‘Activism’ Category


[Photo taken at a teacher’s march in October. “Vandalism is beating up teachers”]

This piece, published this month in the Haldane Society, a British legal magazine, is a follow up to my June piece:

The third consecutive term of the leftist PT [Worker’s Party] government was ticking along relatively comfortably for Dilma Rousseff (ongoing corruption scandals aside) until protests against a bus fare increase in São Paulo triggered similar action across the nation, drawing hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied Brazilians onto the streets in June to protest against a political system they see as corrupt and inefficient. The massive demonstrations came as a surprise to many observers. Brazil is BRICS poster child: a strong democracy and an optimistic emerging economy, ripe for investment and ready for the future. The last time Brazilians took to the streets en masse was back in 1992 to call – successfully – for the impeachment of then President Fernando Collor, the man who froze the nation’s bank accounts.

Rousseff, a former militant involved in organised opposition to the military dictatorship – imprisoned and tortured for her activity – was quick to identify the protests as a sign of the strength of “our democracy” and new “political energy”. The middle class is growing slowly and millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty by social assistance programs initiated by the PT. But as people move laboriously up Brazil’s skewed social ladder, they are hit by the expense of middle class life here, where private health care and private education are standard, given the generally poor quality of public services. In short people might earn more but, while the cost of living rises, they are seeing poor returns from their growing contributions to the public coffers.

Rio, where the largest protests took place, is current focus of national ambition. 300,000 (or one million, depending on who you listen to) came onto its streets on 20th June. Excessive marketing for World Cup preparations and the 2016 Olympics has grated on the population of a city where the cost of living has soared. While there have been notable improvements in public safety, a less violent city is a more expensive city. A principal target of resentment is state governor Sergio Cabral, whose support has plummeted to 8% in his second term of office. Once the initial surge of protests had subsided, demonstrators camped outside his home in the exclusive Leblon neighbourhood until he moved (presumably at the request of influential neighbours) elsewhere. Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, although not unscathed, has weathered the storm with more sagacity, making concessions and inviting protestors for talks.

Although the largest demonstrations were not much short of an outpouring of general discontent, there were some quick victories. Protestors in several cities achieved their immediate goal when local authorities, including Rio and São Paulo, announced a freeze on bus fare rises. In Rio the state government abandoned unpopular plans to bulldoze a school and indigenous museum to make way for a multi-storey car park near the Maracana, future World Cup final venue. Mayor Paes also guaranteed the future survival of Vila Autodromo, a favela that was earmarked for demolition to make way for Olympic development. These achievements seemed unlikely before demonstrators took to the streets.

But while the protestors scored some points, two incidents highlighted the longstanding violence and human rights abuses suffered by the country’s poor. On 24th June, military police belonging to the BOPE special operations unit (portrayed brilliantly by José Padilha in his ultra-violent ‘Elite Squad 1 & 2’ films) killed nine alleged drug traffickers in the sprawling Maré favela complex. One BOPE member also died in this unauthorised operation which left residents without electricity for 36 hours. Then in July members of a police ‘pacification’ unit, based in the enormous beachfront Rocinha favela, took a bricklayer called Amarildo into custody during a routine operation. He has not been seen since. This episode was condemned at the end of August by the Rio branch of the Brazilian Bar Association, which, together with respected local sociologist Michel Misse, launched a campaign to monitor and investigate killings and disappearances linked to police activity in the city. Misse documented 10,000 such incidents between 2001 and 2011. The average of one thousand police related deaths a year in Rio is more than triple the yearly average for the whole of the USA. The national truth commission investigation of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship (1964-1985) counts 540 disappearances for the whole country for that period. Misse’s alarming figures exemplify the class chasm and violence which hamper societal development in Brazil. While the mass marches pointed to the possible existence of a youthful, informed middle class, eager to flex its muscle, the Maré killings and Amarildo’s disappearance confirm that Brazil’s most vulnerable population continues at risk of human rights violations on a daily basis.

