Daryle Williams, co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader, continues his Olympics updates from Rio. Here he offers some thoughts on Rio’s Occupy movement. Follow Williams on Twitter @DaryleWilliams or with the hashtag #RioReader.
Nearly to the day, the Paralympics Closing Ceremonies coincide with the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The close-out to Rio 2016 also marks five years of mobilizations and occupations fueled by a rage against inequality and Big Capital in dozens of cities around the world, including the first South American city to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Just about five weeks after Occupy Wall Street was established in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, a self-defined “Ocupa Rio” encampment was set up in Cinelândia, in the heart of downtown Rio. The movement opened a Twitter feed, staking a claim on the webosphere that continues to the present.
The original Occupy Rio movement appeared somewhat out of tune with the Brazilian mood of late 2011. Economic indicators were pretty good, driven by Brazil’s privileged place in the global commodities bonanza and the success of various federal cash transfer programs that were making substantive progress towards poverty reduction and the expansion of the middle class. The Rio state government was eyeing a seemingly endless stream of revenue from strong petroleum prices and vast offshore oil deposits. Rio city was riding high on the promise of three looming megaevents that would bring millions of visitors and billions of investment dollars to the Marvelous City: World Youth Day 2013, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the XXXI Olympiad. Grande Rio enjoyed nearly full employment, with the official measure of the economically active population hovering around 95%. Public safety and social citizenship appeared, finally, to be working in tandem, thanks to the apparent success of coordinated efforts of favela “pacification” that had begun in 2008 at Morro Dona Marta.
Yet even in those good times, Ocupa Rio’s work groups could identify the dark underpinnings of Carioca society: homelessness, the anticipated removals of the poor for the megaevents, the abuses associated with police pacification, unconstitutional limits on democratic expression, racism and homophobia, and the undue influence of big media. Bouts of foul weather and attrition, combined with a December 4 police raid, put a halt to use of Praça Floriano to denounce such perceived injustices. The seizure of the protesters’ tents and belongings held distinct echoes of Rio’s municipal government’s well-honed penchant to use public safety officers and municipal sanitation workers to remove squatters when they proved to be inconvenient.
In 2016, amidst the grave political and economic crisis that has engulfed all Brazil since 2014, those dark elements of exclusion identified by Ocupa Rio continue to animate an organizationally amorphous movement whose original encampment site in front of Cine Odeon has been remade into a picture-perfect setting for a group selfie with the restored Theatro Municipal and the new light rail as backdrop. The offshoots of the original Ocupa Rio — some with direct lineage to 2011 and others merely taking inspiration in the name — have appeared in the 2013 Passe Livre Movement as well as protests against the Olympics, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the neoliberal reforms of the Michel Temer government. In solidarity with striking teachers, students from public schools throughout Rio state, starting with the Colégio Estadual Prefeito Mendes de Moraes on the capital’s Ilha do Governador, have used the language and tactics of the Occupy Movement to denounce the educational crisis that has accompanied the state’s fiscal calamity.
In May 2016, artists and intellectuals took over the Palácio Gustavo Capanema to protest the proposed elimination of the federal culture ministry (MinC). When the police forced the occupiers from the iconic modernist edifice on Rua da Imprensa after 73 days, Ocupa MinC moved to Canecão, a storied concert hall in Botafogo. Over the protests of the adjacent campus of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, a few hundred protesters appropriated the shuttered venue for a raucous arts festival that attracted the support of singers Zélia Duncan and Chico Buarque, among other luminaries of the Rio cultural circuit. The surprise visit by Buarque on the eve of the Olympics Opening Ceremony included a collective rendition of “Apesar de você,” a protest song made famous in 1970 during the depths of a civil-military dictatorship that began six years prior.
On social media, #OcupaMinC and #OcupaCanecão have become closely linked to #ForaTemer, that frustrated aspiration to restore constitutional powers to Rousseff and deny her traitorous vice president the spoils of a legislative golpe. Banners, buttons, stickers, placards, and graffiti decrying “Fora Temer” approximate the occupiers at Canecão with the loud chorus of Temer’s detractors seen throughout Olympic Rio. (Initial attempts to censor #ForaTemer in the Olympic arenas were a near comical failure.)
These most recent iterations of the still-young Occupy Movement must become a central element of the history-to-be-written of the Rio Olympics. A cultural history of Ocupa MinC — song, art, and performance — shall be written alongside the analysis of the motifs of the opening and closing ceremonies or the staged programming in the Olympic Park. The story of other Ocupa mobilizations shall write into the history of the Olympiad and its host city the experiences and voices of local actors (and global actors acting locally) arrayed across a spectrum of oppositional projects — some radically anti-institutional, some progressive, others familiarly statist — that have remained vibrant during what sometimes appears to be a moment of national history commandeered by corrupt big-moneyed interests hostile to constitutional rule and inclusive social justice.
In other words, the history of Olympic Rio de Janeiro shall not be reduced to a singular, tragic narrative of the defeat of the aspirations of institutional democracy, economic justice, and social inclusion that were part of the original Rio 2016 bid to the international Olympic and Paralympic committees. (Whether or not the original inclusion of those aspirations was carried out in genuine sincerity or with cynicism remains to be seen once the archival records and oral histories are open to researchers.) A full history of Rio 2016 must account for Ocupa Rio, Ocupa MinC, and variants like #OcupaCinelândia, #OcupaEscola, and #OcupaTudo as co-producers of the city’s Olympic Time.
That full history shall also consider fault lines that lie at the margins of the Occupy Movement. Here, we look to the participants in the social media campaign and accompanying violent clashes that interrupted the torch relay in the Baixada Fluminense and others locales in Rio state; the legal actions that framed opposition to displacements at Vila Autódromo and Horto; the popular “invasions” of the Olympic X-Park in Deodoro; the reaction among Cidade de Deus residents to local hero Rafaela Silva’s vindicating gold medal in Olympic judo; the Brazilian Institute for the Rights of People with Disabilities’ uses of the Paralympics to press to make city public sidewalks more accessible to people in wheelchairs and the blind. In each of these episodes, we find clues to the multiple associational, discursive, organizational, and identity mobilizations that have shaped struggles for space and citizenship in Olympic Rio. Some of these mobilizations share Ocupa Rio’s aspirations, but they fall outside the movement’s formal boundaries (whatever they may be). Class and race composition differ. They must be studied on their own terms.
Gestures associated with more conservative tendencies in contemporary Brazil — Neymar’s use of a headband declaring “100% Jesus” at the gold medal ceremony at the last night of Olympic competition (a victorious athlete’s declaration of faith? a wink at forces in favor of a Christian moralization of the public square?); the widespread use of the canary-yellow national soccer team’s jersey at Olympic arenas (“good” nationalism? a nod to the anti-Dilma coxinhas?); the Desocupa Já student movement calling for the end of public school occupations (youth of modest means yeaning for educational opportunity? teenage reactionaries?); the durability of racist terms on the dating and hookup apps that made Olympic Rio a City of Sex — offer hints at a history of the multiple publics, narratives, aspirations, and readings of Rio 2016 that fall outside the machinations of Big Capital and its critics. Like Ocupa Rio, these gestures have already started to write the first draft of their histories on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Grindr. With the closing of the Paralympics, the moment is now upon us to archive, systematize, and analyze these and other sources that will tell a history of the Rio Games that is as complex and compelling as their troubled, marvelous host city.