"Billions were spent on stadiums, now we only need to build a country around them"

Protesters raising their voices against the expensive cable car for tourists while demanding the completion of all the sanitation work in the Rocinha slum in June 2013
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Protesters raising their voices against the expensive cable car for tourists while demanding the completion of all the sanitation work in the Rocinha slum in June 2013

On the night of June 25, 2013, at least 1,000 residents of the Rocinha slum, in São Conrado, located in the south of Rio de Janeiro, went down the hill to protest. In front of the group, demonstrators held a huge sign: "Yes for sanitation! No for the Cable Car!" Eleven days earlier, President Dilma Rousseff had visited the Rocinha Sport Complex to announce investments of R$1.6 billion in the slum. In her speech, the president did not mention the protests, which had been occupying the streets of various cities since the beginning of the month – triggered by an increase in bus fares and the police repression in São Paulo. At the side of the governor of Rio, Sérgio Cabral Filho, Rousseff showed a video simulation of how the slum would look after the construction work, praising the construction of a cable car with six stations. Initiated in 2008, the construction of the first phase of the federal program executed by the state government in the slums, however, was still unfinished.

The Rocinha demonstration was organized through Facebook by two young residents: Denis Neves, 27, and Erica Santos, 21. They are college scholarship students at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Rio, a private institution located in the neighboring district of Gávea. The son of a street sweeper and a nursing assistant of a public hospital, Neves is the first in his family to attend university. He has a full scholarship for a degree in design, which he aims to complete by mid-year. He also works as a computer technician at PUC and receives a salary of R$1,600.

A protest movement on the rise

On June 25, the group walked along Avenue Niemeyer and were joined by about a thousand people on the way to the Vidigal slum. The protest reached the street where the governor lives, in Leblon, a neighborhood with the most expensive real estate in the country. The place had become one of the epicenters of events in Rio. Contrary to what many people expected, the Rocinha protest was peaceful. The panic had led managers of the Fashion Mall Shopping, in São Conrado, to surround the property with wooden barricades and a cordon of police. As a sign of support for the protesters, some residents of the upper-middle-class neighborhood flickered the lights in their apartments. "It was a slap in the face of society," says Neves, referring to the fact that the protests had been peaceful. At the beginning of the walk, the old community leadership and former candidates for political office in Rocinha tried to profit from the demonstration in interviews with TV stations, but they were driven away by locals. "As you say in the community, we used our talent," Neves says. As soon as he arrived with the crowd on the governor's street, he was personally approached by an aide to Governor Cabral, who wanted to set up an appointment at Guanabara Palace.

The next day, after much discussion, Neves met with residents of Rocinha. "That's when I understood the meaning of political war," he says. "It was an absurd amount of aggressions. They called me a communist, they said that I was being manipulated." Finally, a committee with 10 residents was established to attend the meeting with the governor. Among them was a law student and intern at the State Public Ministry, Simone Rodrigues, 25 years old, who had insisted that the choosing of names for the suggested committee be conducted in an open meeting, in a democratic way. She has participated in the group Rocinha Without Borders, which, for seven years, has been discussing local issues and striving to improve the living conditions in the community. The sign "Yes for Sanitation! No for the Cable Car" was not created by the group. "Cable car is a transportation system for tourists, an expensive white elephant that does not solve the problems of accessibility. Our priority is sanitation, but we were not heard," says Rodrigues.

Three days after the demonstration, on June 28, they arrived at the Guanabara Palace with a list of demands. They showed what they really needed and requested priority for the sanitation of the slum, in addition to the completion of the unfinished construction of the partnership between the federal and state governments, for example a daycare center that has still not been opened.

Recorded in the minutes of the meeting with participants was the following: "It was agreed that we would only discuss the cable car after the completion of all the sanitation work and other structures. The stations for the cable car will also be reassessed." The group also requested the establishment of a "30 percent quota for ex-convicts among employees involved in the construction work," "more democratic" decisions, and "more planning on the reallocations, in a more dignified and fair manner, respecting the identities and roots of the community."

Another request was to create a parallel group consisting of locals to oversee the construction work. By the end of the meeting, the governor asked for the nomination of five names for the suggested committee and offered each member a monthly salary of R$1,500. The surprising offer was refused and registered in the minutes. "If we accepted this money, how would we criticize them later?" Neves asks. Eight months after the meeting, the waste water is still being drained into the open in Rocinha, which has more than 70,000 residents. The government has kept the the cable car project alive, despite an urban plan commissioned by the executive in 2007 by architect Luiz Carlos Toledo. This plan shows that inclined planes are a cheaper and better integration solution for transportation in the slum. "So far, nothing that the governor has promised at the meeting has been done," says Neves.

"Peace without voice is fear"

One of the signs in the demonstration of June 25 criticized the "abuse of authority" by the military police in Rocinha. During the march, a teenage girl was holding a sign with the phrase "Peace without voice is fear," alluding to the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP), opened in September 2012 in the slum, after nearly a year of occupation by security forces.

