On Tuesday, October 26 residents representing at least 10 of Rio’s low-income communities (favelas) took to the streets in peaceful protest. The demonstration was in response to the City’s frenzied decision, led by mayor Eduardo Paes, to return to the dormant policies of forcefully evicting entire favela communities that are located in prime real-estate or other strategic areas. Even mentioning remoção or ‘removal’ had been considered taboo since the early 1980s.
During Brazil’s military dictatorship, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, eviction policies
allowed for the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of favela residents.
The administrations mainly responsible were those of Carlos Lacerda, Francisco
Negrão de Lima, and to a lesser degree Chargas Freitas. It was during Lacerda’s
administration that many favela residents were removed from Rio’s south zone to
Cidade de Deus (City of God) which at the time was touted as a ‘paradisiacal’ public
housing complex that would warmly receive Rio’s destitute. What happened to City of
God is well known; soon after thousands of new residents arrived there the community
was essentially abandoned by the government, and quickly became known as one of
Rio’s most notorious favelas. Similar situations unfolded in Cidade Alta, Vila Kennedy
and Vila Alianca, all public housing complexes that were built mainly for displaced
favela residents,. These planned communities deteriorated rapidly into favelas as a
result of insufficient maintenance and investment. By the early 1980s it was obvious
that forced eviction and badly planned public housing had not proved beneficial and in
many cases only made the situation worse. Most agreed that building enormous public
housing complex and displacing entire communities to far off areas of the city was
not the answer. With that said, there has always been a segment of Rio’s population,
consisting of diverse actors and interests groups, that never wanted to abandon the
policy of forced eviction. Eduardo Paes is representative of this segment, and as mayor
he has continued where Lacerda, Negrão de Lima and Freitas left off.
In 2006, the then Secretary of Tourism, Sports and Recreation (Secretário de Turismo,
Esporte e Lazer,) Eduardo Paes was at the forefront of the movement to re-implement
the community eviction policies that were so common during the dictatorship.The first
major string of forced evictions began in 2006 mainly in and around Barra da Tijuca
and Jacarepagua, in order to prepare for the 2007 Pan American Games. Since then
Paes has not relented, as he quickly ascended to become one of Rio’s most influential
politicians. At only 40 years old Paes has made a name for himself based in part on the
notion of Rio becoming a ‘spectacle’ city, on exhibit to visitors and planned for hosting
mega-events like the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. A couple serious issues
have complicated this dream. Mainly Rio’s lingering poverty, inequality and violence,
as well as its horrific state of urban infrastructure perhaps best exemplified by lack of
affordable housing and the dilapidated or nonexistent public transportation system.
Mayor since September 2009 Paes is deadest on addressing these issues and one
solution he has turned to is removing all visible poverty from the city center, the posh
south and west zones of Rio and anywhere else tourist might visit. He is a man on a
mission, unflinching in his dedication to displace poor and vulnerable residents of Rio to
areas of the city and state far removed from tourist and investors. Paes does not even
try to hide his intentions, stating in an interview in O Globo back in 2009, that the word
remoção (removal) needs to be brought back into popular vocabulary, since it became
taboo during more progressive leadership during the 1980s and early 1990s. In an
interview with O Globo, Paes openly stated that in certain cases he is in favor of forced
evictions and that the issue needs to be brought back into public discourse. This is a
confident statement considering how stigmatized the word had become during the last
few decades. (See http://oglobo.globo.com/rio/mat/2009/04/11/paes-diz-que-remocao-
Members of various social movements and NGOs as well as representatives from
Rio’s Public Defender’s office and the Archdiocese’s Pastoral das Favelas also participated in the march. Also present was Maurício Campos, professional engineer and representative of the organization Rede de Comunidades e Movimentos contra a Violência, (Network of Communities and Movements against Violence). There were roughly 250 demonstrators. The small but well organized and united group brandished a creative array of slogans, banners, flags, posters, etc. The roughly 4 mile march began at 9:00 AM at the entrance of a community known as Favela do Metrô, in the north zone of the city. The event culminated in front of City Hall, in the city center. Military Police and Choque (special force police) patrols provided security for the peaceful crowd. The officers did a good job and were courteous the entire time.
There were only 2 minor setbacks during the 5 hour event. The first occurred as a result
of a suspicious unmarked SUV that was closely following the crowd. The vehicle’s
passengers were staring fixedly demonstrators. In order to document the situation as a
safety measure and after attempts to communicate proved futile, Maurício decided to
take a photo of the car’s license plate and passengers who were making participants
nervous. Immediately the men slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car.
With their pistols protruding from under their untucked shirts they demanded to see
Mauricio’s ID. Rio is a city infamous for its hired hit men and criminal militia groups, so
not knowing who he was dealing with Maurício asked if they would show him their IDs
first. They shouted that obviously they were police officers. Mauício told them that it was
not at all obvious they were the police because their car was unmarked and they were
plain clothed. They then grabbed him, but the crowd immediately came to his rescue.
Forming a large dense circle tightly around the agitators, and began shouting ‘let him
go, let him go’. The aggressors were becoming nervous and finally showed their police
IDs. They then released Maurício and backed off. Quickly they speed away and the
otherwise peaceful march continued. The men in that unmarked car were clearly up to
no good. Beyond their aggression, the principle agitator among them spoke with such
thick slang, spewing curse words left and right, that it is very difficult to believe he was
an on duty undercover officer. He looked, dressed, and talked more like a street thug
than a policeman, but he was armed and it is scary to think what might have happened
to Maurício had the demonstrators not come to his rescue.
Another intimidating incident occurred as demonstrators descended an overpass and instantly caught sight of a caveirão (armored police tank) about 150 in front. The caveirão was stationed in an odd location, blocking the march as it neared City Hall. The caveirão is among the most dreaded images in Rio, as they are called in during only the most intense shootouts and violent standoffs, almost always in favelas. The caveirão, which means large skull, is a powerful symbolic representation of death, war and chaos alive in the psyche of Rio’s favela residents. As demonstrators neared the vehicle they prayed for the best and bravely made their way around the vehicle and continued to City Hall. Why it was parked in such a bizarre location at just the right time as demonstrators were approaching City Hall was either an unfortunate coincidence or a sinister plan to intimidate.
The march was humble in size but overall a victory. Demonstrators were able to grab
the attention of thousands of cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro). They succeeded
in slowing down, and in a few areas halting, traffic. Many of those stuck in traffic asked
for more information on what was taking place. Protesters gladly explained to them the
major injustices taking place in Rio de Janeiro beneath the radar of the media, while
others handed out informational material to curious bystanders. The event was a small
but important achievement for Laboriaux and other favela communities facing forced
eviction. Hopefully the next march will attract even larger crowds. The residents of
Laboriaux intend to continue their peaceful resistance to forced eviction as they also
demand critical infrastructure investments in the community.