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An Interview With Theresa Williamson

Why Rio Has Turned Against the Olympics and the World Cup

by MICHAEL VOLPE

Four years ago, one reason that Rio de Janeiro was chosen over Chicago and Tokyo to host the 2016 Olympics was because public opinion in Rio de Janeiro at the time was nearly 100 percent to zero in favor of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. In Chicago and Tokyo public opinion had turned upside down, meaning that more people in each of their cities opposed rather than favored hosting Olympic Games, according to local public opinion polls taken at the time.

Four years later, public opinion polls in Rio de Janeiro measuring citizens favorability toward hosting the Olympics now look a lot like they did in Chicago and Tokyo in 2009, according to Theresa Williamson, a community activist from Rio de Janeiro who was first featured on Counter Punch December 2011.

Williamson runs Catalytic Communities, a community organization in Rio de Janeiro. Hers was the first organization to point out that tens of thousands of residents of working class neighborhoods called favelas were being forcibly displaced from their homes and moved into apartments and condominiums in neighborhoods they have no roots so that stadiums could be built which will host all of the plethora of sporting events coming from the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

“The change has been incredible, almost a total flip. Because of the extreme levels of spending on both the Olympics and World Cup, we see people highly critical and suspicious of the impacts these events are generating. Brazilian culture has for many years been associated with a certain level of acceptance and low levels of public indignation, all of which has been turned on its head given the combination of extreme public spending on mega-events, low-quality public services, high need, a growing middle class, increased access to information, consolidation of our democracy and, perhaps most significant, the widespread use of social media. Even the World Cup, intensively loved by Brazilians, has begun to generate a sour taste in people’s mouths.”

These issues and more bubbled to the surface during a series of rallies that culminated in rallies estimated to number 300,000 on June 20, 2013, on streets all over Brazil, but especially in Rio de Janeiro itself. After what Williamson described as “ (a) tiny group of demonstrators out to cause trouble, throwing rocks at police, destroying and vandalizing public property and setting fires in the street,” in protests in Rio de Janeiro the military police responded in kind until eventually Martial law was effectively employed by the military police against the protesters. This led to a series of abuses such as the blockade by military police of 400 protesters who took refuge in Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences (IFCS). For hours, the protesters were unable to leave as military police surrounded the university building. Here’s part of a local story from the station R7 describing the frightening events.

“About 400 protesters sought refuge in the building of the IFCS (Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), in an attempt to escape the conflict between police and those responsible for the riot. The student was one of Kenzo Soares stranded in the building and told R7 details of the episode.

“‘The police were acting with great brutality and decided to come here. Military police came to the grid, there was a negotiation with our group and they were gone. But we prefer to stay here because the city is in chaos.’”

In another incident, police fired tear gas inside a hospital. Here’s part of a local story from the local station UOL.

“The police even tried to enter the health unit to stop protesters who took refuge on the premises but were prevented by the activists themselves. ‘It’s desperation to work in here today,’ said a doctor who declined to be identified.

“Men in riot gear and military police fired rubber bullets and threw tear gas canisters against the Hospital Municipal Souza Aguiar in the center of Rio de Janeiro, where there are rescued at least 62 injured in clashes with military police during a protest against high prices in bus fares late on Thursday (June 20).”

This round of protests began in earnest in the beginning of June, 2013. Initially, protests formed over the opposition to a transportation fare hike. Those initial protests morphed into protests of all sorts of issues which had previously been pent up including: high taxes, poor services and high World Cup and Olympics spending.  By June 20, the protests had evolved again and were generally coalesced around the issue of rampant government corruption.

Chronic political corruption has been a problem in Brazil for decades, and even as Brazil was building massive new stadiums needed for the two mega-events, this chronic problem was not being addressed, the protesters believed.

Theresa Williamson described the environment that set the stage for protests.

“Broadly speaking, protesters in Rio, as in much of Brazil, are generally fed up with the misspending of public resources and corruption. Despite high taxes and public spending, public services are of low quality. Reform is being sought of the political system, the police, transportation, education and health. Despite improvements over the past decade, Brazil’s extreme income inequality persists and in some places, like Rio, there are signs it’s getting worse. This is also a root cause of the protests.

“In Rio, one could argue cariocas (Rio natives) have the most to be upset about, given both mega-events will be happening here and the level of investment for these is astronomical. Brazil-wide, US$13 billion is being spent on the World Cup (more than the past three Cups combined). In Rio alone, US$27 billion is being spent on the Olympics.”

In Rio de Janeiro, the Olympics have worked out as a great example of the 1% versus the 99%. In that, the owner of the hottest restaurant, night club, and bar in Rio de Janeiro sees nothing but benefits from the two mega-events, whereas individuals living in the working class neighborhoods known as favelas have seen nothing but misery.

In December 2011, CounterPunch was one of the first media in the world to talk about the brutal way in which people were being displaced, often forcibly, from their homes in favelas and moved into condominiums and apartments because their favela neighborhoods were being razed so that stadiums could be built for the upcoming mega events. Williamson said that this sort of behavior continues by the Brazilian government nearly unencumbered today.

