Whose mall is it?

Postado em: 16th janeiro 2014 por Vanessa Barbara em New York Times, Reportagens

The New York Times
January 16th, 2014

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Op-Ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — LAST Saturday, security officers stopped two tall young black men at the entrance of JK Iguatemi, a luxury shopping mall in São Paulo. The young men were wearing flashy tennis shoes and brand-new soccer jerseys. “What are you doing here?” I heard the guards ask. “We came to buy something,” explained one. “My cousin here is a soccer player. From Bragantino.”

The guards didn’t seem impressed (Bragantino is a lower-division team), but eventually let them inside, where they bought a pair of flip-flops and then left. The whole time they were shopping, they stuck to their story — my cousin is a soccer player, sir, so we’re entitled to be here.

That afternoon, JK Iguatemi had established a tight security zone at the entrance. Guards were asking for the documents of those who “looked like unaccompanied minors.” A second checkpoint was directed at those who, well, looked definitely suspicious but not underage. Some visitors were asked their intentions, or to show an ID if they claimed to work at the mall. As far as I could tell, older people with whitish skin and richer looks weren’t stopped.

The mall’s security had been stepped up because of an event that had been publicized on Facebook: the “rolezinho,” or little strolling — a gathering of teenagers from the poor suburbs for the purpose of “kissing, enjoying, taking photos and scoring some babes.” The rolezinho is a recent phenomenon, dating from early December, when some 6,000 young people turned out at the Metrô Itaquera mall. One week later, something similar happened at the Guarulhos International mall; 23 people were arrested (and later released without charges).

Now, as if in response to the crackdown, rolezinhos are spreading fast: There are five more scheduled in São Paulo over the next two weeks, and other cities are planning solidarity events. On Tuesday, President Dilma Rousseff convened an emergency staff meeting on the issue.

All this because some young people wanted to (as they wrote on Facebook): “go up the down escalator,” “press all the elevator buttons” and “enter the movies through the exit door.” Some predicted a food fight. “Let’s show up at the mall tomorrow ’cause we’ve got nothing else to do,” they wrote, all of it in a messy mix of capital letters and slang.

From the beginning, the middle class has panicked. Shopkeepers have called 911. Restraining orders have been issued, even though there was no actual organized movement — nothing related to the political protests that swept across Brazilian cities in June. Just a lot of youngsters walking around and singing.

The poor suburbs where many of them live are roughly two hours by bus from downtown, and they offer few free opportunities for entertainment. São Paulo has 64 parks and squares for a population of 10.8 million; 13 of the 96 city districts don’t have any green spaces at all. There are 40 cultural centers, 41 recreation centers and 23 public pools. Number of shopping malls: 79.

Many of the teenagers are fans of a Brazilian funk music called “funk ostentação,” whose lyrics speak of expensive clothes, cars, watches, women and money. Wearing flashy baseball caps, colorful tennis shoes, soccer jerseys, sunglasses and rings, they aspire to be part of the very consumer society that excludes them.

At JK Iguatemi, a man was approached and asked to show his employee ID. “This is absurd, I work here,” he told me angrily. He defended the rolezinho: “People from the suburbs really need to start invading everywhere.” I heard someone saying, sarcastically, “Look, he’s wearing a flat-brimmed cap! Arrest him.”

In the end, the strolling at JK Iguatemi never happened — it turned out to be a prank. The real rolezinho took place 16 miles away, at the same mall where it had all started — Metrô Itaquera, in the heart of the suburbs. Little by little, some 3,000 young people filled the corridors, outnumbering security officers and the military police. Some were detained and searched, but officers found nothing illegal. I went to Metrô Itaquera in the afternoon, and didn’t witness a single robbery or act of violence by the teenagers. There was only a growing tension between the police and the participants, who became increasingly cornered within the building, as shops were closed and escalators shut down.

At one point, a policeman passed by me saying, “I’m gonna beat you all up,” then kicked a boy for no apparent reason. When I approached him and asked his name, saying I had seen what he did, he promptly tore off his name tag. He said I should be writing about “important people.” Another officer told a reporter she’d better keep away from the police if she didn’t want to “tomar pedrada” (be hit by a stone). Later that day, the police tossed stun grenades to disperse the crowd in the mall parking lot.

At least six malls have gotten restraining orders against rolezinhos, and the majority of the public favors drastic action by the police. Some say these teenagers are favela-dwelling vagrants who should find a job and stop frightening decent people. They are seen as criminals and treated accordingly — hence the rush to identify yourself (or your cousin) as a soccer player from the Bragantino team, as if that were the only way to be seen as a real citizen.

At one point, I saw a bunch of youngsters detained and searched in the parking lot. They acted as if they were accustomed to this, and were expressionless, even numb. “Can we go now, sir? Are we released?” one of them asked. I surely wouldn’t be so polite.

Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 16, 2014, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Whose Mall Is It?.