On a Friday evening in September I listen to three lawyers who have been voluntarily defending and accompanying protestors detained by police. Carol, Clarice and Natalia tell a story which leaves me depressed. I left Rio for three months just as the protests were beginning, and was enthused by what seemed to be a possible tidal change in public opinion, because for once it seemed that a critical mass of average Brazilians were taking matters into their own hands. I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian where I celebrated the fact that protestors appeared to have avoided attempts by the traditional Brazilian mass media to characterise them as vandals and rioters. Three months down the line it seems that the powers-that-be have succeeded in their goal of criminalising the protestors. Carol tells me that her mother, who leaned out of the window to shout support in June, now sees them as mere troublemakers.

Her mother’s change of attitude appears largely informed by violent TV scenes of clashes as demonstrators face baton charges and tear gas grenades. This began with the dispersal of the massive June 20th march, when military police charged protestors at different points across the city centre. Because of this, the lawers say, the largely peaceful demonstration ended in mayhem. At this point the general public began to dissociate themselves from the protests. I ask about an incident during July. Shortly after the Pope left a meeting at the Governor’s palace by helicopter, a protest outside turned violent. Both demonstrators and police filmed two men in T-Shirts conspiring to throw petrol bombs. Other cinematographers captured images of what appeared to be the same men running behind police lines shortly afterwards. Threatened with arrest, one pulls ID out, waving it at confused ‘colleagues’. These images led to allegations – fiercely denied – that undercover police used violence against other police in an attempt to destabilise the demonstration. Bruno Telles, a 25 year-old student arrested on suspicion of throwing the first bomb, was released when TV images and police statements contradicted each other. It looked like someone wanted to frame him. A backpack containing Molotov cocktails was also found at the scene of the protests. Its owner is unknown. Violent episodes like this led to characterisation of Brazil’s protests as “riots” in the international press (notably The Times).

What happened with the episode outside the governor’s palace, I ask? Was it really instigated by undercover police? The lawyers think it might have been, but tell me the investigation was archived. Really? But didn’t anyone follow up? We don’t know, they say, those were the days when the Pope was visiting – so much was going on. Since that moment numbers on the streets have fallen dramatically, down to a hard core of ‘Black Bloc’ anarchist style protestors, who are mostly teenagers. The state governor has introduced a law – unconstitutional, I’m told – to prevent such demonstrators from using masks to conceal their faces. Public opinion is strongly in favour of such a measure: after all, who wants to let vandals gain the upper hand?

Despite recent social advances, Brazil is still a fiercely unequal society. It registered forty six dollar billionaires in 2013, a 25% increase on 2012, according to Forbes. The protests, and the belligerent State response, reflect the contradictory nature of this emerging power. While a new generation struggles to find its voice and millions are lifted out of poverty, corrupt power structures and centuries-old social conflict continue to hinder progress. It is no accident that Fernando Collor – the disgraced former president impeached after the mass protests of 1992 – holds court today at the centre of power in Brasília, where he is Senator. And while everyone knows where to find Collor, no one will say what happened to Amarildo, and neither do we know who threw the petrol bombs at police outside the Governor’s palace.

Note: The month of October saw numerous violent clashes between Black Bloc protestors and police in the context of marches by striking teachers. The Blac Bloc protestors were said to have infiltrated the otherwise peaceful demonstrations. I witnessed both police violence towards peaceful protestors and subsequent Blac Bloc vandalism. Numerous peaceful protestors were arrested under new police powers for dealing with ‘vandals’.

June 25th, 2013

On The Protests in Rio

A version of this piece, written the night the 3rd large protest in Rio was violently suppressed, was first published by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on 21 June. Hopefully it can help people who don’t really know much about Brazil or Rio to grasp a little of what is happening there.

THE first surprise about the Brazilian protests is that they have taken place at all. The second surprise is their scale. On reflection they should have taken place years ago. The recent hike in bus fares was simply the last straw for a nation tired of being treated like otários [suckers] – as a taxi driver put it to me – by its ruling classes and politicians. Demonstrations in modern Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to the country’s beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily discarded by the country’s mass media (in other words the all powerful Globo conglomerate). Protestors depicted as troublemakers, lazy students, leftists, and as rich kids without a cause – by one prominent social commentator in Rio last week – are quickly discredited and forgotten.