“Illegal evictions without good reason or just compensation continue in Rio de Janeiro, as do the intimidation tactics being used to facilitate this process. The Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics, a network of activists and researchers across Brazil, has recently issued a Dossier where it lists communities threatened with evictions and those that have already been evicted. There are some 11,000 families documented as going through this process (30-40,000 residents) across the city, but this is a low estimate, given these are evictions that the Popular Committee was able to confirm.

“That is, this does not include the thousands that have been evicted from communities along the path of construction projects that did not make contact with human rights organizers or public defenders because they did not know their rights or thought they would be harmed if they attempted resistance. Officially, we know of 3000 families that have already been evicted. And this does not include gentrification which is increasingly widely affecting favelas as well.”

One problem is that the current media paradigm makes it difficult for the true stories inside the favelas to reach the rest of the population in Brazil as well as the world.

The world is largely familiar with favelas through the 2002 Brazilian movie, City of God. That movie followed the activities of Rocket, a teenage boy who wants to be a photographer, as he navigates his drug, crime, and violence infested favela. City of God placed seventh in the very prestigious 2010 poll from Empire Magazine of The 100 Best Films of World Cinema. The film has played an integral role in shaping an image in the mind of the world’s public of favelas as violent, chaotic, and full of gangsters and drug dealers. With that image so seared the public consciousness of the world, it’s hard for those outside Brazil to have an empathy with the plight of those in favelas who claim to be displaced.

While favelas are often referred to as slums and shanty towns in stories in the mainstream media that is far from the truth, said Williamson. She described favelas as generally rather as a self-sufficient working class neighborhood, with a small minority similar to the one in City of God.

Meanwhile, Williamson explains, the chaotic nature of the local Brazilian media means that the wealthy in Brazil are also not exposed to the correct picture of what’s occurring in these working class neighborhoods.

“There is a lack of local media coverage of favela evictions in Rio de Janeiro and when they are covered, community voices and public defenders are never cited. Given the widespread international attention brought to this issue in recent years, this speaks for itself. Rio’s media is monopolized by Globo, Latin America’s largest mass media group with the second largest commercial TV network in annual revenue worldwide. Rio’s elite mainly read O Globo, the group’s newspaper funded largely by real estate and construction interests–the same minority interests benefiting from current development trends in Rio. So unfortunately, the wealthy in Brazil who have heard of the evictions taking place have generally not had access to accurate information about the illegal and arbitrary nature of such evictions and are largely sympathetic to the approach of the city administration, buying into the Mayor’s insistence that all is being done according to law, that favelas are only being removed because they are at physical risk or highly precarious, and that favelas are not being removed for the mega-events but rather for “necessary transportation improvements.”

Despite these obstacles, the people are rising up using all the tools of social media, said Williamson.

“Yet thanks to the protests the game has changed. Rio’s largest protest thus far, of June 20th, brought out over 300,000 citizens, or one in twenty cariocas (Rio natives). The vast majority were corralled into the city center and fired at as the Metro was shut down, street lights turned off, and the police began a major operation directed towards them on that night. They returned to their phones and computers and shared their horrific experiences on Facebook and Twitter, which were copied and shared across the Web.

“The mainstream media did a horrible job at investigating the operation. But the broader society became aware. Given the numbers, every carioca knows someone who participated in that historic protest—and the brutal tactics of the police are being much more widely discussed, as is the injustice that these practices are used against innocents in favelas every single day. Since that night the banner ‘The police that represses on the streets is the same that kills in the favela’ has become increasingly visible at protests. And protesters at some demonstrations have attempted creatively to show solidarity with individual officers, recognizing the humanity of individuals as compared with the institution.”

In fact, the protests have already led to tangible change. Specifically, protesters were opposed to PEC 37, a proposed law that was making its way through the Brazilian legislature that would have stripped federal prosecutors of the power to prosecute federal corruption cases. It was seen as an attempt by politicians to make rooting out corruption more difficult.  That bill was recently defeated  403-9 in the lower house of the Brazilian legislature.

The President’s office also announced a transportation project worth about $23 billion, and the president’s office issued a statement saying it would focus on the five areas of reform that protesters had identified: fiscal responsibility and controlling inflation, political reform, health care, public transport and education.

Williamson said that a number of factors have come together to form the proverbial perfect storm, where change in Brazil is not only possible but inevitable.

“The process of change has begun and become inevitable. Brazil is now the country to watch. Because of the set of conditions particular to Brazil–the combination of a consolidated democracy, rampant corruption, widespread exclusion and hyper-social (and now networked) culture–means the ingredients are in place for widespread change. Add to that recipe the spotlight provided by the upcoming mega-events, the leverage created by the need officials have to successfully pull off these events, and the fact it is a largely urban (85% of Brazilians live in cities) country basing much of its development on attracting international investment, and you can expect significant impacts generated by continued pressure from the bases.”

Michael Volpe is the author of The Definitive Dossier of PTSD in Whistleblowers