By Simon Romero, The New York Times, January 19, 2014
|Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images|
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The images have already been so jolting to Brazil’s elites that President Dilma Rousseff has convened a meeting of top aides to form a response and business owners have obtained injunctions to shut them down: thousands of teenagers, largely from the gritty urban periphery and organizing on social media, going on raucous excursions through shopping malls.
Called rolezinhos (little strolls) in the slang of São Paulo’s streets, the rowdy gatherings may be going beyond mere flash mobs to touch on issues of public space and entitlement in a society in which living standards for the poor have improved and social classes are in flux.
“Why don’t they want us to go inside malls?” asked Plinio Diniz, 17, a high school student who attended a rolezinho this month in Shopping Metrô Itaquera, a mall here where police officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the estimated crowd of 3,000. “We have the right to have fun, but the police went too far.”
Unnerved by the street protests that shook cities across the country last year, the authorities are carefully trying to evaluate ways to react to the gatherings, which began heightening in size and intensity in December. All too aware that the street protests mushroomed after the harsh police response, officials in Brasília, the capital, are warning against using force to dislodge teenagers from the malls.
“I don’t think repression is the best way forward, because everything done along that line is like throwing gasoline into the fire,” Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to Ms. Rousseff, told reporters.
Fears of, say, vandalism and shoplifting notwithstanding, the police have reported only a few arrests associated with the rolezinhos. Still, police forces overseen by state governors seem in no mood for accommodation, and operators of some high-end malls have obtained court orders allowing their security personnel to bar participants.
Since the rolezinhos involve large numbers of dark-skinned teenagers, those moves have raised accusations of racial profiling as well as the nagging question of why shopping centers are such coveted sites of social interaction in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities where parks remain few and far between. “Kids from the lower classes have been segregated from public spaces, and now they’re challenging the unwritten rules,” said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of São Paulo.
Placing the rolezinhos into the context of economic shifts percolating throughout Brazilian society, Mr. Ortellado pointed out that rising living standards for the poor over the last decade had already jolted the country’s upper classes. One example is airports being frequented by travelers who are flying for the first time.
“Now the presence of these teenagers in malls is shocking to some because it’s being done in an organized way, instead of being diffuse,” he said.
Rolezinhos are generally organized on Facebook, with nearly 20 planned in Brazilian cities in the weeks ahead, and often involve running up and down escalators and a good deal of shouting, flirting and singing of Brazilian funk songs. For many participants, although they may come from relatively poor urban areas, the events are also opportunities to show off costly brand-name clothing.
In a widely distributed essay on the rolezinhos, Leandro Beguoci, the editor in chief of F451 Digital, a new media start-up, cautioned against attributing an overtly politicized character to the gatherings, pointing out that the biggest events were convened not in upscale areas but in relatively new malls in less prosperous parts of São Paulo.
“These are the children of the C class, for whom consumerism is glorious,” said Mr. Beguoci, 31, referring to Brazil’s expanding middle class. “The sounds they’re mainly listening to aren’t anti-establishment rap but ostentation funk,” the musical style in which performers wear thick gold necklaces, guzzle Champagne and drive Lamborghinis in their videos.
Others contend that the rolezinhos, while not explicitly political, nevertheless open the way for new methods of protest at malls. Hundreds from the Homeless Workers Movement, a group promoting squatters in abandoned buildings, tried to organize their own rolezinhos on Thursday at two São Paulo malls but were refused entry by security guards.
“We’re revolted by the prejudiced posture of some malls,” said Jussara Basso, 38, a leader of the squatters, some of whom held aloft cash and bank cards when they were not allowed to enter the malls. “It’s clear that some establishments don’t want a lot of customers who are poor and black.”
Facing the prospect that rolezinhos may intensify and spread to cities beyond São Paulo, the gatherings are exposing other sentiment among some in elite urban areas. In Rio de Janeiro, where a rolezinho was planned for Sunday at a mall in Leblon, the city’s most exclusive seaside district, a judge barred the event, arguing that its participants could cause “public disorder.” The upscale mall, for its part, closed for the day on Sunday.
About a hundred participants showed up anyway at the rolezinho in front of the mall in Leblon. Gizele Martins, who writes for a community newspaper in Complexo da Maré, an area in Rio of favelas, or slums, said doing so was “a political act, to tell society we belong to it, that we’re not on the margins of it.”
While the rolezinho had something of a party atmosphere, with some of the participants drinking beer on the street, Ms. Martins and others were greeted with closed doors at the mall and insults from passers-by who were angry that the mall was closed.
Going further in expressing some of the alarm in elite circles, Rodrigo Constantino, a columnist for the newsmagazine Veja, lashed out with degrading language at what he called the “caviar left” for defending the rolezinhos. “A multitude of barbarians invading a private property to do turmoil isn’t a protest or a rolezinho but an invasion, a sweep, delinquency,” he wrote.
Some of the teenagers taking their strolls through Brazil’s malls said they were surprised that their gatherings were encountering such resistance. “We just want to have fun,” said Letícia Gomes, 15, who attended the rolezinho in São Paulo this month where the police beat some of those in attendance. “For me, this isn’t a political thing. I just go to meet people.”