured, expanded, predictable only in its unpredictability, and experienced as terror. Nonblack protestors experience state violence that is contingent on the perception of the threat they pose; violence inflicted on nonblacks is contingent on what they do. Black people, on the other hand, experience state violence-as-terror as a fact of life, and thus as independent of their avowed position vis-à-vis the multiplicity of established forms of power and public–political events and spaces. The violence inflicted on Blacks does not depend on what they do; antiblack violence is gratuitous because it is directed at what Blacks are (or are not). Would photographs depicting friendliness between protestors and the police in Belo Horizonte be conceivable if the protestors were Black? Does it cause any surprise to learn that the last person held in custody after a protest in the greater Rio metropolitan area was a young Black man?
Still, as we will see below, this foundational antagonism may be difficult to detect when the PT federal administration has carried out several social policy efforts to address long-term patterns of inequality, and indeed has engaged sectors of organized Black social movements and networks, more forcefully via the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR, Secretaria de Políticas the Promoção da Igualdade Racial). President Lula instituted SEPPIR in 2003, and from the beginning it has had the status of a ministry headed by representatives of Black movements. Matilde Ribeiro, the first SEPPIR minister (2003–8), and Luiza Bairros (minister between 2011 and 2015) are both Afro-descended women with significant trajectories in Black organized efforts. Instructively, however, while in office Bairros repeatedly remarked on her ministry’s low budget and executive weakness. More important, when she acknowledged patterns of police lethality and its impact on the Afro-descended, Bairros did not shy away from linking them to the ongoing genocide against Black youth in Brazil, thus throwing her support behind current organized campaigns that call out the role of state agents and apparatuses in the systematic production of Black death.
In what follows, i unfold these propositions about Black disidentification with the 2013 protest. Specifically, i explore the ways in which Black disidentification both contrasted and aligned with forms of political gendered blackness that emerge out of a Black women’s nongovernmental organization in its relationship with elected officials and, specifically, the federal government. This section draws from a long-term collaboration and dialogue with members of Criola. Founded in 1992, Criola is one of the most enduring and visible Black women’s organizations in Brazil, and its members are active in both civil society networks and state-sponsored spheres focusing on racism, sexism, health, African-matrix religiosity, and the environment, among others. By juxtaposing Black disidentification with Black women’s organized efforts, i offer additional explanations for the challenges Blacks encounter when voicing and occupying traditional public–political spaces.
A Black Women’s NGOs and the “Special Moment”
Together with Jurema Werneck, Lúcia Xavier coordinates Criola. Xavier is a social worker, member of the National Commission for the Promotion of Racial Equality (Conselho Nacional de Promoção da Igualdade Racial) where she represents the Articulation of Black Brazilian Women’s NGOs (AMNB, Articulação de ONGs de Mulheres Negras Brasileiras), of which she is the executive secretary. Among many of her leadership roles, Xavier is a vigorous member of the annual Black Diaspora course Criola, in collaboration with U.S. and Brazilian academics and activists, offers in Rio for U.S. and Brazilian students and activists since 2006. In one of her lectures, on July 11, 2011, she analyzed the challenges contemporary social movements encounter in Brazil. Xavier offered a controversial thesis: Although the state is a historical enemy, we, as Black people, are in the midst of a special moment. The special moment is a result of PT’s transformative policies, its impact on the state machine, and its potential permeability to Black policy agendas. I take up Xavier’s thesis because it allows us to engage Black disidentification in particular, and the empire-state’s antiblackness more broadly.
Lula’s first administration maintained the core of his predecessor’s macroeconomic, market-friendly policies: inflation control via manipulation of interest rates, fiscal restraint, and floating exchange rates. Austere social security reform was achieved in Congress, and the minimum wage was kept unchanged for two years. Yet, other PT policies had a profound, positive impact on Brazil’s staggering rates of poverty. Chief among those was the implementation of the Family Stipend (Bolsa Família). A cash-transfer program targeting the most impoverished, it is today the largest of its kind in the world, benefiting about fifty million people (thirteen million families), roughly a quarter of the country’s population. This transformative initiative effectively diminished poverty by almost 28 percent during Lula’s first term, and 50 percent between 2002 and 2010. Although Brazil is still very socially unequal, an appreciation of how income has changed over the last decade is indicative of PT’s political choices: between 2001 and 2009, among the 10 percent poorest, income increased 69.08 percent, while the 10 percent richest saw their income increase by 12.8 percent. In the same period, income for Blacks and Browns increased 43.1 percent and 48.5 percent, respectively, while Whites saw their income increase 20.1 percent. Blacks’ incomes went from 53 percent of Whites’ incomes in 2001, to 62 percent in 2009.
Given Brazil’s historical inequality and the political elite’s reluctance to address poverty, the levels of income redistribution PT engendered were nothing short of astounding. These sea-changing processes were reflected in related transformations in the social composition of both the party’s constituency and the state bureaucratic machine.
The 2005 Mensalão vote-buying scandal was a significant moment in the slow but radical transformation in Lula’s social base. At that point, several high-ranking PT officials, including José Dirceu, Lula’s chief of staff, as well as the party’s president, José Genoíno, were indicted on corruption charges. The Supreme Court accepted the charges and in 2012 condemned Dirceu, Genoíno, and others to prison sentences. Although Lula was spared and eventually reelected in 2006 with 60 percent of the votes, his base of support had been drastically reshuffled. Until then, since PT’s inception in 1980, Lula and the party’s supporters had been made up of a majority of trade union members, informal workers, sectors of the leftist bourgeoisie and professionals, high school and college students, artists, teachers, university professors, public sector staff, and Catholic organizations. Regionally, Lula and PT’s support was more concentrated in the richer, more industrialized, and whiter regions in the South and Southeast. However, in a process that began manifesting itself since at least 1996, segments of the middle classes withdrew their support while the most impoverished electorate progressively shifted to Lula and the PT.
