South of the Border

Barbarians at the Mall Entrance

January 27, 2014

Multiple Pages
Barbarians at the Mall Entrance

What do you call it when thousands of dark-skinned, slum-dwelling youths conspire on Facebook to suddenly show up at a swank, tony, mostly white shopping mall?

Some might call it a party. Others would call it a nightmare. In Brazil, they call it a rolezinho, AKA a “little stroll.”

Such little strolls have been an escalating cause of alarm in the past couple months as loud, giddy throngs of teens from Brazil’s notoriously wretched favelas pour out en masse from the dilapidated roach motels they call home and into the gleaming, glittering palaces of consumption typically patronized by the nation’s upper crust.

Although in its infancy, the rolezinho phenomenon recalls prior instances of deliberate mass intrusion into public spaces and private establishments such as the lunch-counter sit-ins of the American South in the 1960s, the Occupy Wall Street debacle of a couple years ago, and the randomly violent black flash mobs that have been one of the Obama Administration’s signature achievements.

Last summer in Brazil saw widespread street disturbances among the emerging South American superpower’s lumpenproles. Such shenanigans picked up again during the Christmas season, when shopping malls became targets for mass displays of poor people’s public petulance.

“Maybe one man’s rudeness is another man’s revolution.”

A rolezinho in early December at São Paulo’s Itaquera shopping center attracted an estimated six thousand gleefully disruptive teens that culminated in a police crackdown. Although apologists meekly claim that these teens only seek acceptance and a place to sing, dance, flirt, and share communal joy without being hassled or oppressed or made to feel inferior due to their skin color, video footage from the December event reveals throngs of loud shirtless assholes loping around scratching their nuts and creating near-riot conditions that likely drove away anyone who’d innocently arrived at the mall seeking to buy things. Then again, maybe one man’s rudeness is another man’s revolution.

There have been an estimated dozen or so rolezinhos in Brazil since December. On January 4, a rowdy little stroll at Shopping Tucuruvi led to a mall shutdown. A week later, another rolezinho at Shopping Metrô Itaquera resulted in a crackdown involving rubber bullets, tear gas, and Brazil’s famously overeager police whomping partygoers with nightsticks.

This led to at least a half-dozen malls in São Paulo obtaining court orders to block such future events, allowing them to station police and security guards outside who could bar entry to unaccompanied minors. This naturally led to cries of racism, discrimination, and accusations that Brazil was an “apartheid” state. Just as America’s civil-rights movement shat upon the idea that business owners should have the freedom to refuse service to whomever they choose, it was deemed a crime against humanity that wealthy mall owners should refuse to open their glass doors to hordes of ghetto rats who may not possibly have the best of intentions.

A planned January 17 rolezinho at São Paulo’s super-chic Leblon shopping mall was expected to draw nearly 10,000 party-crashers, but mall owners nipped it in the bud by shutting the place down for the day. Similar preemptive shutdowns have occurred elsewhere. The nation has thus arrived at a temporary and unsustainable standoff—rather than call in the Shock Battalion to beat teenage intruders senseless and possibly set off large-scale social unrest, they will merely retreat and lock their gates…for now. But this can’t last. Sooner or later, something will have to give. Such is always the case when hordes of angry peasants seek acceptance on demand.

The whole thing is not without its contradictions. In the same way that American hip-hop decries capitalism and greed on one hand while it extols fat gold chains, hundred-dollar bills, and platinum wheel rims on the other, the rolezinho movement exults in the tackiest displays of conspicuous consumption. Its soundtrack is Funk Ostentação (“Ostentatious Funk”), a hip-hop hybrid that eschews gangsta rap’s criminality and measures social status according to how many designer labels you’re wearing rather than how many rivals’ corpses you piled up. It is music for poor people who pretend they’re rich, or who at least aren’t ashamed to admit they want to be rich. Thus, according to Marxist strictures, this would be a reactionary movement of the wannabe bourgeoisie. But just as with the hip-hop mindset, if they don’t score the Lamborghini and the dozen silicone-injected hos in bikinis, they can always blame a racist and oppressive capitalist system. It’s a tidy, self-contained loop that allows you to be an entrepreneur if you succeed and a socialist if you fail.

While Americans continue to slosh around in a lukewarm bubble bath of historical guilt, few probably realize that roughly ten times as many African slaves were transported to Brazil than to what is now the United States. They also likely aren’t aware that Brazil actually came close to having a slave system for the oft-quoted timespan of 400 years, whereas Americans abandoned the whole shebang after a comparatively piddling two centuries. For all its miscegenatin’ ways and its pretensions toward being a rainbow nation, Brazil remains saddled with staggering wealth inequality that skews strongly along racial lines.

I doubt anyone will ever be able to rectify wealth inequality until they can cure human inequality, which may be innate and therefore incurable.

Still, the egalitarian dreamers see something admirable in these mall-crashers. They see a group of marginalized victims who refuse to lock themselves down in the slums, who demand equal access to public spaces, equal respect in public discourse, and an equal shot at purchasing the designer watches that mesmerize them from behind glass cases. Others, not quite so idealistic, dismiss them as “barbarians incapable of recognizing their own inferiority, who are deathly jealous of civilization.”

Global poverty isn’t quite what it used to be. Even in Brazil’s notorious slums, kids now have enough access to iPads and smart phones via which they can organize to meet in full force where only rich people used to meet. But just as technology permits them to peer more deeply into how the other half lives, mechanization will also render most of these kids obsolete as far as their labor value goes. And they suffer no shortage of ideological enablers ready to fan their resentment.

This whole mess recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death—no matter how the nobles tried to keep the abbey doors welded shut, the fatal disease still managed to get in.

Robert Frost famously said that good fences make for good neighbors. Good gates and good security also make for good malls. If the so-called barbarians are permitted to crash these gates, it may lead to a more just and cooperative society. Or it may lead to smoldering ruins. The fatal flaw of all revolutionaries is that they know how to tear things down but don’t have a fucking clue about how to build anything.


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