This time round Globo and its allies are on the back foot. In Rio, cracks have been showing for some time in the ‘cordial’ facade presented by the city’s leaders to the world. The once popular state governor, Sérgio Cabral, has kept a low profile ever since footage of him engaging in Bollinger Club-style buffoonery in the Paris Ritz emerged in 2012. Images of him cavorting with powerful business associates (known locally as the ‘napkin gang’, because what they sported on their heads during the escapade) enraged a substantial proportion of the electorate. The city’s mayor Eduardo Paes, often recognised as a hard working (if dislikable) politician, has also shown recent signs of strain, becoming involved in an unseemly brawl with an abusive member of the public outside an uptown restaurant last month.

Long uncomfortable hours in crowded sweaty buses on congested roads, and difficult access to substandard public health and education facilities, have been grinding down the patience of easygoing cariocas [Rio residents] for years. A modern but stuffed-to-the-hilt underground service, and an ancient and absurdly overcrowded overground suburban train service do not ease matters. With a soaring cost of living – many prices in Rio are now comparable to European cities – rapid gentrification of housing, and favela removal programs shunting the poor out to the most distant of suburbs, the frustration of large numbers of cariocas is understandable. One friend who visited recently, told me of his amazement at London’s public transport system which is open to all. “In Rio use of public transport is a sign of failure – it’s for people who can’t afford better”, he told me wistfully. Lack of confidence in the city’s public infrastructure is near universal. Anyone who can afford to, takes out a health plan, puts their children into private education and sits in traffic inside an conditioned car. At the very least such fortunate people can stay cool, while figuring out the expense.

Rio’s apparently successful public relations exercise to convince the world of its capacity to change has rested on the much-publicised ‘pacification’ programme. This has seen police take control of some of the city’s most famous and violent favelas. Formerly controlled by heavily armed gangs, communities like Rocinha and Vidigal near the exclusive beach districts, and Mangueira, near the Maracanã football stadium, are now patrolled by young police recruits – bringing homicide rates down to zero in some neighbourhoods. In the Alemão favela complex in the north of the city, this process has reduced the number of bullets fired by police in the region from 23,355 in 2010 to a mere 2,395 in 2012. No one can deny that Rio is less violent today than during any period in the last thirty years.

However the logic behind the ‘pacification’ programme adheres to a long-established practice of placing the poor at the root of Brazil’s problems; sidestepping deep rooted matters of corruption and political inefficiency which contribute to the delay of progress throughout the country. As if by magic ‘pacification’ is alleged to restore Rio to a Peter Pan past of tranquility – a time when genteel samba echoed across the hills, before volleys of automatic weapon fire brought terror and sleepless nights to cariocas in the 1980s.

These protests are proof that Rio’s politicians must do more than militarise the city’s most vulnerable communities to make life bearable for all cariocas, millions of whom live in outlying suburbs distant from the media spotlight. This is why they are so important. By focussing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, they are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city. The close relationship between the Mayor’s office and Rio’s bus operators is apparent, but opaque.

Having forced the Mayor to back down over the fare increase, a core of protestors are now calling for a parliamentary commission of investigation into the city’s bus syndicates. By maintaining this focus they hope to prevent the movement from disintegrating or morphing into a nebulous anti-corruption exercise. However the events of Thursday night, and attempts by political groups to hijack the protests, suggest this might prove difficult.

The final surprise may be that Brazil’s politicians are forced to address their conduct of public affairs. Meanwhile, for the taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, the dream of not being taken for a sucker stays alive.



THIS piece was written on 20 June and things have been moving fast since then. Today, 25 June, the military police killed some 10 people in an operation in the favela of Nova Holanda. At the same time, the city’s legislative assembly gave the go ahead for the investigation into the bus companies. A sliver of a light on a dark day. What must the Pope be thinking about his upcoming visit?

From comments under the original piece:

I’m brazilian and I’m tired of being taken by stupid. I’m tired of lines in hospitals, with no meds, no infrastructure, no beds, people lying on the floor waiting, i don’t know,for God maybe. I’m tired seeing kids without a good school, good teachers, good infrastructure, helping then to become a citizen and not just another “brick in the wall”. I’m tired to pay the taxes and seeing my country accumulate more than ONE TRILLION in taxes and still, give no return to us, no even the enough. I’m tired of being a clown. We need support from everyone. From anyone who still believe that we can change and be BEAUTIFUL no just for FIFA, not just in the “rich parts”, no just for “english see”, but for us, brazilians too.