Aside from the effects of the obviously pro-poor policy choices and the corruption scandal, many of the party’s longtime supporters felt alienated by a series of policies that seemed to impinge on their already eroding race and class privileges. The expansion of affirmative action programs to all federal universities; the formalization of sectors of the informal economy that, unregulated, sustained much of the middle classes’ lifestyle, especially underpaid domestic workers, who overwhelmingly were Black women; not to mention the dissatisfaction about the Family Stipend that increasingly began to be associated with undeserved handouts: these had the accumulated effect of distancing the relatively more educated, whiter, allegedly overtaxed, and frustrated middle classes from Lula and his party.
Adding to the perception of eroding privileges, spaces until then almost exclusively White, such as airports, car dealerships, and shopping malls, became visibly more diverse racially and socially. Unprecedented for Lula and his party, support among different economic strata became inversely proportional to their income. Thus, for example, in the 2006 presidential election’s second round, against conservative candidate Geraldo Alckmin, Lula obtained 64 percent of the vote among those who earned up to two minimum salaries per month, and 36 percent of the vote among those who earned ten or more minimum salaries. The opposite trend was recorded for Alckmin, who fared better among higher earners and worse among lower earners. Since 1989, when the first presidential election took place after the military dictatorship, the country hadn’t witnessed such polarized results. The difference, however, was that in Lula’s failed bid for the presidency in 1989, his opponent, Collor, carried the so-called subproletariat vote. In 2006, PT’s presidential candidate gained the support of those who had rejected him in previous elections. The combination of cash-transfer programs, a substantial increase of 24.25 percent in the minimum wage during Lula’s first mandate, the expansion of consumer credit for the historically impoverished, and a series of focused initiatives that, for instance, expanded the electrical grid, provided land rights for Maroon communities, and offered dental clinics—these and other policies had the accumulated effect of a historically unprecedented diminution of poverty. With this palpable improvement for the impoverished came the electoral support which, ideological ambiguity notwithstanding, marked a clear realignment in Lula’s social base. Dilma Rousseff inherited this base; she carried the majority of ballots in the poorer states of the Northeast, North, and Southeast.
As significant as the electoral realignment, but not as well documented, was the social recomposition of the federal state bureaucratic apparatus. By appointing working-class persons at all levels of government, including five among his new ministries and dozens of trade unionists in other high-level posts, the first Lula administration radically transformed the federal machine’s social profile. “For the first time, poor citizens could recognize themselves in the bureaucracy and relate to friends and comrades who had become ‘important’ in Brasília. This change in the social composition greatly increased the legitimacy of the state, as it supported from inside the government its redistributive policy agenda.”
It is in this context of marked shifts in PT’s electorate, its federal administration’s social composition, and above all the policies targeting the most impoverished that Xavier’s remarks about the special moment make sense. The special moment is one that builds from tectonic social changes since 2002. Specifically for a member of a prominent Black women’s NGO, the questions about how, by whom, and for whom the state machine is managed are critical. As representatives of and collaborators with impoverished Black women, Criola members see themselves in the changing face of the PT federal administration. As representatives of Black impoverished women, however, they are part of a still reduced number of Black political operatives that circulate in the national capital’s corridors of power. In Congress, for example, in 2013, 8.9 percent of its members declared themselves Black or Brown; in the Senate, only Paulo Paim declared himself Black. Either as participants in one of the many federal commissions on issues related to Afro-Brazilian health, youth, violence, and culture, or as informal advisers to members of various ministries, particularly SEPPIR, Criola activists are engaged in domesticating and further reshaping the state machine. Criola’s participation in the federal sphere is an example of a broader trend. The PT government apparatus has absorbed prominent Black activists. This renewed and substantive presence gives Xavier evidence that the empire-state can indeed be transformed from within.
At the same time that Xavier expresses her belief in the transformative work Black organizations and activists do in Brasília and other official venues, she also detects contradictory collateral effects of this practice. Xavier explains what she calls the “emptying of civil society” (esvaziamento da sociedade civil) as a consequence of the state’s absorption of Black leadership and agendas. Unpacking her diagnosis allows us to further our analysis of Black disidentification from the 2013 manifestations. While her statement provides an added explanation for Blacks’ reticence about public protest against an administration that shows support for Black movements, it forces us to consider in what measure the state’s permeability to Black agendas can indeed lead to structural and long-lasting pro-Black change. Here the question is whether the empire-state’s programmatic initiatives already in place (e.g., the sweeping affirmative action policies) can lead to structural institutional and cultural transformation that effectively combats antiblackness. Xavier’s findings lead us to ask: What kinds of social justice demands are legible by state operatives, including policy makers? And just as critically, are these demands sufficient to bring about society’s structural transfiguration? Without this kind of structural transformation, Black exclusion, suffering, and death will continue to be socially acceptable, institutionally normative, and culturally irrelevant. Xavier intimates that this necessary, deep transformation, while difficult, is possible. The enemy state, then, can be domesticated and rendered pro-Black.
According to Xavier’s perspective, the lack of Black public mobilization and disidentification with the protests would be a symptom of how key sectors of the Black movements have removed themselves from the streets and other informal, counterhegemonic venues of political mobilization, and entered institutionalized spaces of policy debate and elaboration. This movement—not unlike how Derrick Bell described the institutionalization of the United States civil rights movement when it began to increasingly rely on lawyers, courts, and Black middle-class agendas of integration at the same time that it crowded out working-class, nationalist, and other more radical perspectives—creates new types of representatives and agendas while rendering obsolete others. The Black, NGO-trained, traveled, internationally funded, socially ascendant, college-educated, middle-class socialized activist becomes a central, although not the only, reference for current and future generations of advocates. Like Xavier, the Black women at Criola come from impoverished and working-class social backgrounds; they are often the daughters of domestic workers. Yet the registers of affect, vocabulary, and political spaces according to which they militate is more conducive to, and resonates more directly in, formal settings often (but not exclusively) sponsored by state machines operating at various levels: federal, state, and local commissions and research groups, as well as academic conferences. NGOs, autonomous foundations, and civil society networks also intersect in these settings, and indeed have become integral to them. In Criola’s case, the many networks it mobilizes, and of which it is a part, constitute its primary social base. These networks are built around a series of action programs including the health of Black women and of the Black population at large (including AIDS/HIV prevention among adolescents), job market insertion (via the development of marketable skills, access to credit, and cooperatives), and cultural production (focusing on the autonomy of Black youth involved in hip hop), among others.
