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Rolezinho: Politics in Brazil’s Shopping Malls?

Morumbi Shopping Center in São Paulo © 2009 Herbert Kajiura | Flickr

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 shopping malls and, particularly, their food courts and parking lots, become places 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 that 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. As an aside, there are serious gender issues to be analyzed and critiqued within the universe of “ostentatious funk.” Women are usually placed in the same hierarchy and role as any other object for consumption, and very few of them work as MCs. The gender dynamics characterizing this domain certainly impact the rolezinhos. Nonetheless, it is beyond the scope of this essay, as a first attempt to examine such a complex social phenomenon, to address the gender questions embedded in it. (Watch video below.)

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 on the weekends, as pointed out by 20 year old Jefferson Luís, one of the organizers.

Uncommon, nonetheless, is the effect such an action causes when the participants choose to do it collectively in large groups. The first rolezinho brought together no less than six thousands teenagers to a mall in Itaquera on December 7 on the outskirts of São Paulo. They were met by fear and panic from both the shops’ owners and other customers, 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). I also do not want to present 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, a governmental research organization, 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.

Favelo do Moinho, a slum in São Paulo.© 2011 Milton Jung | Wikimedia Commons

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 our cities display, through their streets, squares, buildings and public services, the differentiated citizenship, as discussed by James Holston, and 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 portion of the population enjoys them fully. Urban space in Brazil mirrors the unequal distribution of wealth and political exclusion of the lower classes.

Book cover of Disagreement: Politics And Philosophy by Jacques Ranciere  University of Minnesota Press | Amazon.com

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 time 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 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 that 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!

A version of this article was first published in The Dissident Voice.

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Mariana Assis

Mariana Assis

  • Frederico

    That is great, Mariana. Well done! A much needed article about ‘rolezinho’ for English readers. You managed to capture in a synthetic yet very comprehensive form the ‘intellectual frenzy’ that has taken place since December in Brazil.
    Among the many questions about the issue, one that intrigues me is the idea of “occupation of a space of consumption”. Many critics of the repression of rolezinhos have recently invoked the myth of racial equality and tried to establish a direct connection between “the shopping mall” and other conventional spaces exclusively “occupied” by the Brazilian elite – modern versions of the slave-master’s house, such as the university, the gated community, the club, etc.
    However, can spaces of consumption effectively be “gated”? How to prevent the occupation of those spaces and at the same time provide the poor and the black with the instruments and incentives to consumption? On the one hand, you have an increasing association of “citizenship” with “consumption” – consumption as a means for equality (even if only on an symbolic level). On the other, you have explicit, desperate and impossible to hide efforts to “ban” consumption. A horror for the lower classes in the mall.
    The tricky thing about it is that consumption has also increasingly been taken as a symbolic tool for the elite to define its skewed and typically privileged notion of citizenship. The paradox of consumption is that it differentiates as much as it equalizes. Despite the persistently violent levels of income inequality and wealth concentration, consumption (much beyond laws, institutions or norms) has brought the poor and the rich to the same “space” – not merely in physical but especially in symbolic terms. Something that is quite rare in Brazil. Poor and rich came to inhabit the same symbolic neighborhood. One that is very different from the segregated and impermeable geographic proximity the favela and the mansion have usually shared. This “new” symbolic space cannot be easily separated by walls or security forces. No matter how much is denied, rich and poor seem to desire the same thing, think the same way and use the same means to signify their world. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know.

    • Mariana Assis

      Hi Frederico! Thanks for such great comment, and sorry for the late reply (only today I realized how answer these…). While I agree that there is this association between citizenship and consumption (very much deployed by our current economic policy), I think that Bourdie might be helpful to understand the attempt of the upper-classes to regain their differentiation precisely through the spaces they can inhabit and the goods they can consume. And that’s when spaces of consumption are gated and people are prevented of acquiring certain goods (if not by straightforward legal/contractual rules, at least by social norms which are enforced through other mechanisms). An interesting example were the brands that explicitly dissociated themselves from the “rolezeiros”. I know it is a contradiction – one that I tried to capture – but I think that it reflects an old social imaginary that still prevails in our society (as you pointed out).

  • Gringa Braziliensis

    Note: you do not need a socio-cultural thesis to understand that this is hardly a new phenomena, or indeed that it has any political connotations or intentions at all, except, by those who want to capitalize on what is, in fact, a pretty basic and age old urban conundrum:
    teens wants to hang out – teens have nowhere to go – teens go to Malls -
    like they have done so since, er.. there were teens on Earth.
    The only difference I see in Brazil is that these days it’s much easier to gather in much larger number, due to social networking.
    So, hold on the guns, these kids are far from being interested in starting a revolution, well, not unless there’s a nice new Nike or Adidas in the bag.

  • Ric

    Look closely and you will see white kids in there as well… There is a lot of truth in this article, but the overriding mechanism is not racism.

    The fact that most of these kids are black or mixed race is a case of correlation, not causation. Slavery has ensured this is so (i.e. blacks are poor). Foreigners must understand that, historically, a black or mixed race individual could change “colour” in Brazil when he or she got promoted, for example. And go to the ABC municipalities in greater São Paulo nowadays and you will find mixed race neonazis. No joke.

    This vague definition of race is typical of Brazilian culture and is rarely found in Europe or the US. The “once a negro, always a negro” US-style attitude is not prevalent in Brazilian culture (it does exist, but is imported).

    If you are white and poor in Brazil, you will get exactly the same treatment. The same scorn. The same hate. You go and try it.

    Casting the debate in terms of race shows profound ignorance of the historical socio-economic context of Brazil and distracts from the real antagonism that is at play here: the have against the have-nots.

    • Mariana Assis

      Hi Ric. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! While I agree that there is an important class issue here, the problem is that race and class are very much intertwined in Brasil. An intersectional approach allows us to see how the two operate at the same time, creating modes of oppression that cannot be reduced to any of the explanatory variables (class or race). I believe that’s what I tried to show here.

  • http://www.chriscrews.com/ chris crews

    Excellent article Mariana, with a nice connection to Ranciere’s idea of the police. I’m not surprised some commentators dismiss your racialized political analysis and claim it’s just all about economics–classic baloney Marxist “analysis”–or that this is just the same mall culture from the stone age. As someone who grew up in 80/90s shopping mall culture in North America, we had lots of racial mixing, and the mall was a major place for poor people of color to hang out precisely because it was free to enter and, at least then, less heavily policed. The emergence of a policing regime and profiling merely for entry is definitely new (in the US, and probably in Brazil I would bet), and speaks to the growing white fear and spacial segregation that we have seen escalating since the 1980s.

    While this is only anecdotal, a few years ago I worked for a few months with an upper-class Brazilian with very light skin, and she was quite clear that she was white, and the people working for her as maids were definitely not white, even if they had a similar skin tone. So I would bet the claim that Brazilians can “change” colour is likely only true for light-skinned upper class elites, not the kids in the rolezinhos, or people who have come to adopt a “post-racial” ideological worldview as real.

    But I am curious if there have been attempts by any groups of young people to make the rolezinho more explicitly political or not? Did the increasing crackdown by police and private actors lead to any more political awareness and mobilizations, or just a displacement to other physical spaces for gatherings?

    • Mariana Assis

      Chris, sorry for the late reply! Only today I learned how to respond these comments… so the rolezinhos certainly became more explicitly political after the crackdown. Some of the leaders gave interviews addressing the specific question of race and class, which are intertwined in Brazilian history, but cannot be an excuse to the fact that we are indeed a racist society.