‘Little strolls’ by rubber bandit and friends expose racial inequalities in Brazil

The middle classes of Brazil are loath to share their exclusive public spaces

Young people chant during a rolezinho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rolezinhos are a new form of social gathering and protest at shopping centres by working-class teens in Brazil. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty

Young people chant during a rolezinho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rolezinhos are a new form of social gathering and protest at shopping centres by working-class teens in Brazil. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty

Fri, Jan 24, 2014, 09:22

With more than 80,000 friends on Facebook, Vinicius Andrade is a social media star in Brazil.

The 17-year-old from São Paulo’s poor, grim periferia (periphery) makes a living selling coloured rubber bands for dental braces but he is famous among his fans for the short funny videos he posts online.

When more and more of his virtual friends asked to meet him, he decided to organise a rolezinho (“little stroll” in the slang of the city’s poor youth) in a local shopping mall.

“It was our way of meeting new people to have some fun and kiss a few girls,” he says, “and we chose the shopping mall because it is easy to meet up there. Everyone knows the mall.”

However, when several thousand of Vinicius’s “friends” showed up at the Campo Limpo mall in December, shop owners feared an outbreak of looting and called the police.

In recent weeks, such get-togethers have become all the rage among São Paulo’s poor, largely black, youth whose neighbourhoods offer little in the way of leisure facilities.

Despite no reports of looting though, the kids have not been made welcome and several rolezinhos have been aggressively dispersed by police.

With the craze spreading nationwide, mall operators have sought legal means of barring participants from entering their establishments.


Entrenched inequalities
That has led to charges of racism from civil rights activists, sparking another round in Brazil’s debate about entrenched social and racial inequalities in a country where rising incomes have allowed tens of millions of poor people to join the consumer society in the last decade.

“Rather than a criticism of Brazil’s consumer culture, these rolezinhos are an attempt by poor young people to participate in it,” says Alexandre Barbosa Pereira, an anthropologist who studies the urban culture of the periferia at São Paulo’s federal university, “but this attempt has ended up being provocative.

“Since poorer Brazilians started joining the consumer culture, there has been a negative reaction by many in the middle class who now have to share the public spaces they once enjoyed exclusively . . . with the less well off.”

The attempts by mall operators to bar rolezinhos have provoked protests outside malls by anti-racism campaigners and left-wing groups who say such efforts are discriminatory and expose the underlying inequality in Brazilian society.

According to Brazil’s most recent census, whites earn double the salaries of blacks in the southeast region centred on São Paulo, while 31.1 per cent of the white population goes onto university versus just 12.8 per cent for blacks. Most victims of Brazil’s trigger-happy police are poor and black.

“When university students hold a flash mob and jump around on their desks, no one calls the police,” says Luiz Felipe Bueno, a black rights campaigner with UNEafro which helped organise a protest outside one of São Paulo’s most luxurious malls after its owners won a court order against rolezinhos entering.

“There is a culture of racism in Brazil,” he adds. “Everything is fine when kids from the periferia do not participate, but when they start to participate, they make a lot of people uncomfortable. There is this fear of looting but the confusion only starts when the police confront these kids. It is the criminalisation of poor black youth.”

One of President Dilma Rousseff’s closest aides, Gilberto Carvalho, blamed the police for the violence that has accompanied several rolezinhos, saying “once again, inadequate policing has poured petrol on the fire”.

His comments were a reference to the brutal policing of small protests last year against an increase in bus fares in São Paulo which provoked widespread disgust and led millions to take to the streets in mass demonstrations against the country’s political elite.


Political unrest
Still haunted by those protests, politicians have followed the rolezinho craze closely for fear it might grow into renewed political unrest. President Rousseff even held a meeting with top advisers to discuss the phenomenon.

Now rolezinho organisers such as Andrade are being courted by politicians, with the São Paulo mayor asking a famous black singer – who serves as the city’s secretary of racial equality – to meet them to discuss how to hold rolezinhos in less controversial spaces such as city parks.

The 17-year old rubber band- seller from the Capão Redondo slum never imagined his get-togethers would cause such a stir, “but at least it has called attention that we need our own spaces to have fun in”.

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