Since at least 2006, PT is closer to representing Brazil’s majority population than it was in the 1990s. The social transformation that has occurred in the state machine, in theory, can continue to move it closer to Brazil’s poorer, Black social segments, which are still mostly invisible in the federal bureaucracy, and certainly not as present as are nonblack working-class-originated representatives of organized labor. Key questions immediately emerge. Can the Brazilian state bureaucracy be substantially Black, and if so, can it implement structural pro-Black changes? Xavier’s analysis brings with it the conviction that the state must and can change. It does not, however, negate our heuristic propositions about Black disidentification with the 2013 protests. Xavier is aware of how structural antiblackness overdetermines public–political spaces and how the state—via the police, for example—operates in openly discriminatory ways. Xavier’s insights reveal a political determination to walk through the state doors PT has opened, and in the process, in conversation with Criola’s and broader networks, begin program-based societal change from those official spaces.
In its pragmatism and self-awareness, Xavier’s practice reveals an interesting commonality with the disidentification processes described above: it is as if the realm of the state machine is the most effective—perhaps the only one—from which the otherwise irremediably antiblack society formation can be reconfigured. This evaluation does not negate the state’s antiblack practices; it merely points to what strategy is likely to produce the best results. In the context of unprecedented transformations in both PT and its federal machine, instrumentalizing and making the most out of the “special moment” is perfectly rational, save for one caveat. For the strategy to work, it has to bracket the theory, belief, or analysis that antiblack dispositions, though variant, are ultimately foundational to how the empire-state operates, recognizes itself, and moves through time. In the PT period, the Brazilian state may very well have been more friendly to the working class than any leftist activist ever dreamed of; and because of targeted state policies, Brazilian society witnessed an unprecedented presence of Black people in spheres of consumption in ways unimaginable only a few decades earlier. Still, whether state bureaucracies and dynamics can be rendered less antiblack, or even pro-Black, and then move on to systematically identify and extract deeply seated antiblack orientations in formations of sociability, is a question that probes not so much the empire-state’s political will as the viability of the Black presence. Is the Brazilian polis’s cultural architecture compatible with Black people’s effective assimilation, not as mere (and suspect) new customers, but as de facto full citizens? Or more to the point, is the Brazilian empire-state, as a product of philosophical modernity, compatible with the Black who is also human?
In Lúcia Xavier’s perspective, the strategic appropriation of the state can be interpreted as a consequence of the realization that in society as presently constituted, Criola’s demands, like Black people’s voices, are hardly legible: Black subjects, then, inhabit a position of irremediable antagonism and incommunicability. Xavier and Criola exercise a type of strategic maneuver that, sustained by grassroots networks, targets state apparatuses as bases from which to create minimal mechanisms of protection and survival, and implement structural societal changes. Vis-à-vis Black subjects who elected to stay away from the protests and disavow politics, Xavier’s strategy recognizes the same constitutive antiblack terror yet chooses to challenge it from within the state machine that implements it and from above the society that sanctions it.
In the next segment, i analyze public events in 2013 and 2014 that, while on the surface not as politically charged as the 2013 manifestation, nevertheless revealed additional dimensions of antagonism and incommunicability that the Black presence engenders, particularly in spaces of social privilege.
Without a Permit: Rolezinhos as Metaphors for Black Integration
The noun “rolezinho” is the diminutive of “rolê” (or “rolé,” depending on regional pronunciation), and means a short stroll, drive, or ride by car, motorcycle, or bicycle. It has had a constant cross-class, cross-gender, and cross-racial presence in Brazilian youth slang since at least the 1980s. Yet, in the final days of 2013, as school recess, summer, and the holiday shopping season were beginning in the city of São Paulo, rolezinhos became more specific—indeed, they became a national fixation.
In the 2013 rolezinhos, most participants were Black (negro and pardo) youth residents of the impoverished and sprawling city peripheries, claiming their right to collectively enjoy spaces of leisure and commodity consumption. Usually dressed in recognizable brand-name caps, flashy clothes, colorful sneakers, sunglasses, and jewelry, these young men and women brought to the air-conditioned, shiny, squeaky, smooth-surfaced, and artificially lit spaces their good-humored boastfulness, cadenced in beats and lyrics of what is called “funk ostentação.” This music, not unlike worldwide rap songs on conspicuous consumption, women’s objectification, crime, and partying, provided some of the riffs the young people sang in chorus while walking, sometimes running, through the malls. In the December 14, 2013, gathering, young people sang, “Eita porra, que cheiro de maconha” (“Dang, I smell pot”), part of the song “Deixa eu ir” by a recently killed rapper MC Daleste.
The youths wore accessories that not only represented inordinate proportions of their or their family’s income, but also hardly distinguished them from one another. And that was perhaps the point. Collectively, these underprivileged, residentially segregated young people stated their hard-won insertion into the global consumer market. By venturing into physical spaces of privilege, they performed an analogous entry into symbolic domains that, by force of deeply ingrained social representations and expectations, were considered out of their reach. Rolezinhos, then, tested the degree to which Brazilian spaces of relative affluence are able to absorb large concentrations of Black people. In this simple yet effective manner, rolezinhos became metaphors for Black integration. They dramatized the gains of PT’s social programs in a social formation that historically and presently normalizes Black exclusion.