Nineteen days after the protest, on July 14, bricklayer helper Amarildo de Souza was detained "for questioning" in Rocinha and taken to the UPP headquarters at a park in the slum. He never showed up again. Cries of "Cabral, crook, where is Amarildo?" were constant on the streets and there were new protests from Rocinha residents. In October, after investigating the civil police, 25 PMs of the UPP were reported to the Justice Department by the State Public Ministry. Among the 13 officers arrested on charges of kidnapping and torture – leading to the death of a resident and then hiding his body, all allegedly for information on traffickers – is the former commander of the UPP Rocinha, Major Edson Santos. The other 12 PMs accused of omissions and conspiracy were freed.

In October 2007, 10 months after taking office as governor for his first term, Cabral defined Rocinha as a "criminals-producing factory." At the time, he advocated the "politics of confrontation" in the fight against organized crime as a public safety strategy. The official death toll in alleged confrontations with police officers in the state reached its peak at the end of that year: 1,330. After the inauguration of the first UPP in Santa Marta, in December 2008, the so-called resistance fell to 1,049 in 2009, 855 in 2010, 523 in 2011, 419 in 2012, and 416 in 2013.
A surfer, Neves attended the same gym as de Souza's son, Anderson. To him, UPP is "make-up for the media ... The opinion of those inside the slum is almost unanimous: UPP came with police but it will not work if they do not do the social part. Courses for waiters will not do. I do not want to devalue the profession, but why not offer courses for electronics technicians, information technology, oil and gas? We are fighting for it too."

According to him, the first police station of the slum, which opened in late December after the incident involving the case of de Souza, was built in the place where a youth and adult educational center used to be. One of the most important proposals among those submitted to the governor in June, says Neves, is providing jobs to ex-convicts in government construction works in Rocinha. "We have many friends involved in drug trafficking. The guy goes to jail and comes back worse." He also criticizes the rising cost of living in the slum. "The rent of a one-bedroom used to cost around R$250, but today one cannot find a simple thing for less than R$800."

Criminalization of the protest

Neves draws a parallel between the police violence in the slums and the repression of protesters on the streets. He cites the episode that occurred shortly after the large protests in June, when he attended a PUC debate including opposition Congressman Marcelo Freixo of the Socialism and Freedom Party, who chairs the Human Rights Committee of the State Legislative Assembly.

"Freixo and the middle class people said that the PM was not distinguishing protesters from troublemakers," Neves says. "I was the last to speak and said that the people of this community have always lived with this. The police officer enters the slum and does not want to know who is a dealer and who is not. I've taken a lot of slapping in the face for nothing. The community has always suffered with it and now the Brazilian population is seeing how things work. There's nothing new. Just like so many times the media manipulates things by saying a slum resident who was killed by the police is a criminal, now protesters are vandals."

The first major manifestation last year in Rio occurred on June 13. Neves was there with a group of university friends. As a voter for Lula in 2002 and 2006, he looks on with disappointment as the Workers' Party Senators advocate the urgent approval of the bill that classifies acts of violence during street demonstrations as "terrorism." Published in late 2013, the Warranty of Law and Order Manual, a document of the Ministry of Defense that defines standards for the engagement of the armed forces, had already provoked reactions when presenting social demonstrations as "opposing forces" to be confronted. After a series of questions, the government backed down and published a new version of the manual in early February without the expression.

Two weeks later, however, President Rousseff defended the use of the armed forces in demonstrations during the World Cup "if necessary." Projects to ban the use of masks and increase the penalties for activists considered violent were accelerated by the federal government four months prior to the competition. This was done after the death of a cameraman from TV Bandeirantes Santiago Andrade, who was hit in the head by a firecracker thrown by protesters during clashes with the police about bus fares on February 6 in downtown Rio. Two suspects were arrested, and 11 days after the crime, they had already been reported to the Justice Department by prosecutors on charges of possession of explosives and murder.

Summoned by the Free Pass Movement (MPL) of Rio, the demonstration of February 6, which brought together nearly a thousand people, occurred after Mayor Eduardo Paes (from the same party as Cabral and the vice president of the republic) had authorized the adjustment of ticket prices, which rose from R$2.75 to R$3.00 in Rio. In June 2013, pressured by the crowd in the streets, state and local governments repealed the increases in bus fares, subway, trains, and barges. "The tragic death of the cameraman was a full plate to criminalize the demonstrations against the World Cup, even if there were other deaths caused by the police since June," says Neves. He refers to cases of people who were run over, fell from overpasses, or allegedly became intoxicated escaping tear gas and PM troops. According to a survey by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, 133 journalists were attacked in demonstrations from June 2013 to February 22, 2014. In 78.9 percent of the cases, the aggression came from police officers.