Amazing your post! The Globo corporate will never write the news like you did. They will always mask the news, changing the line and making the people believe in something is not true. They are trying to stop us. They are saying this is a violent manifest. But it is not. Is just the loud voice of the people for our rights and justice! Thank you! We live in a fake democratic system. Our people don’t have schools and don’t have hospitals. We live in a corrupt government system that think we are suckers, and steals our money in our face!


October 19th, 2012

Vhils in Providência

“When I work I build a relationship with space and people. I’ve been working here in Providência for 3 weeks.”

In October 2012 I meet Portuguese artist Vhils in Providênca. The first favela in the world is now the centre of Rio’s “Big Leap Forward”. I haven’t been here for months, and I can’t believe my eyes. The praça, always centre of social life in the favela, is now a dystopian twenty four hour building site. An enormous pillar, a support for Rio’s latest cable car project, has replaced what used to be the sports court. This was where everyone met, where parties took place and where children played. It’s development at breakneck speed, and as usual, favela residents appear to have been granted antlike status in the process. It is a timely moment for Vhils to chisel his moving portraits of residents into the rapidly disappearing walls.


Vhils says:

“Between 1920 and 1974 Portugal lived the Salazar dictatorship. At the end of this the country swung to the left. Growing up, the first art I saw in the street was fading, decrepit murals painted by supporters of the socialists. In the years after Portugal joined the European union in 1986 there was a capitalist boom. Now two competing visual languages covered public walls. Billboards encouraging consumerism surrounded the political murals.  Much of the advertising was illegal. Then graffiti began to appear in the mid 1990s. There were more adverts. The authorities began to remove graffiti.”


“I noticed accumulated layers of imagery on the walls, which reflected changing times, and began to work with this.  I dug through the different layers, like an archaeologist. Sculpting faces from the walls, I noticed how much images influence us, although we might have no notion of this at the time. I worked with advertisements, covering them with white paint. Peeling this away, I created images to reflect the fugacity of consumerism, and the dangers of living a lifestyle of credit and extreme consumption. Working in a boom in Lisbon, people were looking at the shiny new buildings, without paying any attention to their long shadows.”


“Travelling shows how globalised we are. Digging into buildings around the world I perceive how similar people’s lives can be. In Shanghai, like Rio de Janeiro, infrastructure projects are forcing people out to the suburbs or into big housing condominiums. Such new construction programs are linked to development and speculation, not social improvements for people who live in these places. The processes occurring in China and Brazil reflect what happened in European countries in the 1970s as they lifted themselves out of poverty. History is repeating itself.”


Looking at Vhils work, I can only wonder what Providência will look like four months from now.


June 8th, 2011

Providência Inside Out

JR has been a partner in the community since 2008, when he brought his Women Are Heroes project to our hill. When we heard about the Inside Out Project, we knew we wanted to participate. We’re at a pivotal moment in our history. While we have nothing against improvements and development of our city, we’re concerned that the authorities have not included our concerns in their plans. By pasting pictures in the community for the world to see, we’re seeking to participate and make our voices heard in this process. We want visibility, participation and recognition, and the best outcome for this community, which was built by our hands and the hands of our parents and grandparents.” (Mauricio Hora)

Morro da Providência looks over 360 degrees of Rio de Janeiro, giant emerald green papier machê mountains that drop into a city that rolls away into skyscrapers, favelas climbing up the hills, giant primordial rocks, sprawling suburbs and then the Guanabara bay and the open Atlantic. To see the city from the hilltop is to experience Rio at its dramatic, breathtaking and beguiling best.

Morro da Providência is the place where the word “favela” was first used to describe an informal urban land occupation. The name was given to the hill by soldiers returning from the northeast of Brazil where they had put down a rebellion by a mystic leader called Antonio the Counsellor. In the backlands of Bahia where the battle took place, the soldiers camped on a hill they called favela, named after a spiny, thorny shrub that made their forays through the scrubland dangerous and uncomfortable, as contact with the favela plant made their skin break out in sores and rashes. The defenders of Antonio the Counsellor, protected by leather, had no such problem, as they conducted lethal guerilla attacks on the troops, sent to defend the New Brazilian Republic.