In the largest Brazilian metropolis, malls are often termed “praia de paulista.” This translates as beaches for those who live in the city that, unlike Rio de Janeiro, for example, is devoid of accessible large public and pedestrian space. On December 8, 2013, at the Shopping Metrô Itaquera, six thousand youths, mobilized via Facebook, gathered to socialize, walk around the mall, flirt, window-shop, and, most of all, exercise their presence in a space defined by its air-conditioning, cleanliness, sense of protection, and unsaid, invisible, but effective social barriers. On that occasion, the police were called and three people were arrested. Then, on December 14, in Guarulhos, about 2,500 young people came together in the Shopping Internacional. Twenty-two youths were taken into custody, suspected of being “‘about to start’ a mass robbery.” While the “about to start” justification may sound bizarre, it is indeed an antiblack preemptive police practice that is diasporic and recurrent. Historian George Lipsitz remarked on its use by U.S. police forces in their systematic targeting of Black motorists. Lipsitz provided an illustrative incident of a cop who, upon stopping a driver, told the African American man his car registration was “about to expire.”
In the ensuing press coverage that reached national and international readers, there were hints of moral panic, and mostly resentment, among those not accustomed to the presence of Black youths in spaces where they do not usually circulate as customers. (Blacks of course are familiar with those sites as janitorial, cooking, and sales workers.) Spaces of consumption usually located in the city’s more expensive and central geographical areas, these malls target middle- and upper-class consumers who live relatively close by and drive to their facilities. Social markers, immediately recognized by patrons and security guards, give normative entry into these spaces. When youths not commonly associated with normative social belonging entered these protected zones in large numbers, cultural codes of Black exclusion and their beholders were directly challenged. Shopkeepers, mall administrators, and the middle and upper classes were swift and, because of their access to news media, quite vocal in their condemnation of rolezinhos. Surveys indicated, however, that they were not the only ones. Normative expectations about gendered dynamics of antiblackness and their relationship to physical space, and more generally hierarchies of social belonging, are shared across a broad spectrum of people in São Paulo and indeed all of Brazil.
A Datafolha survey of 799 São Paulo residents sixteen and older, conducted on January 21, 2014, showed that, across income levels, age, years of formal education, and gender, while 92 percent had heard about rolezinhos, 73 percent said they go to a mall at least once every month. Suggesting a broad, cross-class, and age consensus (although there were some interesting variations), 82 percent of those interviewed were against rolezinhos; 77 percent thought rolezinhos were causing gratuitous mayhem; 72 percent believed malls did not react based on skin color prejudice; 80 percent agreed that malls acted correctly when seeking injunctions against unaccompanied minors; 83 percent who had kids younger than twenty-five would not allow them to participate in the rolezinhos; and 73 percent affirmed that the Military Police should be proactive in quelling rolezinhos.
Illustrating these commonly held opinions, Eduardo, writing in the comments section of the New York Times, stated the following: “I am Brazilian,” he began, claiming ethnographic authority by virtue of his citizenship. “I know better what is happening. That is not racist or social matter, this is behavior matter. The shoppings are closing because this young crowd are making a mass [sic; he probably meant ‘mess’], screaming and even stealing things. Only in Brazil, that this kind of thing happens. The troublemakers go to the mall to protest against the lack of access to shopping products, dressed in clothes they bought in the mall themselves. The country’s [sic] of collective stupidity. And now the New York times [sic] is going with it. Come here when a ‘rolezinho’ is happening and see it with your own eyes.” Among many telling assumptions—for example, the predictable negation of antiblack racism—there is one that seems central to Eduardo and the survey subjects’ reasoning: contrary to what rolezeiros seemingly protest (i.e., blocked consumption), the youth have access to consumer goods—after all, they are, in Eduardo’s words, “dressed in clothes they bought in the mall themselves.” The problem, then, is not economic inequality, access to consumer goods, or antiblack racism. It is young people’s behavior, incompatible with the spaces where they choose to congregate. The common middle-class and elite perception (which is probably shared in some degree by members of the impoverished classes) is that an emerging social segment, previously impoverished, due to the PT government’s preferential treatment, had gained unprecedented buying power. Yet, according to Eduardo’s reasoning, proper comportment, which suggests cultural capital, lags behind newfound monetary gains. Eduardo’s critical statement about the country of “collective stupidity” is not only an indictment of PT’s policies and administration at various levels—tellingly, Fernando Haddad, then São Paulo’s mayor, is a PT member. It also reveals nostalgia for a mythical social order based on clear emblems and boundaries of belonging, a social order that functioned as if invisible barriers and permits were enforced at all times. (Barriers and permits, certainly, were for those who, for compelling reasons such as performing essential domestic work, had to temporarily enter zones of privilege, although they were not of those zones). It is not accidental that, to this day, parents of Black impoverished and working-class youths will plead with them to bring their IDs when going out. A few decades ago, work papers (Carteira de Trabalho) were also needed if, once stopped by a police officer, one were to make a case that he were gainfully employed and therefore not a criminal suspect. It is not difficult to see how contemporary antiblack police practices draw a line to the regime of slavery and its aftermath, when policing Black bodies was imperative for the symbolic, social, and economic orders. There is a popular aphorism in Brazil that says a Black person running is a thief, and Black person walking too leisurely is a suspect. The persistent, socially constructed, undeniable fact is that Black people are deemed suspect and often stopped by the police (and those deputized as such) not because of what Blacks do, but because of who they are (or are not).
