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Brazil’s Latest Clash With Its Urban Youth Takes Place at the Mall

24/01/2014

By SIMON ROMERO | The New York Times

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The images have already been so jolting to Brazil’s elites that President Dilma Rousseff has convened a meeting of top aides to form a response and business owners have obtained injunctions to shut them down: thousands of teenagers, largely from the gritty urban periphery and organizing on social media, going on raucous excursions through shopping malls.

Called rolezinhos (little strolls) in the slang of São Paulo’s streets, the rowdy gatherings may be going beyond mere flash mobs to touch on issues of public space and entitlement in a society in which living standards for the poor have improved and social classes are in flux.

“Why don’t they want us to go inside malls?” asked Plinio Diniz, 17, a high school student who attended a rolezinho this month in Shopping Metrô Itaquera, a mall here where police officers used tear gas and rubber bulletsto disperse the estimated crowd of 3,000. “We have the right to have fun, but the police went too far.”

Unnerved by the street protests that shook cities across the country last year, the authorities are carefully trying to evaluate ways to react to the gatherings, which began heightening in size and intensity in December. All too aware that the street protests mushroomed after the harsh police response, officials in Brasília, the capital, are warning against using force to dislodge teenagers from the malls.

“I don’t think repression is the best way forward, because everything done along that line is like throwing gasoline into the fire,” Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to Ms. Rousseff, told reporters.

Fears of, say, vandalism and shoplifting notwithstanding, the police have reported only a few arrests associated with the rolezinhos. Still, police forces overseen by state governors seem in no mood for accommodation, and operators of some high-end malls have obtained court orders allowing their security personnel to bar participants.

Since the rolezinhos involve large numbers of dark-skinned teenagers, those moves have raised accusations of racial profiling as well as the nagging question of why shopping centers are such coveted sites of social interaction in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities where parks remain few and far between. “Kids from the lower classes have been segregated from public spaces, and now they’re challenging the unwritten rules,” said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of São Paulo.

Placing the rolezinhos into the context of economic shifts percolating throughout Brazilian society, Mr. Ortellado pointed out that rising living standards for the poor over the last decade had already jolted the country’s upper classes. One example is airports being frequented by travelers who are flying for the first time.

“Now the presence of these teenagers in malls is shocking to some because it’s being done in an organized way, instead of being diffuse,” he said.

Rolezinhos are generally organized on Facebook, with nearly 20 planned in Brazilian cities in the weeks ahead, and often involve running up and down escalators and a good deal of shouting, flirting and singing of Brazilian funk songs. For many participants, although they may come from relatively poor urban areas, the events are also opportunities to show off costly brand-name clothing.

In a widely distributed essay on the rolezinhos, Leandro Beguoci, the editor in chief of F451 Digital, a new media start-up, cautioned against attributing an overtly politicized character to the gatherings, pointing out that the biggest events were convened not in upscale areas but in relatively new malls in less prosperous parts of São Paulo.

“These are the children of the C class, for whom consumerism is glorious,” said Mr. Beguoci, 31, referring to Brazil’s expanding middle class. “The sounds they’re mainly listening to aren’t anti-establishment rap but ostentation funk,” the musical style in which performers wear thick gold necklaces, guzzle Champagne and drive Lamborghinis in their videos.

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