Journalists right in the middle

Photographer Leonardo Coelho, 24, has followed street demonstrations in Rio since March 2013. A resident of Botafogo, which is in the southern district, he lives with his parents – a history professor and a ballet teacher. Coelho graduated with a journalism degree and chose as master's thesis to research the Anonymous group. He went onto the streets with an amateur camera. He says the protests initially involved 25 people at most. In April, he bought a Canon semiprofessional camera. He covered the demonstration of June 13, the taking of the State Legislative Assembly on June 17, and the great battle of the Avenue Presidente Vargas on June 20. This was the largest protest in the country during the June demonstrations. Officially, 300,000 people had gathered, but it seemed to be a lot more.

Everyone was there: mothers and fathers with their children, students, teachers, members of social movements and parties, clerks, street vendors, homeless people, cinematographers, engineers and artists, among many others, in addition to the volunteer doctors and activist lawyers who began to follow all protests. The demonstration on June 20 was marked by a police crackdown not seen on the streets since the democratization of the country. This happened during a confrontation in front of city hall at the end of the march. Rafael Vieira Braga, 25, a homeless person and collector of cans, was arrested that night with a bottle of chlorine and a disinfectant, Pinho Sol. Five months later, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment in a high-security prison, on the grounds that he was carrying explosives and incendiary materials during the demonstrations.

In late June, Coelho started photographing for Media Ninja, which transmitted the protests live, initially in São Paulo. The photo he took of a professor with a bloody face – hit in the left eye by a rubber bullet while protesting outside the Maracana, in the final of the Confederation Cup on July 30 – was shared thousands of times. The audience for Media Ninja exploded when it gave voice to victims of police violence. The group also was marked after a "ninja" backed the expulsion of a journalist from the broadcaster Globonews while covering an event in Rio without identification and was recognized.

"I think the Media Ninja was a necessary evil that served to balance a bit the shit that the mainstream media says is unbiased," says a photographer. "We assume that you take sides. Overall, there is some protection of media-activists by those who take direct actions, just as there is protection of the traditional media by politicians, who accept the police version. It is the other side of the picture. Despite all the precariousness of transmissions, someone had to show the things that were often not shown, such as innocent people being arrested." The protester Bruno Teles only escaped jail because the pictures of the so-called independent media discredited the PM version that he launched Molotov cocktails and carried other explosives in his backpack on July 22 at the protest in front of the Guanabara Palace during the visit of Pope Francis for World Youth Day.

Coelho continues to collaborate with Media Ninja but had to get a job as press secretary at the Musicians Union to pay the bills. "What I found most interesting as a result of the demonstrations was that disparate and small unspoken things began to emerge in public debate. For example, people had to take a stand at family gatherings," he says, having breakfast every day with a representative of the "bourgeois media." His brother, Henrique, covered much of the manifestations last year for the G1 news portal from Rede Globo. "My aunt and my grandmother were suddenly talking politics, avoiding common sense. In general, Brazilians hate politicians, but I think many began to discuss political and city issues after the demonstrations. Somehow, it ended the apathy."

Coelho sees a "saturation" of the black bloc tactic at times, and it ended up contributing toward emptying the streets. For him, the death of Andrade demonstrates a process of "policialization" on the part of the protesters: "Ironically, when using direct action in a miscalculated and almost everyday way, they end up equating errors and idiosyncrasies." The flow in the streets, however, is transient, the photographer believes. "Many people talked about revolution when things emerged, but I think the concept of uprising is more appropriate. It is something temporary that happens and stops, but the mark stays. I'm sure that many people will remember the 17th or the 20th of June and say: 'I was there running from the police.' Life has returned to normal, but I bet it is not the same. Many say they are disenchanted, but what did people expect? That everything would change in just six or eight months?"

In Rio, the main targets of those on the streets were Governor Cabral, the military police, and the form chosen by the governments to carry out the World Cup: billions spent on stadiums and favors to companies, whereas hospitals, schools, and public transport remain precarious. No wonder that large demonstrations were triggered by MPL, an organization with leftist anarchist roots, after an increase of R$0.20 on tickets in June.

An atheist, Neves is a supporter of anarchism but thinks of joining a party. "I do not agree with the violence of black blocs, but I understand it. I see it as a reaction. It is not my way to actively participate with my body and with stones, I have a 5-year-old daughter. I'll keep fighting peacefully for my ideals." He envisions a "tense atmosphere" in the streets during the World Cup. "As we say here in the community, the track will be salty. Brazil has nothing more to gain. Stadiums are ready, billions of reais were spent. What is missing is to build a country around them. And what are we getting with that?"

The monograph Neves is writing will be called "My name is slum: Insertion of areas that, even inherent in Rio, are not part of the Rio landscape." Rodrigues, daughter of a porter and a housewife, studying at a private institution with a full scholarship from the University for All Program, has chosen as her theme "Compulsory removals in Rio de Janeiro on behalf of mega-events."

"Nothing has happened since June, but I still think we can achieve to change something if we keep fighting," says Rodrigues.