Datafolha survey results about rolezinhos and Eduardo’s comments resonate with much of what i heard from upper- and middle-class white-identified persons in Rio and São Paulo, who lament social deterioration while recognizing, on the one hand, the erosion of their own privilege, and on the other, the ascension of newly economic empowered social subjects. “This city is not what it used to be when I was young,” a well-known senior academic told me in 2012 in Rio, where he had made his home for the past several decades. A young Black man asked for change and turned around when the scholar waved him away. “Today,” he continued, “people shit in the streets, the city is a mess, look at this around us!” Eduardo, and those who feel aggrieved by Brazil’s astonishing social changes, will likely continue to insist on denying antiblack racism as a personal and social fact. Yet such denial becomes highly disputable when we recognize that the boundaries of sociability Eduardo and his imagined social class so value (and now mourn) are deeply gendered and antiblack. Spatial boundaries are gendered antiblack boundaries. The massive, animated, confident, and in many ways defying presence of Black youths in spaces previously assumed and experienced as spaces of nonblack, mostly White privilege strikes at the foundations of Brazilian apartheid. Not unlike what happens in U.S. cities like Austin—where large concentrations of Black people lead to the closing of commercial establishments, local roads, freeways, and shopping malls, especially during the annual track and field competitions known as the Texas Relays—when warned about impending rolezinhos, São Paulo mall administrators began to close early or preemptively shut down altogether. Some establishments, like the Shopping JK Iguatemi, obtained legal injunctions prohibiting the entrance of unaccompanied minors. The unsaid premise, of course, was that “minors” equated with “Black youth.” Police presence became even more pronounced. The negative reactions about the rolezinhos seemed to lament that, instead of Brazil becoming more like malls, malls have become more like Brazil.
The first two rolezinhos initiated a sequence of similar events throughout the greater São Paulo area and other parts of Brazil: For example, on December 22, at the Shopping Interlagos, in São Paulo’s southern area, when ten Military Police divisions were mobilized and four youths were detained; on January 4, this time in the city’s northern zone, the Shopping Tucuruvi, four hundred youths participated, no arrests were registered, but shops closed three hours ahead of schedule; on January 11, again in the Shopping Itaquera, when two youths were detained allegedly for participating in an “arrastão” (explained below); and on January 12 in the mall Bosque Maia, in the Guarulhos region.
Rolezinhos and Arrastões
Videos taken during the events reveal dominant shared beliefs about those participating in the rolezinhos. One of the online videos, documenting the December 14, 2013, rolezinho at the Shopping Internacional de Guarulhos, is titled “Arrastão Shopping Internacional Guarulhos.” In the images, dozens of people in the food court seem distressed. They get up from their tables and look around, concerned; there is shouting, whistling (of the high-pitched and brief type Brazilians employ to call someone’s attention, whose tone, depending on the context, is modulated between the playful and the serious), and the clatter of tables, chairs, and people moving with uncertainty. Then we see a group of about five police officers and mall security staff with their dogs escorting a young man. Dark skinned, slim, no taller than five feet two, the youth has a barrel-chested man’s arm around his neck. The youth almost disappears in the swarm of bystanders and other police that converge on the scene and follow the group. Emerging from the crowd of bystanders, many of whom record the events with their phone cameras, we hear “Dá porrada no filho da puta . . . dá porrada nele!” (“Beat up the son of a bitch . . . beat him up!”).
“Arrastão,” the title given to this video, reveals suggestive historical, geographical, and ideological connections between rolezinhos and events more commonly associated with cities by the ocean. The term denotes a common fishing technique, translatable as trawling, by which two or more rows of people, standing on a beach, pull ropes attached to a large net previously cast in the ocean. Eventually the net reaches the beach and the fish are collected. But arrastão has other, more creative and metaphorical meanings. In the Brazilian popular culture imaginary since at least the 1980s it describes a mass robbery technique according to which a large number of impoverished youth—described as “menores,” “pivetes,” “trombadinhas,” and “trombadões,” racialized and gendered as Black men—walk through a beach (casting a net, as it were) and, in the ensuing chaos their presence generates, steal (or “fish”) whatever beachgoers have on or leave behind. On October 19, 1992, for example, Rio de Janeiro’s main newspaper, O Globo, reported on its first page, “Arrastões levam terror às praias” (Arrastões bring terror to beaches). The article read, in part, “Starting at about 10:00 a.m. between the Arpoador and Leblon beaches, the mayhem created by juveniles [pivetes] and adult thieves went on until the afternoon, when it reached Copacabana beach and the surrounding streets, where buses were stoned, cars damaged, and pedestrians mugged. Thirty-five detainees were taken to the police station, but the majority was released because no one pressed charges.”
It is fascinating, and in retrospect quite understandable, that arrastão, a phenomenon tied to the 1980s and 1990s in Rio, emerged in the press and in popular language to describe the rolezinhos in São Paulo decades later. “A new arrastão terrorized the patrons of another shopping mall of the capital,” asserted the Diário de S.Paulo on January 11, 2014, to describe the rolezinho in the Itaquera mall. A case could be made that arrastões are more explicitly concerned with robberies than getting together—arrastões would be means to economic ends, whereas rolezinhos, normative mall shoppers and security personnel’s opinions notwithstanding, as social gatherings would be ends in themselves. Yet, in the realm of dominant representations, rolezinhos and arrastões become tied by their presumed common delinquency. Shared antiblackness, as a tacit but powerful social code, renders Black youth agglomerations suspect, and perhaps already criminal. Besides the claim that these concentrations of youths are engineered as a technology of quick, illicit profit, they draw out deep collective fears. In both cases, the young people act synchronized by music and sounds whose vernaculars, to those who feel threatened, are tied to unknown yet looming spaces of blackness, poverty, and danger. As in the rolezinhos of 2013 and 2014, in the 1980s in Rio “funk” riffs, some of which traced genealogies that connected them directly to the soul scenes of Atlanta, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, were often sung as the youth occupied the beaches. Taken by surprise, nonblacks, Whites, and tourists were easy prey for the large invading group, who seemed quite coordinated when swarming over areas of leisure until then considered safe. Fears emerged in proportion to the intensity and scope with which such territories of privilege were occupied by an alleged foreign mob formed by large numbers of individuals considered socially marginal and dangerous. To this day, no expression encapsulates the fear of the Black better than “descer o morro,” to come down the hill. The imagery here, used to instill fear by and of peoples of the favelas—which in Rio usually occupy geographies above White middle-class neighborhoods, and thus have the strategic panoptical advantage—is of course reminiscent of the slave revolt. The litany of cultural terms that exist to describe danger as synonymous with a Black crowd (which can really be as small as one or two people) suggests that modern empire-states of the Black diaspora carry in their collective imaginary the afterlife of the Haitian revolution.
