When political parties refuse to prevent the deaths of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, homeless families in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil take matters into their own hands. Occupations of empty government and private buildings are springing up across the city.
Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888, and when it ended, newly-freed slaves were cast to the streets to fend for themselves with no resources or property. Thus began the precarious situation of Afro-Brasileros post-slavery. Current manifestations of this infamous legacy are the favelas – prevalent in all major Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Sao Paolo, where favelas are concentrated on the periphery of the city, Rio has favelas spread out all over, often right next to the richest of neighborhoods. The favelas receive almost no government assistance and any resources they have are "appropriated" from outside the favela. Streets are unpaved, sewer infrastructure doesn’t exist and electricity and water are often stolen from more affluent adjacent barrios.
Brazilians who were able to pay the rent for apartments in the city are now finding themselves priced out of the market as traditional working-class neighborhoods are being quickly gentrified. The minimum wage in Brazil is 380 reales a month (US $204) when the cheapest apartments in the city have rents of 500 reales (US $269). These conditions have led to an epidemic of homelessness amongst Rio’s poor. Only a few blocks away from places where tourists party in the clubs and are entertained by samba bands on the beach, homeless families can be found sleeping on the streets and participating in the informal economy by eking out a living as street vendors, if they are lucky. The current president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), of the poorly-named Worker’s Party, has provided little if any resources to families forced onto the streets.
Faced with a situation where even professed left-wing political parties refuse to take the measures necessary to prevent the deaths of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, homeless families in Rio de Janeiro have taken matters into their own hands. Across the city, occupations by families of empty government and private buildings have sprung up. The occupations are very diverse in nature – some are organized out of pure necessity without any kind of political agenda. Others are carefully planned out by the different movements operating in Brazil or are set up as temporary political stunts.
I had the chance to visit five different building occupations in Rio and one social/cultural center. I witnessed the unique challenges and characteristics of each space, which are outlined here in this article. When names are used, they have been changed to protect the identities of the participants in the movements.
Ideology and tactics of the movements
The autonomous movements of Rio de Janeiro that I was able to get to know first-hand shared an ideology of resistance to displacement and neoliberal economic policies.
Lula was elected to his first term as the president of Brazil in 2000 with great fanfare and much hope among the poor of Brazil. The people on the left that I have met in Brazil universally regard his presidency as a complete failure. He originally ran on a campaign of anti-corruption only to have his appointed cabinet members exposed in the Brazilian media for buying the votes of politicians in congress. His anti-hunger program and favela redevelopment program, two of his most prominent campaign promises, have amounted to almost nothing. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers’ Movement,), Latin America’s largest social movement with an estimated 1.5 million members, was once one of Lula’s major backers but has pulled out of his coalition in disillusionment. Based on this history and on political principles, movements in Rio de Janeiro have made a conscious decision to operate outside of the structure of patronage of the political parties.
Brazil has a rather impressive recent history of autonomous social movements employing large-scale direct actions. The MST was founded in 1984 during the dying days of Brazil’s dictatorship, a time when rural families were being driven off their farms, concentrating land even further into the hands of a few. Currently, only 3% of the Brazilian population owns 2/3 of all arable land.
The MST organizes occupations by landless families of uncultivated government and private land. According to the MST’s own accounts, as of 2003, 350,000 families had gained their own land through the use of direct action and 80,000 families were waiting for government recognition. The occupations are also a tactic to pressure the government to institute land reforms.
In the late 1990s, the MST, recognizing that the majority of Brazil’s poor live in urban areas, began internal deliberations about how to incorporate this demographic into their movement. After extensive consultations, it was determined that shelter and work were the two most pressing issues for the urban poor. Based on this assessment, a decision was made to form the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Movement of Workers without Shelter, MTST), an urban extension of the MST.
Since 1997, the MTST has organized urban occupations by homeless families of buildings and land. Some MTST occupations have resulted in permanent housing for families while others have forced the government to build public housing. Today, the MTST is autonomous from the MST, although they do have a strategic alliance and share very similar politics and organizing methods. Other homeless occupation movements in Rio de Janeiro use tactics inspired by the MST and MTST but do not have the same historical ties.