It took four expeditions to finally defeat the rebels. The surviving troops returned to Rio de Janeiro, many with captive wives in tow, and waited by the Ministry of War, which had promised them land to live on. When the politicians failed to deliver, the soldiers and their families climbed up the hill behind the Ministry, and set up homes there. Together with freed slaves already living on the craggy outcrop, they founded the world’s first favela.


Morro da Providência (the name Providência was chosen after other settlements became known as favela too) grew and became known for its samba singers and carnival blocos (street parties) and then in the 70s when the drug trade took hold, it became one of the toughest favelas of all, and a no-go zone for people from the rest of the city.


Last year the police moved in as part of a so-called “pacification” strategy to clear armed gangs out of certain key favelas, as part of the citywide development plans in the run up to Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Providência is at the edge of the business district and overlooks the rundown port area. The authorities plan to build the Olympic Press corps building here, and have a vision of turning the port into a futuristic marina.

The precarious, perched and sometimes ramshackle construction of Providência is not popular with the authorities, and it seems like they can’t wait to get their machines up there to knock half the favela down. There are plans to build cable cars, amphitheatres and to open the area up for tourists. The plans have been drawn up with no consultation with the residents.

One day a team from the Municipal Housing Authority turned up on the hill, armed with clipboards and blue spray paint. They proceeded to number certain houses with an Orwellian acronym (SMH – Secretaria Municipal de Habitação) and inform those living inside that they were due for removal.

Some residents are not best pleased about this. As Dona Penha puts it “When things were bad, (i.e. when the favela was run by drug traffic and corrupt police) when we had to sleep under our beds at night, and walk our children past dead bodies in the morning, it was fine for us to stay here. Now things are better, we’ve got to go.”

JR’s Inside Out project was a perfect opportunity for people to show their faces. Mauricio Hora, a photographer born and brought up in Providência, took more than 100 portraits of residents that the Inside Out team printed (and hand delivered to Rio, thanks Marc!) which we pasted up with residents over three consecutive weekends.

The first day of pasting saw a visit from Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, that lead to a TV appearance by Mauricio Hora, and it appears that the authorities are already changing some of their plans.

Rosiete Marinho, a community leader, says:

“We’re not invaders, we’ve been on this land for 150 years, and we have a legal right to remain. These photos represent our lives, lives that we want to maintain. We’re not a mere number.”

April 10th, 2011

Anarkia Boladona

“My name is Panmela Castro, better known as Anarkia. I do graffiti. Today I’m doing a mural for an exhibition that’s going to happen at the State Council for Women’s Rights. The name of the exhibition is ‘Colour Shocking Pink’.

This mural is the story of Eve. There is Eve, the snake and the apple. So this Eve, she’s in this place with nothing to do, it was really super boring, a proper drag and there was even this guy there telling her what she could and couldn’t do, giving her orders. One day she gets really fed up, and says well I’m going to do what I want, I’m going to be happy now, I’m not going to obey any man.

Then she began to make loads of friends: her first friend was the snake, and she began to try different fruits, but then those who were scared of the boss, this big guy, began criticizing and demoralizing Eve, saying that she was loose and so on.Now the boss guy in the story isn’t Adam it was God. Eve controlled Adam and didn’t pay him much attention; the problem was the other guy who thought he was the sinistrão (The  Boss).

The apple symbolized sex – even though God said that they couldn’t try it – Eve decided to do it anyway. In reality she had sex with Adam, so the Bible says that she had the power to dominate him. The problem is God who stood there saying that she couldn’t do that, but can you imagine Adam and Eve for all eternity in paradise without doing anything? Eve was malandra (cunning).

I started graffiti on the street in 2005 but before that I was a pixadora. In reality I flirted with graffiti for 5 years before I started painting. Pixacao is more or less what people outside Brazil call tags, which means writing your name with spray paint on a wall, although it grew differently here, as a self contained culture. Here there is the thing about writing names as high as possible on buildings and to make sequences, so pixacao took on its own characteristics. I started through a friend who studied at the time, who started to pixar to get in with the boys at school, and it worked for her.