The image and fears of the youth, the “pivetes,” conjure up not only the material threat they pose—perhaps more vivid is the belief that these young men and children have no regard for life and will not hesitate to injure and kill. The term “trombadinha,” used interchangeably with “pivete” and, more commonly these days, “menor,” to describe the young men in arrastões, is the diminutive of “trombada,” which means either a body bump or a vehicle crash. Bodily threat, therefore, is automatically associated with the arrastão. Transposed to rolezinhos, this threat becomes personified in the young Black men’s collective presence in the shopping malls. As in many popular culture representations in and of the Black diaspora, the young, dark-skinned, cold-blooded killer Zé Pequeno (played by actors Douglas Silva when a child and Leandro Firmino da Hora as an adult) typifies the pivete in the 2002 movie City of God. Zé Pequeno seems to take pleasure in killing both his rivals and—more worrisome for the social groups who presently feel disturbed by rolezinhos—nonblacks and Whites not involved in his immediate drug turf wars.
The fears that pivetes, trombadinhas, and menores engender is not only because they suddenly appear in great numbers in spaces public (the beaches) and semipublic (the malls, which are private but open to the public). Fears arise because, first, those spaces are not conceptualized and experienced as fully open—they are public spaces according to defined expectations about which, when, in what capacity, and in what proportion Black social groups can participate. The beaches in Rio where arrastões became notorious are located in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods where most Blacks are either employed as domestic workers (including nannies and babysitters), janitors, or drivers, or are residents of near-by favelas. As we will see in the next chapter, even after police pacifying operations, favelas, historical Black residential areas, are still regarded as spaces of danger and crime. On the beaches of Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipanema, and Leblon, for example, Blacks are tolerated as a group in manageable numbers and in defined areas, usually at the margins of each beach. It is not accidental that, on any given day, there will be a noticeable concentration of Black beachgoers in Leme beach near the homonymous rock formation, where young people and families from Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia communities gather. The same happens at Copacabana near the military fort and the fish market, and at the Arpoador beach, where residents of the nearby Cantagalo and Pavão-Pavãozinho communities often congregate.
To the proponents of the racial harmony thesis and its variations, Black presence in those public spaces is proof of conviviality. And indeed, Black access to the famous beaches in theory has increased considerably since the governorships of leftist Leonel Brizola (1983–87 and 1991–94). In the midst of predictable, often hysterical protest by residents of the elite neighborhoods by the ocean, Brizola inaugurated bus lines connecting impoverished, mostly Black, northern and western peripheral neighborhoods to the southern beaches. The now begrudgingly accepted million-people-plus New Year’s celebration, as well as various music, sporting, and religious events in Copacabana, would be unthinkable in this magnitude before the Brizola era. Yet, the beach’s antiblack racial arrangement remains, and the specter of the arrastão is always looming. Beachgoers are often scanning the beach and sometimes show a sudden change of affect when they perceive unusual activity. They reach for their belongings, get up, look for relatives and friends. In a domino effect, other people immediately begin to follow suit and sometimes move away from the water and toward the street, where they assume the police will protect them. On November 20, 2013, beachgoers reported an arrastão coming from Arpoador. “I was going to get in the water,” a witness said, “when I saw everyone getting up, running, tripping on beach chairs, a lot of people left.” The fears remain. In a blistering summer day in 2015, an older White woman, sitting a few feet from me in Leme beach, asked me and other people around her if we had seen pivetes, intimating that the question and her precautions were part of her routine.
An experiential and representational universe stressing privilege, difference, and separation is actualized in the fears generated by rolezinhos and arrastões. Fears emerge because Blacks, in spaces of privilege, are always already out of place. (The reverse is not necessarily true. Nonblacks, and especially Whites, are hardly out of place, even when they enter historical Black spaces like favelas. Favela tourism, quite common in Rio, brings this point home.) When and if Blacks and the impoverished enter beaches and malls for economic appropriation by cunning or violence, it is from a correct and quite obvious diagnostic that such spaces of privilege, and nonblackness, are where the wealthy reside. These spaces of privilege, more important, bestow onto their natural members a reaffirmation of their value as individuals—their humanity—that is ultimately not accessible to those who are foreign to such spaces.
It is this sense of differentiated humanity that helps us understand the fears rolezinhos and arrastões produce. I want to propose that the physical vulnerability experienced in these spaces suddenly occupied by Blacks derives from a shared agreement about scales of humanity in which Black lives, considered less valuable—or even outside humanity—and thus having less at stake, represent a formidable threat to those who, by contradistinction, have much more to lose as those who hold the privileges of belonging, property, and personhood. The fear of the Black then becomes the conviction and reaffirmation that Black life is less valuable—Black life is equated with dispossession. Here we are of course in the realm of social symbols and norms and therefore beyond conclusive demonstration. Yet, what explains that even with access to economic resources, spaces of consumption and leisure, and, more broadly, with sweeping government affirmative action policies that target the impoverished and the Black, Blacks are still represented and experienced as foreign to spaces historically associated with privilege? We may want to consider PT’s efforts to redistribute income, improve access to credit, and expand citizenship as attempts at providing Blacks with the material and cultural bases for becoming incorporated, naturalized as it were, into the Brazilian polis. It is conceivable, then, that PT’s practical efforts could, with the corresponding cultural work to replace deep assumptions about Blacks, change the antiblack structure of positionality. When rolezinhos and arrastões are brought together in the dominant imaginary, however, they reveal that Black presence in public (and semipublic) spaces of privilege is suspect at best, and terrifying when in great numbers. Black lives are still and always devalued, and because of that they threaten in ways that the nonblack find unbearable. That Blacks are foreigners in the land of racial democracy is well illustrated in the overwhelming data on Black accumulated and transgenerational material disadvantages as well as death by preventable causes, including police violence. Paixão, Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Waiselfizs, among many others, make the case for Black estrangement from the Brazilian empire-state quite compelling. Black out-of-place-ness gains added evidence when we engage with the everyday manifestations of antiblack dispositions. Arpoador beach, where antiblack battles are ongoing, has been plastered with signs reading “Locals only. Respect it or beat it.” As i write, the litany of senseless Black suffering and death continues. In Rio, by far not the most violent among Brazilian large cities, a fifteen-year-old homeless Black kid was stripped naked, tied to a light post by the neck, and beaten repeatedly by a band of about thirty White motorcyclists, one of whom was armed with a gun, who then proceeded to threaten to kill him. “He said he was going towards Copacabana beach,” as reported in O Globo, “‘for a rolé,’ when he was approached by the men.” A day later, on February 2, 2014, Folha de S.Paulo reported on a video showing another young Black man, twenty-year-old Igor Veras de Oliveira Falcão, suspected of stealing, shot dead at point blank while sitting in the middle of a street in Belford Roxo, in the greater Rio metropolitan region. This time, however, the shooter was a Black man, allegedly private security, who calmly comes down a motorcycle and, in one continuous motion, pulls a gun from his waist and shoots three times at Falcão. The cultural construction of Black life’s worthlessness is amply shared. Blacks are out of place in places of privilege, but they also seem to be out of place regardless of place.