The interests of economic elites and political parties are far too strong to let mere laws get in the way of police eviction of homeless occupations. When laws are not enough to prevent the deaths of homeless families on the streets of Rio, people are pushed into a situation where the political system provides no other option but the utilization of direct action to save lives.
Taking care of basic needs
Perhaps in contrast to styles of organizing prevalent in autonomous movements in the United States, demands of participants in the homeless movements in Rio do not prominently include more abstract principles such as anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism or the union of the two anti’s, anti-neoliberalism (although movement militants are very well-versed on the subjects). The occupations are about survival and the demands are such – housing and jobs: you can’t hold a steady job if you don’t have a steady place to sleep at night.
Through participation in the homeless occupations, politics develop organically. For many people, it’s the first time in their lives that they participate in regular asambleas – meetings where collective decisions about the operation of the occupations are made and pressing issues are discussed. Basic needs are taken care of by direct action and people are attracted to participate more actively in the movements based on their experiences.
Ocupação Carlos Marighella: MTST
The first occupation that I visited was the most tightly-organized and also the most top-down in its decision-making structure. The MTST’s Carlos Marighella occupation, named in traditional Brazilian fashion after a historical revolutionary, a guerilla who was executed by the forces of the dictatorship, is located very close to the tourist areas in Rio and had a constant stream of curious visitors from across Brazil and the rest of the world.
The occupation is home to 50 families and had only been in existence for a week when I had the chance to tour the building. Despite its newness, police harassment had already occurred several times. One police officer entered the building with his gun drawn, threatening the inhabitants with violence and worse if they failed to comply with police orders. On another occasion, the police set up a barricade in front of the building in an attempt to intimidate the occupiers.
One reason for the harassment was a lack of a court injunction against the entrance of the police, a tactic provided for by law and issued by the scarce sympathetic judges in Rio. The MTST has not been able to attract lawyers willing to take their case because of fear of blacklisting. Without the injunction, forced removal of the homeless families by the police is almost inevitable.
Despite the police harassment, the occupying families seemed to be in good spirits. Asambleas are held twice a day (other ocupaçãos that I visited met once a week) and people had divided up into different committees. Responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, security and day care are rotated. The occupation is home to two MTST militants, volunteers with years in the social movements of Brazil. Both chain-smoked as they proudly explained each aspect of the occupation to me, multi-tasking and running around the whole time.
The MTST, the best-funded and best-connected of the homeless occupation movements, is currently trying to organize a coalition of all of the occupations of all of the movements in Rio de Janeiro. This is running up against some opposition because other movements are distrustful of the MTST’s politics and view the coalition outreach as an attempt to appropriate their movements. Some people in the other movements were in favor of working in alliance with the MTST and MST while others tried to distance themselves. Almost all, however, were hesitant to completely rule out collaboration with a movement connected to Brazil’s most successful autonomous social movement (the MST), regardless of differences in ideology.
Ocupação Alipio de Freitas: Frente Internacionalista dos Sem-Teto / Internationalist Front of those Without Shelter
During a visit to the Alipio de Freitas occupation, one of the lawyers who works with the occupiers pulled me aside and pointed out the large, gothic building across the street. He told me that it had been the main center for Rio’s secret police during the dictatorship. He also shared with me his story of being tortured and imprisoned in the building, including solitary confinement for 15 days.
The namesake of the Alipio de Freitas occupation is a Brazilian revolutionary who was also imprisoned and tortured in the building. It is one of 11 occupations that are part of the Internationalist Front of those Without Shelter (FIST), a coalition of the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ, Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro) and the Comunistas sem Partido (Communists with no Party). It is located a few blocks from the MTST occupation.
The occupation, in existence for several months now, is home to 22 families. I was able to attend one asamblea, see the occupation and talk with different occupants on a few occasions. Characteristic of the occupations, women were the majority of the participants in the asamblea (families of single women with children are the most-likely to be homeless in Brazil). One unique aspect of this occupation was the active involvement of several young women, some with children and others without. The two that I was able to speak with at length had a very impressive theoretical grounding for their politics.