A pixador is a normal person – they could be firemen, policemen or teachers. They are normal people but instead of going out to a dance or to play football they go out to pixar, it’s their leisure…just that it’s illegal. The adrenaline that someone might get from motocross might be the same that someone gets from doing something illegal that happens to be writing their name on a wall.

I stopped pixacao in 2002. My career wasn’t very long, but I always lived among it, because it generates a circle of friends that you can’t get away from afterwards. I think this is one of the motives for pixacao: to be someone somewhere, to be a member of a group. I stopped because I got married and became a housewife when I was 21, and I only started doing graffiti after I got separated. I wasn’t going to go back to pixacao, I was working and studying, I had set up a house, and there was no way I was going to start running from the police again or getting shot at.  At the time of being a pixadora it was difficult because there weren’t any girls and they always thought that we wouldn’t be able to keep up, so I had to work to earn my space. With graffiti, even though the boys were more open, it was still the same thing, I heard to earn my space. Nowadays any girl can join in because we already conquered the terrain for them.

I’ve always been ANARKIA since I began with my first pixacao. The first thing I ever wrote was the punk A in a circle, the A for anarchy, and then I began to stylize it and it became my logo. I know how to do a lot of throw ups, when I started writing graffiti I started doing pieces and throw-ups in the street, then I began to write letters – Anarkia, a big filled in A, then I wrote Anark, and now I write Kia.

I still paint in the street, I have my spots, and now and then I go there and renew, in the Leopoldina area there are loads of walls that are mine. I already argued with almost everyone in graffiti, but we’re all friends now. I once fought with a girl from pixacao and there was a boy in graffiti who I wanted to fight in the past, but when I tried people never let me do it. Now we’re friends. I’ve learnt to respect other people’s differences over the years.

Through graffiti I can say what I think and express myself to everyone irrespective of race, gender or social class, it’s there for everyone to see. I’m a painting graduate and I’ve been studying drawing since I was nine. I began to incorporate the theme of women into paintings when I began to turn into a feminist.

Being a feminist means being a politicized woman, conscious of her rights and who fights for recognition of her rights and cultural equality because even though we’re equal in our constitution, we haven’t managed to conquest this equality culturally speaking and in our lives. But we’re on our way there, and the process is going well. However there’s still a lot about the woman being a housewife; we can work, but we still have total responsibility for children, there isn’t much division of responsibility with the father, and then there’s the triple day of work, study, home/kids. We still earn less than men and I think this cultural inequality appears a lot in the thematic of sexuality and that’s why I use this in my work, because there are unwritten rules that say women can’t behave in a certain way, but men can.

This abortion painting is about the right to have dominion over your body. Abortion is linked to the question of sexuality. People say that women will just use this as a form of contraception; I got pregnant so I’ll abort – but this is isn’t true, women are responsible. If a woman gets pregnant for some reason she should be able to decide. Because of the power of the evangelical churches in Brazil, this will take ages to change.

Today young girls are growing up knowing they can be what they want, including president. My generation didn’t have this, I think we thought it was possible but we just didn’t know it would be so soon. It’s not just about having a woman in the presidency, it’s about having a woman who represents our ideas, who is a feminist and wants to break taboos and win things for us. Dilma knows a lot about the economy and so on, but she’s not close to the feminist movement. They used the theme of abortion against her during the election campaign to force her into an alliance with the evangelicals.

I created a graffiti project to educate women about the Lei Maria da Penha (it protects women from domestic violence) that was a great success. Because of this I won a human rights prize from a US institution called Vital Voices that was founded by Hilary Clinton when she was first lady. After this a group of us female grafitieiras created a network called Rede Nami – Feminist Urban Art Network – that uses graffiti to promote the rights of women.

For the Vital Voices prize there was a whole formal programming, and I opened the NY stock exchange on International Day of the Woman.

Gustavo Coelho, a friend who made a film about pixacao, said I was tricking them all:  You’re a 171!! (Slang from the Brazilian penal codification of fraud). How could they let a pixadora in among Hilary Clinton on Wall Street!”

(Pics: Damian Platt/Anarkia)