“I’ve Always Been Discriminated Against”
Organizer of the rolezinho in the Shopping Internacional de Guarulhos mall, twenty-year-old Jefferson Luis, also known as MC Jota L, was among the twenty-three arrested in the ensuing mêlée. His sudden notoriety helped his MC career aspirations, and it has given him news media space to reflect on the rolezinhos as well as his motivations, social background, and projects, both individual and collective.
Jefferson is a light-skinned young man who is deeply aware of his social condition. In the videotaped interview, he is dressed in typical hip hop attire—a black T-shirt with a print on it, black cap, jeans, high-top sneakers. His high-pitched, tentative voice, braces, and thin physique produce an interesting, attention-grabbing effect when packaged with his fine-tuned understanding of social dynamics. The aspiring MC sits on the bottom mattress of a bunk bed. The walls are an off-blue, through which cement gray is able to come through. We learn that, until ten days before the interview he shared the sixty-foot square room with eight people: his mother, stepfather, three brothers, sister, and two nephews. (His mother, stepfather, and two brothers have since relocated to a nearby one-room apartment.) His left hand is mostly covered by a tattooed red flower and green leaves; each of the letters of the word “star” is etched on his fingers, starting on the index moving to the little finger.
Jefferson started organizing rolês via Facebook around 2011. He lives in Vila Esperança, about a mile from the mall where, he said, he had never been at ease: “The place was not comfortable, there was always that different look from security, because we are poor. . . . I’ve always felt discriminated against.” He went on to say how, these days, some malls are enforcing a policy of selecting who can go in. “If you look like a criminal [cara de bandido] you can’t go in. For me, that’s prejudice [preconceito]. There’s color prejudice, there’s prejudice against certain types of music. . . . If I had invited rich people, there would be no bad reaction. Do you think they’d call the police to expel those rich people? No way. The mall owner would have looked me up and asked me to invite more people, bring them in because we’re making a profit, he’d say. But because it’s poor people, and black people, they’re beating us up and kicking us out.”
It’s not apparent whether Jefferson considers himself Black. Yet he is aware of how the assumption of poverty, which is closely connected to the assumption of blackness, lumps the rolezeiros together as one indistinguishable mass of threatening people. In that awareness rests the recognition that, because during rolezinhos everyone is likely to be discriminated against, abused, and brutalized, everyone becomes the embodiment of the subject on whom, according to social expectations and demographic data, violence is normalized. That subject on whom violence is naturalized is the Black subject, the Black nonsubject. Regardless of one’s skin tone, once categorized as out of place, one becomes an outlaw, one acquires a thug’s face—“cara de bandido.” The bandido and its associated tropes—pivete, trombadinha, trombadão, menor, juvenil—may occasionally not be unambiguously Black, yet s/he will be represented and treated as Black. The instantaneous and highly efficient process of social status ascription that links threats with the Black body, any Black body, also produces a deadly magnetic field. In this field, the Black body magnetizes violence, or, in Wilderson’s formulation, magnetizes bullets. It is this magnetization that transforms antiblack violence into terror.
Jefferson restates this dominant symbolic equation that links poverty, out-of-place-ness, and blackness when later in the interview he explains what motivated him to organize the rolezinho: “I did the encounter so that I could meet people like me. Otherwise, there would be only rich people. I wouldn’t meet anyone. They’d look at me and say, ‘He’s from a favela.’” Despite his light skin complexion, Jefferson’s awareness of the hegemonic assumptions, in this case held by “rich people,” that instantaneously categorize him as a favela resident, and therefore not belonging in the mall, make him part of a Black social group. By force of his social condition, Jefferson’s racial ambiguity is immediately translated, via the dominant grammar of belonging, into an unambiguous index of blackness. Indeed, the young man is well aware that what happens in malls is symptomatic of broader societal beliefs and institutional practices. Jefferson made it a point to connect his arrest following the rolezinho to his and his peers’ lives beyond the mall. He recalled, for example, how a close friend was once removed from a mall because he was wearing flip-flops (while apparently many shoppers were not bothered for wearing the same outfit). Cops once stopped Jefferson because they saw him running in a way they found suspicious. The young man was flying a kite in front of his house. Encounters between police (and those deputized as such) and people categorized as suspect are mere examples of the state of terror Blacks continue to experience even in a time otherwise marked by unprecedented economic gains for the impoverished and the Black. Rolezinhos, as other concentrations of Black people whose presence does not conform to dominant expectations, disturb and yet confirm the symbolic assumptions structuring the Brazilian version of social apartheid. Brazilian apartheid is disturbed because its boundaries are contested. Brazilian apartheid is confirmed because, while the dominant narrative negates the relevance of antiblackness (by emphasizing poverty and/or culture, for instance, as the motivators of fear or explanations for continued marginalization), Blacks are repressed and excluded, and the boundaries of belonging are reaffirmed.