Isabel, a 15-year old, facilitated the asamblea that I attended, and was not hesitant to tell 60-year old revolutionaries to shut the hell up and let other people speak. She expressed to me her hope to get a scholarship to attend a university and become a doctor, extraordinary considering that most of the young people in the occupations that I visited had stopped attending school several years ago. She was also very interested in starting a website for her occupation that would disseminate their story and demands to the world. Another resident of the occupation is Marina, an Argentinean from the Comunistas sem Partido, who works as a street drink vendor by day and a militant by night.
Ocupação Confederação dos Tamoios: FIST
The Confederação dos Tamoios occupation, named after a radical historical indigenous movement native to Rio de Janeiro, is also part of the FIST. It is located a world away from the other occupations in the richest neighborhood of Rio, Cosme Velho.
The occupation is located in a colonial mansion complex, complete with several houses, a chapel and a swimming pool. The house was owned by a church that allowed it to sit empty for years. When families started to occupy the property, they began to repair roofs that had caved in and the electrical system of the house. After several years, it is hard to tell that several rooms at one point had no roof. The contrast with the adjacent house, owned by the same owner but with no injunction supporting an occupation, is astounding. The FIST occupation is clean with roof eaves intact and sealed off ceilings. The other house is in a complete state of disrepair. The participants in the movement use this occupation as a main counter-example to the claims by the Brazilian press that occupiers are destroying the properties.
I was invited to a party at the Confederação dos Tamoios occupation that hosted members of several different homeless occupations in the FIST coalition. We had a short meeting during the party that was remarkable in that it included a Presbyterian activist who leads ecumenical services with the occupiers, anarchist organizers, Communist Party members, and an immigrant electrical engineer from Cameroon who had recently moved into the house. With all of their differences, somehow everyone was able to agree on enough common objectives to be able to work together on the same project.
Ocupação Centro Social de Cultura Lima Barreto: FIST
The Centro Social de Cultura Lima Barreto occupation (CSC, Social Center of Culture), named after an anarchist mulatto author who wrote around the turn of the century, is also part of the FIST and has also been in existence for several years now. What distinguishes this occupation is that it was founded and is maintained by artists and is a space for all kinds of cultural activities and classes. When I visited the occupation, however, it was serving a much different role.
On Saturday July 7th, 2007, at 7 am in the morning, the police arrived at the building of an occupation of 30 families, all of them street vendors. This was an occupation organized out of pure necessity with the only ideology being survival and unfortunately did not enjoy the resources (albeit meager) that the occupations of the autonomous movements possess such as radical lawyers that can obtain injunctions against the intervention of the police. One of the lawyers shared with me his outrage over the fact that it was the first time a forced removal had occurred on a Saturday, an explicit violation of Brazilian law.
Like the slaves in 1888, the dispossessed families were thrown onto the streets with nowhere to go. The artists of the CSC made the admirable decision to temporarily host the 30 families in a space with no running water that normally holds 8 people. I arrived on the first day that the families had been living in the space and was able to attend their first asamblea.
During the meeting, members of the FIST presented a proposal to the homeless street vendors to join their coalition. They committed to finding a building for the families and to move immediately on getting a legal injunction against forced removal. The families, assuredly traumatized by their experience, were in somewhat of a daze and, probably for most, in their first meeting of a political nature. They reacted somewhat lukewarmly at first to the FIST proposal, but by the second asamblea were pretty much at consensus to become part of the FIST.
Before the second meeting started, one of the artists from the CSC performed a political spoken word piece that got the families laughing and clapping and set the mood for the asamblea that followed. It turned out to be was a much better method of attracting peoples’ attention than the more common ideological soapbox speeches that I saw utilized.
Centro de Cultura Social: FARJ
The FARJ has the legal title for the Centro de Cultura Social (CCS, Center of Social Culture), so it is not an occupation, but I am including it here because I feel that the activities they are organizing out of the space are very interesting.
The CCS is located at the foot of a hill where a favela is located. It has been around for a few years now and has several volunteers that lend their time to keep the space running. The second floor contains an anarchist library and a free school. The ground floor has a large open-air ballroom-style area that was used to host a community festival on one of the days that I visited the CCS. At the event, people from the favela celebrated traditional Brazilian culture. Food from the region was served and young people from the neighborhood performed dances that they had rehearsed ahead of time.
