Going to the Mall in Brazil
Since last December, Brazilian shopping malls have become the stage for a new style of youth gathering: the rolezinho. Roughly translated as “little excursions” or outings, the rolezinhos can be characterized as planned meetings (via social network) of a large group of youth from poor neighborhoods, with the intent of seeing each other, flirting, eating and drinking at McDonald’s, taking pictures to post on Facebook, and simply having fun.
This can be considered a collective action with direct links to at least two different issues that characterize contemporary Brazilian society. First, rolezinhos cannot be understood without taking into account the almost nonexistence of public spaces for leisure and enjoyment. Coupled with the historic negligence of the Brazilian state to the population’s right to recreation, the ongoing privatization and destruction of the few existent public spaces of the kind leads to the curious situation in which a shopping mall and, particularly, its food court and parking lot, become a place for hundreds of young people to hang out. Second, the country’s economic growth in the last decade, with its emphasis on consumption, dramatically changed the social landscape, reinforcing the notion that in order to be someone, one needs to possess material goods, more specifically, branded merchandise. This last element is emphasized by the musical genre known as “ostentatious funk” and embraced by young Brazilians living in the periphery of big cities, particularly in São Paulo (many of whom take part in the rolezinhos). Commonly framed as the more acceptable version of the Brazilian funk genre, the lyrics of “ostentatious funk” as well as the video-clips produced by the MCs, cultivate a mode of life which places value on consumption. Wearing certain brands of clothing, driving certain cars, drinking certain liquors would altogether provide status, access to women and, most importantly, entrance into a differentiated social group.
In this context, there is nothing uncommon about young people from the outskirts of one of the richest (and most unequal) Brazilian cities deciding to hang out in the shopping malls. Besides associating this particular mode of consumption with social status, the teenagers taking part in the rolezinho do not want to be locked up at home in on the weekends, as pointed out by one of the organizers. Uncommon, nonetheless, is the effect such an action causes when they choose to do it collectively in large groups. The first rolezinho brought together no less than six thousands teenagers to a mall on December 7 in Itaquera, on the outskirts of São Paulo. They were met by fear and panic from both the shops’ owners and other clients, followed by violent police repression. Since this first event, the rolezinhos became a fever, drawing together hundreds (sometimes thousands) of youth to various malls on the outskirts of São Paulo and other major cities in Brazil. At the same time, they ignited a violent response from the administration of the shopping malls. These have resorted not only to private security, but also state police force – in many cases legitimated by judicial decisions – either to keep the youth literally out of these spaces by locking the doors and deciding on an individual basis (racially biased) who is allowed in, or to welcome them with tear gas, rubber bullets and, in the most extreme cases, arrest.
Different framings, from the radical left to the most extreme right, have been used to read and interpret this new social phenomenon. I would like to put forward a different way of comprehending the rolezinho as political, one that does not depend upon the intention of the participants – who clearly want to have a good time – neither aim to turn them from victims into heroes. Rather, the argument advanced here relies on the meaning of the action itself vis-à-vis established social norms.
Brazilian society has long been understood as one whose foundations led to multiple forms of segregation. Take, for example, the case of race, which plays a very important role in the rolezinhos. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Despite some attempts of formulating the nation as a model of racial democracy due to its mixed population and the nonexistence of institutionalized segregation, the reality is that racism pervades every dimension of Brazilian society. While more than half of the population defines itself as black or brown, the average income of these, according to IPEA, is slightly less than half of whites. The majority of the population in the poorest areas of the large cities, the slums, is black. Access to a university degree only became a tangible aspiration for black and brown Brazilians after the introduction of affirmative action in public universities. Finally, the rate of homicides among the young black population is alarming and much of it constitutes summary executions by the police force.
Another clear example of segregation, which is also crucial for understanding the rolezinhos, is found in urban development. The design of the Brazilian urban landscape portrays the deep inequalities which characterize our society: while upper class neighborhoods have access to facilities, implement renovation and conservation plans and are served by a variety of public services, the poor areas exhibit precarious living conditions. On a certain level, one can claim that the our cities display, through their streets, squares, buildings and public services, the differentiated citizenship characteristic of our socio-political heritage. Formally, citizenship is universal and inclusive, but when it comes to the benefits linked to citizenship, especially social rights, only a small parcel of the population enjoys them fully. Urban space in Brazil mirrors the unequal distribution of wealth and political exclusion of the lower classes.
To a certain extent, the economic and social development of the country in the last decade intervened on those two axes of segregation, by providing, on the one hand, some social goods that allow for social ascendency, such as education, and, on the other hand, by increasing the power of consumption of the working classes. Nonetheless, the social norms already well established, along with these material forms of segregation remained in place. These norms, which are constitutive parts of la police in Rancière’s terms, organize society, arrange bodies by defining “the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task”, thereby instituting “an order of the visible and the sayable.” In Brazil, these norms are legitimated, to a great extent, by the myth of racial democracy, largely accepted by the population who most of the times abide by such rules of propriety. In this sense, the so-called “differentiated citizenship” is not only accepted, but also guides the ways in which people organize and manage their lives as well as locate themselves socially.
The rolezinhos constitute the moment when black and brown teenagers decide to collectively occupy sanitized and disciplined spaces of consumption – a consumption which in the first place was not meant for them – in order to make of it a locus of enjoyment and fun in their own terms – a form of leisure, linked to a lifestyle much celebrated by “ostentatious funk”, so far segregated and misrecognized. By doing so, they disrupt those very norms, putting into question the police order and exposing the great fallacy of the myth of racial democracy. And this disruption causes fear and hatred. They are bodies occupying spaces and reclaiming a form of citizenship which was not meant for them. And this is precisely why, independent of the initial intentions of their participants, the rolezinhos are political: they are disruption of the police order. As Rancière formulates it, not only is the police order hierarchical, it also relies on the assumption of inequality. Politics, on the contrary, is founded on the premise of equality. It challenges, it disrupts, and it interrupts the easy permanence of the police order.
One could counter-argue and say that the rolezinhos cannot be understood as a dissensus because they aim for inclusion in the one of the constitutive spaces of the contemporary police order: the space of neoliberal consumption. However, I am not claiming that politics is pure or devoid of contradictions. Rather the opposite, politics is impure and paradoxical, it blends with the police’s order without ever merging with it. The politics in the rolezinho is located precisely in its impurity: by aiming to exercise their neoliberal right of enjoying a life of consumption and fun outside the limits of the ghetto, black and brown Brazilian teenagers expose and call to question the very norms of segregation which remain intact in all other spaces of social life. If these norms have not been tamed even by the rules of the neoliberal market, with all its promises of freedom and equality as consumers, one can imagine where they stand in every other social realm. It is time to take a rolezinho into these spaces.
* This piece first appeared in Dissident Voice.