This process of exclusion, as exemplified in Jefferson’s narrative, is one that creates an example of oblique identification. Despite his racial ambiguity, Jefferson has become aware of the experience of blackness due to his social proximity to Black spaces, communities, and individuals. Rolezinhos are thus able to produce forms of profound recognition of antiblackness that neither the juvenile prison in Austin nor the massive protests could engender. Whether the protests and their aftermath can potentially turn collective attention to antiblack processes and structures of social interaction is a question to which i will return in the following chapters.
When Black Protest Resurfaces
Though Jefferson tried to distinguish the rolezinhos from organized protest, he did associate them to lived experience: “It’s not protest against oppression, as in funk parties, it’s a response to oppression. You can’t stay locked up in your house.” Oppression has many identifiable facets. For one, there is an acute awareness of the lack of leisure options and educational programs: “We have nothing to do besides soccer, fly kites, and the Internet. The mall is the only option.” As an alternative, Jefferson suggested the city administration start supervised writing programs for youth interested in learning to MC in addition to opening more parks and activity centers. He has only been to the movies three times in his entire life. Besides his vulnerability to violence, he experiences his social marginality in his lack of leisure and educational options, as well as in his embattled access to employment. Jefferson, like his peers, works hard to stay connected to the Brazilian dream of consumer market assimilation. Employed as a delivery person, he interrupted his studies to help his brother finish school. Jefferson plans to resume school soon. In the meantime, he’ll continue to financially assist his household and to MC at parties.
Jefferson’s analysis of the rolezinhos reveals a sense of social injustice that brings to the fore a central contradiction in 2014, the pre-crisis Brazilian political moment: while the impoverished and Black were indeed more connected to the consumer market via employment and substantial income gains, they remained trapped symbolically in dominant negative assumptions about the undeserving poor, and trapped materially in spaces that lack educational and cultural options.
The generalized negative responses to rolezinhos were motivation for Black organized groups to take the public political stage. On January 18, 2014, appalled by what they considered blatant acts of racism against the rolezinhos, members of UNEafro organized a protest in front of one of São Paulo’s most well-known malls, the JK Iguatemi. Suddenly, the June/July protestors who had gone somewhat quiet, seemingly reemerged, this time with more focused demands. Rather than voice outright critique of how public funds were syphoned to the realization of the World Cup via networks of corruption involving elected officials and private operators, protestors strategically used the upcoming international event to express their own race-based perspective: How can a country that aims to be a worldwide example of economic improvement and social harmony tolerate discrimination of Black people? Douglas Belchior, UNEafro member and a history teacher, put it even more specifically: “The city is not there for our well-being, but for consumption. Our protest is political, against all forms of discrimination, especially against the Black.”
Belchior and UNEafro thus expand on the point Jefferson intimated: market consumption was in 2014 more accessible, but the city and the country’s models of social management and economic development were still antagonistic to Blacks. In question is whether PT’s transformation of the state bureaucracy and its economic policies, including sweeping affirmative action reforms, are able to change antiblack modes of exclusion and discrimination. If Wilderson’s perspective stressing the constitutive aspect of antiblack terror is applicable to current Brazilian social relations and statecraft, then UNEafro’s protest does little but restate a historical pattern that will, because of its foundational cultural and cognitive quality, inevitably continue to actualize itself. Thus UNEafro’s protest in some ways explains Black disidentification during the 2013 manifestations. When it asks for an end of antiblack discrimination, the protest demands what cannot be achieved. Although policies may be put in place to address these and similar denunciations of Black oppression, the constitutive antiblack representational core that animates sociality is impermeable to external pressure. Closed malls, frustrated beachgoers, and infuriated representatives of the challenged middle-classes attest to it. Ongoing patterns of Black death by the police and other preventable causes, including treatable disease, confirm it. Were Blacks to participate in the 2013 protests as Blacks and link their demands to their specific experiences, they would be automatically confronted with these deeper, fundamental questions. Can society be rendered less antiblack, or even anti-antiblack? If antiblackness structures positionalities in ways that are hardly affected by policy, does it make sense to connect Black demands to reformist pleas concerning public services, education, and electoral politics? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then why bother participate in these types of political protest?
While these questions may seem skeptical, they reveal an informed social diagnosis that refuses to buy into the discourses of multiracial integration and redemption. From the Black perspective, there is little evidence that economic and social gains prepare the symbolic grounds for a greater acceptance of blackness. Such Black diasporic perspective finds resonances in the informed skepticism incarcerated Black youth in Austin felt regarding the narratives of redemption and re-assimilation into the “free.” What emerges out of both contexts is an awareness of unfreedom. This awareness renders imposed social vulnerability, which includes residential segregation, punitive schools, military policing, and the ever present specter of incarceration and early death, not passing events but evidence of a social structure whose fundamental logic is antiblack. That even a declared pro-poor, pro-Black federal administration spanning over thirteen years, is unable to make a dent in this social structure and its everyday manifestations that insist on the maintenance of varied modalities of apartheid shows how deep and wide is the challenge the Black presence poses to empire-states of the diaspora.
• • •
The next chapter continues the analysis of contemporary forms of diasporic antiblackness. It examines the police-caused disappearance and probable death of Black construction worker Amarildo de Souza in Rio de Janeiro. Amarildo’s ordeal happened in the midst of the political moment described above, when the country was still witnessing waves of protest against government corruption in several of its main cities. Importantly, the police officers that murdered Amarildo were part of a relatively new pacifying force, the product of a change of the paradigm in the state of Rio’s security policy, one that emphasized communitarian forms of policing and instructed officers, who had to undergo a mandatory crash course on human rights, on strategies to appease rather than repress favela residents.