In Wealthy Brazil Shopping Malls, Fear of the Barbarian Hordes

They are a flash mobs of the poor, spontaneous and musical get-togethers, seemingly harmless to an outsider’s eye, but horrifying for the well-heeled shoppers of Sao Paulo’s finer malls: a sudden irruption of dozens or hundreds of teenagers, poor and mostly black, into places where they don’t ‘belong.’ The rolezinho, meaning a little walk or stroll, appeared for the first time in December, and has been spreading throughout Rio and the rest of Brazil.

“They should keep thieves like that out of places like this.”

This sentence- recorded by the omnipresent journalist Laura Capirglione for the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo – was pronounced by an outraged shopper at the Internacional de Guarulhos mall, when hundreds of lower-class youngsters came in. Through social media, they had arranged to meet at the mall for an afternoon of fun on Dec. 14.

In the first place, I suggest we need to forbid people who say things like this from walking around in public. They might bite somebody.

Given that nothing was stolen during this outing, why were 23 of these teenagers arrested by police? Was it the color of their skin? The way they dressed? The fact that they had no proof of income? Their taste in music? If a flash-mob robbery was in progress, as some witnesses state, why were no thefts reported by the mall’s administration?

You don’t need a sociology degree to see that the kids go off to these rolezinhos for the plain and simple purpose of having a good time together. And that by doing it, even when their presence causes chaos and confusion, they are publicly reaffirming their existence. It is as if they were all screaming together at the top of their lungs, “I exist, damn it!” The majority of the youth of the lower class suburbs of Brazil, black and poor, live and die daily without state or society even pretending to care about their existence.

Shopping malls are a kind of virtual reality for the people of Sao Paulo. When my friends from Alphaville [a condominium complex for Sao Paulo’s wealthiest]criticize the gated communities where they grew up, they call places like these bubbles: pleasant, sterilized environments free of the poverty, pain and ugliness of the outside world, temperature controlled and perfectly lit to promote the one thing we do best: shopping.

Those who live outside of Sao Paulo might not understand the overwhelming passion that we Paulistanos, particularly those of the middle class, have for our shopping malls. Countless articles have been written about the people who simply cannot live without them-not because they make their living at the mall, but because they choose the mall’s lights and its windows, its movie theaters, restaurants and gyms as the setting for their existence. Whether you like them or not, malls have become a necessary escape from the fast-paced rhythm of our lives.

And finally there is the (false) sense of security that malls convey. Malls offer a guarantee that nothing will happen to you once you are inside, which is a lie. Electric fences lie when they claim to protect the house; armored cars lie about the protection of the family inside, and a gun in the home lies when it promises to fend off all risks.

But we forget that no one lives indoors all of the time, that everyone at some point or another must leave their car, that a gun can change hands as quickly as the entrance gate closes behind a car at the mall parking lot or an automatic door can shut. To put it differently, these are all false feelings of security, because it is not fences, steel plates, or guns that guarantee the safety of the people of a metropolis like Sao Paulo. They all have a kind of placebo effect: you keep fooling yourself until one day, the bubble bursts.

And so when hundreds of intruders invade this virtual reality, yearning to join it, the original users of this reality suddenly feel unplugged from it, and they panic. The barbarian horde does not understand: many of the people who hide inside these malls are actually hiding from them.

Sao Paulo has a population of more than 11 million people, but only a few of those are citizens in the full sense of the word, meaning they have access to every right granted to them by law.

In this sense it resembles the ancient city of Athens, with its agora for the enlightened few, while for the vast bulk of society, composed mainly of slaves, there was the hard life of work. While a few of us in Sao Paulo can enjoy a ‘pretty safe’ little life inside the grand malls, restaurants and nightclubs, and our gated communities, the rest battle for survival, and for the right to be recognized as people. If we were to let a slave wander about in the agora, there would be terrible consequences for both ourselves and the slave.

To make matters worse, there are we, the journalists: proliferating the panic and terror when our articles segregate the ‘violent classes’ from the ‘model citizens.’ Don’t my colleagues see what they are doing? The fear propagated by the media, filled with inflamed rhetoric, serves for nothing but building bigger audiences.

In Brazil, you can generally live your whole life inside the bubble if you wish. I have many friends who have traveled to Europe and the United States, but whose first visit to Itaquera [site of a new government soccer stadium]will be during the 2014 World Cup.

This absence of a culture of understanding the other breeds fear and strengthens the wicked side of people’s souls. In a Brazil where the majority are the ‘poor things who just don’t know how to behave in certain situations,’ this complicates life.

As I have said before, the products that we consume amount to lifestyles. They are the life that we have. Or the life that we wish we had. Or the life we should have – not necessarily in our own opinion, but according to an imposed definition of what is a good life and what is not. More often than not, this construction comes from the top down. The pursuit of happiness is ever more linked to the act of buying, and satisfaction is only available if you haven’t yet maxed out your credit cards.

We work so much nowadays that we forget how to sincerely show affection, or we simply do not have time for it. In order to compensate for our silence or our absence, we have become shoppers, who display the symbols of that which we are not able to transmit through our own experience.

The “low class with purchasing power and very little dignity”, in other words, “the new middle class” is reaching for social inclusion through the consumption of goods. Once they have the right pair of sneakers, a trendy hat, an Iphone, people are not seen as complete ignorants or outcasts anymore. It would obviously have been better if their social inclusion had happened via education, healthcare, culture and leisure of good quality, and the positive consequences generated by all of that.

To make matters worse, we are making it very clear to our younger generations that they will not be valued for who they are, but for what they have. For their desires. For what they flaunt.

Shopping malls offer an easy path to make all of that possible. They are not the culprit here, but part of the process. Meanwhile, cattle-like, we plod along, cattle-like we buy, never questioning what any of this means or how our shopping impacts the city, beyond an increase in traffic jams and a hard time finding parking.

As jurist and blogger Rodrigo Salgado says, “these ghastly boxes, whose sole focus is consumption, have become the only places with the minimum of infrastructure hold large gatherings of people. And the symbolism behind that is frightening: in Sao Paulo (and in many other places like it) the only public space available to hold the population is actually private, and focuses on the consumption of goods.”

Myself, I hope that these kids keep disrupting the lives of the “model citizens” with their peaceful rolezinhos. Who knows? Maybe one day the bubble will burst.

Leonardo Sakamoto