The CCS is another example of a project by the autonomous social movements in Rio that is meeting people where they are at, instead of imposing an agenda. The idea behind the activities of the CCS, as one member explained, is that once relationships of trust are established with members of the community, conversations about ideology will arise organically.
Dynamics of Rio’s movements
One aspect that struck me about the movements in Rio de Janeiro is the amount of intergenerational organizing. People who had been involved in autonomous movements since the 40s, who had organized against the dictatorship, are working side-by-side with student organizers. There seemed to be a relationship similar to apprenticeship between the participants from different generations in the movements. The older organizers allowed space for younger people to take active roles and there were animated debates between all involved over questions of strategy and tactics. The younger members of the movements looked to the veterans for guidance when certain situations arose.
Another already mentioned characteristic of Rio’s movements is the prominent role played by women, particularly young single mothers of color. Although I saw men in the occupations that seemed to be unhappy with this situation, they were powerless to change the power dynamics considering the fact that the women were doing the bulk of the work.
The meetings that I was able to observe were very different in style from those that I am accustomed to in the US. As mentioned before, for most this is their first time participating in an organized movement. Meetings were chaotic with facilitators struggling to take stack and people reluctant to wait their turn to speak. Unlike many autonomous movements in the States, decisions are made using a majoritarian vote instead of consensus. When I talked to some of the participants about this choice, they told me that they use votes because of peoples’ inexperience with meetings and because decisions often need to be made quickly – making consensus an impractical option.
Next steps for the movements
The autonomous homeless movements in Rio de Janeiro are an example to the rest of the world that a combination of direct action and the satisfaction of basic needs can provide the conditions necessary for the construction of a sustainable grassroots movement. Although the homeless movements in Rio are still young, they have accomplished a great deal up to this point and are rapidly growing.
One factor that will affect the growth and success of the movements, as explained to me by a member of FARJ, is the number of militants. Right now, the FIST is practically at capacity in terms of their ability to sustain occupations. An increase in occupations will require an increase in committed organizers and although this is happening in an organic manner in the occupations, it is a slow process. The patience and discipline to see this process through is something that autonomous movements in other parts of the world often lack.
When talking about next steps, something touched upon previously is the fact that the occupations in Rio de Janeiro are not an end in themselves but rather a tactic that allows people to move closer to the goal of a society free of exploitation. Another way to work towards that goal is to find ways to provide for other basic needs such as work. In the Alipio de Freitas occupation, occupants spoke to me about their desire to use the occupation as a base and as a physical space to organize an economic cooperative. The movements currently lack the resources to simultaneously work on forming cooperatives out of all of the occupations. Many participants, however, stressed to me the importance of this kind of holistic organizing for realizing comprehensive, radical social change.
Rio’s autonomous homeless movements are locally-based and are not threatening capitalism on a global level. What they are doing, however, is providing an example of the organization of direct action around basic needs on a scale that is perhaps unique in Latin America’s urban cores. Witnessing these movements in action first-hand certainly inspired me to try to implement some of the tactics used in Rio de Janeiro in our own movements in our own communities.
The Frente Internacionalista dos Sem-Teto (Internationalist Front of those Without Shelter) is currently seeking resources to start cooperatives in some of the homeless occupations. One woman in one of the occupations shared with me her hope to one day start a pizza cooperative in their building. The occupations at the moment lack the funds to make projects like this possible. If you would like to act in solidarity with one of Rio’s autonomous homeless movements by sending funds, you can do so to the following bank account:
Banco Caixa Econômica
Checking Account: 575
More pictures of Rio’s occupations
Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto
Prestes Maia occupation
Prestes Maia 911 was an organized homeless occupation in a 22-story building in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It was the largest in Latin America but was recently evicted in June 2007. At one point, over 400 families lived there.
Indymedia Brazil (english)
This article was also orginally published on insurreción.
Kyle can be reached at kyleweinberg (at) gmail (d0t) com.