All it took was a few dozen demonstrators, a Facebook campaign and a blast of anarco-funk music to shut down one of Rio de Janeiro’s swankiest malls on Sunday as Brazil’s protest movement shifted from the streets to the shops.
Shopping Leblon – a mall consisting of 200 upmarket shops, restaurants and cinemas – was closed after it became the latest target of rolezinho flashmobs.
Over the past month, almost a dozen malls in Brazil have been hit by the rolezinhos – gatherings of predominantly poor, black youths who party in malls usually occupied by mostly wealthy, white consumers.
In one sense, the participants are simply emulating the common global activity of teenagers hanging out at the mall, but class and racial differences, as well as the police response, have added a political dimension to such events.
Social media have also boosted the number and noise of participants – in one case to 6,000 people. The social context is also significant. Tens of millions of Brazilians have risen out of poverty and can buy more consumer goods, but many still find their expectations frustrated by inequality and economic exclusion.
The first recent rolezinho – at Shopping Itaquera in the suburbs of São Paulo last month – appears to have been more about consumer partying than social politics.
It was organised by fans of Funk Ostentação, a music style popular in favelas that celebrates ostentatious displays of wealth, such as flashy cars and expensive drinks.
But later events have been marred by reports of robberies and a violent police reaction, including the use of teargas, rubber bullets and batons on teenage participants. This has stirred up online anger, reinforced by prejudicial efforts to bar “suspicious people” from other malls.
More than 9,000 had signed up to attend Sunday’s rolezinho in Leblon, according to the Facebook page set up by the organisers.
It was to have been the first in Zona Sul, which is home to Rio’s most upmarket districts and several overcrowded favela slums.
Fearing a repeat of the chaotic scenes that followed earlier rolezinhos, the owners of the malls tried and failed to win a legal injunction blocking the protest.
Instead they shut up shop and left notices on the doors of the mall in Portuguese and English declaring: “To ensure the safety and wellbeing of all customers, tenants and employees, Shopping Leblon informs that the centre will be exceptionally closed today, 19 January.”
Only about 50 protesters turned up, as well as larger numbers of police and journalists, but the participants said they were vindicated by the actions of the mall owners.
“I think it’s a victory,” said Janderson Dias, a 25-year-old resident of the Cosme Velho neighbourhood. “The people of Leblon have not appreciated the division in our society before. Brazil is not the beautiful, united place it is often shown as.”
Those who turned up made a barbecue outside the mall, set up speakers and danced to recording of Anarcofunk. One was dressed as Batman, another as the Joker.
A few had facemasks and one wore a horse’s head. Banners called for an end to “Brazilian apartheid”.
Echoing the chants heard during last summer’s mass protests, people called out: “We don’t want the World Cup!”
The primary aim of the protesters was to challenge racial and economic discrimination.
“People in favelas usually only enter malls to work in the shops. The customers are almost all rich, white people,” said Hanier Ferrer, a 23-year-old student at the federal university of Rio de Janeiro.
“The people from the favelas and the periphery want to prove they are just like everyone else. They want a rethink of social relations.”
For the protest movement, the rolezinhos have restored some of the momentum that has been lost since the massive demonstrations last June brought more than a million people on to streets throughout Brazil. For shopowners, regular protests of this type pose a hefty threat to their earnings.
President Dilma Rousseff has reportedly held meetings on the subject, but for the moment, nobody seems sure how they will evolve.
Human rights activist João Pedro Padua, of the Habeas Corpus independent lawyers group, said: “The movement aims to denounce inequality and open opportunities for the poor to come to places like this. It’s not about stealing or destroying, it’s about getting back to the idea of having fun.
“We might see others rolezinhos elsewhere in Leblon. But right now, we don’t know how this will play out.”
He said the rolezinhos dated back to the opening of Brazil’s first malls in São Paul in the 1970s, but they had changed in size and impact as a result of social networks.
• This article was amended on 20 January 2014. An earlier version incorrectly described Cosme Velho as a favela.
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Image: John in Brazil