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Rolling with the rolezinhos of Sao Paulo

Thousands of poor young people are descending for 'little walks' on Brazil's high-end shopping malls.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2014 10:32
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Bored teenagers are using social media networks to engineer massive shopping mall meet-ups [Getty Images]

Sao Paulo, Brazil - Bored teenagers are not a new phenomenon. In Brazil, however, using social networks to engineer massive shopping mall meet-ups of thousands of young people certainly is.

Since 6,000 Facebook-ers descended on Sao Paulo's shopping mall Itaquera for a rolezinho - or "little walk" - in December, young people with their uniform of coloured braces, designer sunglasses, baseball caps along with a loud demeanor have captured the country's attention.

Talk-shows, magazines and newspapers have all interviewed rolezinhos organisers, making young men such as Evandro Farias quasi-celebrities.

"In Sao Paulo, amongst the kids, there are famous Facebook-ers. The rolezinhos started when these kids organised events in malls so they could meet their followers. In Shopping Itaquera, 80,000 were invited, 6,000 turned up. I was there and people were asking for my photo and wanting to say hi to me. That's when I knew how big this thing was," he told Al Jazeera.

In Shopping Itaquera, 80,000 were invited, 6,000 turned up. I was there and people were asking for my photo and wanting to say hi to me. That's when I knew how big this thing was.

- Evandro Farias, rolezinho organiser

Despite the hype surrounding rolezinhos, Farias and his fans are far from living a celebrity lifestyle. Most are from Sao Paulo's periferia, or "the periphery", the name given to kilometre-after-kilometre of poor, often dangerous, concrete sprawl into which middle-class Brazilians rarely venture.

In the neighbourhood of Jardim Santa Maria where Farias lives, the hot sun bakes down on locked-up, patched-up houses. Chained dogs bark from within, and the sound of aggressive funk music passes by from beat-up cars. Robberies at gunpoint are common, and Farias' mother, Lidia, is scared for her son.

"He's lost so many phones, trainers, caps - robbed on the street. I'm frightened of getting the news that he's been killed on the road. It's ugly out there. They kill people that aren't doing anything wrong. When he says he's going to the shopping centre, I know he's safe. There's security there," she said.

Hit the mall

Shopping malls are one of the few places that these impoverished young people can meet. While Sao Paulo's centre, gearing up for the World Cup, is becoming world-famous for its art, culture and restaurants, tens of thousands of young people on the outskirts have nowhere to go.

Alexandre Barbosa, an anthropologist at the University of Sao Paulo who studies poor youth, estimated that 60 percent of the city - about 8.4 million people - now live in the periferia, most of them impoverished.

"There's a total lack of services. If we think about schools - they're full of problems. Parks and sports complexes are very scarce. We live in a very unequal society and a city with enormous contradictions," Barbosa told Al Jazeera.

For many of the rolezinhos, the shopping malls - air-conditioned bastions of consumerism amid great poverty - symbolise a better life of material wealth. Renato Gama, lead singer of the band Nochune soul, who often sings about life in the periferia, said this is a new and unproductive mindset for young people.

"The music these kids are listening to now is called Ostentation funk. It celebrates wealth and the pursuit of materialism; clothes, cars, jewelry. Samba, the old style of Brazilian music, was about managing poverty, facing reality, being happy whilst being poor. These kids want wealth, they see rich people around them, and that's where the conflict starts," said Gama.

The controversial gatherings have shone a spotlight on class divisions in the country [Getty Images]

What to make of it?

A mixture of fear and fascination abounds in the media frenzy surrounding the rolezinhos; their numbers, their poverty, their potential to change the rich-poor landscape simply by gathering in wealthier areas of town.

President Dilma Rouseff reportedly convened a meeting in January on the rolezinhos.

The huge crowds have resulted in violent clashes with police. In January, again at Shopping Itaquera, 3,000 rowdy youths forced the mall to close and military police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in confrontations.

Some higher-end malls then took matters into their own hands, securing injunctions against large gatherings. The last time Evandro Farias tried to organise a rolezinho he was greeted by police and served with papers with the threat of a fine so big that his mother said she would have to sell her house to pay it.

This treatment prompted accusations of racism and protests in the malls - although not from the youth themselves.

"The events organised in upper-class malls were not attended or organised by the youths from the periphery, but workers involved in political movements in protest against the injunctions and excessive police repression against the poor youth in the malls of the periphery," said the anthropologist Barbosa.

Mindful of the massive protests against rising transportation costs that spiraled out of control last year, the authorities were quick to try and appease public opinion. The police issued a statement saying that rolezinhos were not breaking the law, and appeared to wash their hands of the issue by stating the malls were out of police jurisdiction.

I wished they realised the power they have in their hands, or that there was some political thought or engagement behind these gatherings, but there isn't.

- Renato Gama, musician

"The rolezinhos are young people having a day out. The military police are always in the street but shopping centres are private places that have their own security," said Tatiane Brito, a press officer for the Sao Paulo secretariat of public security.

Party not politics

Young people seem less concerned with political or socioeconomic protests, and more with finding somewhere to meet socially.

They have tried to gather in other places such as public parks, but those are all in the centre of the city, hours away from the periferia and difficult to get to from the outskirts. The last rolezinho scheduled to happen in parque Ibirapuera was cancelled because of an expected low turnout.

People interested in improving lives in the periferia, such as the singer Gama, are disappointed the rolezinhos are not more politically organised.

"Everything is wide open. The power and access that Facebook give young people is massive. I wished they realised the power they have in their hands, or that there was some political thought or engagement behind these gatherings, but there isn't," he said.

However, Barbosa warned if the gap between rich and poor is not narrowed, social problems will worsen and there will be more pressure from young people for social justice and equality.

"There is violence and insecurity in the whole city and especially in these poor areas. The government at the federal, state and municipal levels need to ensure a more humane city that includes everyone," said Barbosa.

Despite the rolezinhos starting out apolitical and rather raucous youngsters just gathering to have fun, Farias' Facebook posts - normally about girls, parties and clothes - do sometimes get agitated.

On a Sunday afternoon of a cancelled rolezinho, two men on a motorbike robbed his friend of his baseball cap near his home in the periferia. Soon after, Farias posted his reaction for his 13,000 Facebook followers: "Brasil is f-----, it will never go forward like this."

Follow Kathleen McCaul on Twitter: @kathleenmccaul

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Al Jazeera
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