(Unedited version of the article published by The Guardian here.)
The image spread around the world fast: the residents of the Pinheirinho favela, in São José dos Campos, state of São Paulo, donning helmets and shields and building barricades to await the enforcement of an eviction order. It undoubtedly played a large role in garnering interest in a case that is not, after all, too exceptional an occurrence in Brazil. Pinheirinho has been squatted for eight years, and no government effort (at the local, state or federal level) was ever made to regularise the area or develop an adequate infrastructure; home to some 1,600 families, roughly 6,000 people, the land belongs to a notorious financial market fraudster, finally arrested in 2008. Spurred by the property development boom that the country is currently going through, the local administration has recently taken an active stance in pursuing the eviction, aided and abetted by judges who seemed to wish to make that happen as quick as possible, despite the obvious dangers and the way in which that would expose an already vulnerable population.
The outcome, though gruesome, is sadly not too exceptional either. After that first image helped make a national issue out of the case, the federal government manifested the intention to intervene by buying up the land and developing it for the squatters. On those grounds, a federal judge stopped the eviction until further notice, only to be quickly overruled by another on, who declared it a state matter; the state judiciary then acted fast, planning the operation with the police before the favelados’ lawyers could react.
The story of what followed is still developing, but for the whole of Sunday, 22/01, social networks were buzzing with war-like scenes and tales of brutality, including a media ban and mobile phone block in the area, and the detention of a federal representative and a senator who attempted to intervene (they later clarified they were not detained, but trying to negotiate). As many as seven deaths, including a small baby’s, have been reported; hospitals in the region are yet to issue a statement on the matter.
It was mostly on Twitter and Facebook, in fact, that one could find information about what was going on. Throughout the day, the corporate media – with historical ties to the party in power at both state and local level, PSDB – reported the story in muted tones and with questionable choices of emphasis: there were headlines about a TV van set on fire, even while pictures emerging from the area showed many people’s houses in flames. Twitter in particular enabled access to individuals reporting on the spot, and #Pinheirinho registered as top trending topic for a couple of hours. (It was then taken off the list by Twitter, only to be brought back on in the face of an immediate reaction from users.)
This is revealing of a crucial phenomenon of the last yen years: whereas in places like Iran and Egypt social media has functioned as a tool against state control of information, in Brazil it has served to bypass a monolithic private media sector, which is under-regulated and highly concentrated – 90% is in the hands of fifteen families, many of which partners. As other means of producing and circulating information became more readily available and a so-called ‘progressive blogosphere’ developed, corporate media, which gave space for the most aggressive opposition to the Lula and Rousseff administrations, began to be more widely perceived as biased and moved by its own economic interests, losing credibility. Interestingly, there are studies that point to the fact that the role of opinion maker in families now tends to be played more by young people, precisely those with greater access to the internet.
The alternative blogs and outlets that sprouted in the last decade were vociferous in their condemnation of the São Paulo state government last Sunday, and rightly so. But one could not help but ask whether some of them could not also be accused of double standards of late.
To be clear, Pinheirinho stands out for the police’s ferociousness and the staggering callousness and authoritarianism demonstrated by the state judiciary and, above all, governor Geraldo Alckmin: it has since transpired that there was a deal according to which the federal administration would come up with a clear proposal concerning the situation in fifteen days if the state government did not pursue the eviction. That deal was reneged on – those who struck it on the federal side only heard about the police action when it was already on course –, and Alckmin continued a sad tradition of violence and intransigence against the poor and social movements. (A recent operation to clear an area where crack users congregated in central São Paulo was heavily criticised; and the city, of course, is also where the Carandiru massacre, in which police killed 111 prisoners in 1992, took place.) Besides, the haste with which the state judges acted suggests either ideological motivation or, more likely, very strong and precise financial interests behind the issue; it also transpires that the judge who followed the operation on site is the brother of another PSDB politician.
Yet the larger picture behind the story is that of the boom of Brazil’s economy today, in which construction and property play a growing role. It was accelerated by the choice of the country as seat of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics; and in many instances it is now PT itself that is in the role of enforcer. A dossier produced by the National Coordination of World Cup Committees estimates that some 170 thousand people around the country will be evicted owing to the sporting event (official numbers have never been announced). This ultimately means state-enforced states of exception that hand public areas, or those occupied by the poor, over to private developers, while residents are removed to farther places with deficient infrastructure, and taxpayers bankroll the whole process. Perhaps the worst case so far has been Rio, where PT, in an alliance with a centre-right party, is in charge of the local authority’s housing department; evictions there have been as authoritarian and unilateral as that of Pinheirinho, if not as spectacularly militarised. By comparison, voices on the left have been much slower in denouncing this.
Beyond the World Cup, however, this can be described as the political impasse of the gargantuan developmentalism that characterises the government of Dilma Rousseff: an emphasis on economic growth and quantitative indicators in detriment of old PT rallying points (participation, environment, wealth redistribution); and a gigantism that reinforces the logic of privatisation of profits and socialisation of costs – bringing the government, even as it mobilises old anti-imperialist tropes, closer to big mining, agribusiness and construction interests, and farther from old allies like the MST.
While attacking PSDB’s lack of social sensitivity comes naturally, many on the left have found it hard to articulate a critique of the same processes when they are not carried out by the right. There are stirrings that suggest this may be changing, such as recent protests and campaigns against Petrobrás (state oil company) and Vale do Rio Doce (mining), the building of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, as well as about the World Cup. They are small signs, so far still somewhat isolated, but might be the start of something. If so, Pinheirinho and the image that first drew attention to it, as shown by a series of demonstrations across the country in the last 72 hours, will no doubt prove itself to be a lesson, an indictment and an inspiration.