Monday, 30 June 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "What is a Social Movement?" by Hank Johnston

socialmovementby Mark Carrigan, Impact of Social Sciences: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/06/29/book-review-what-is-a-social-movement-by-hank-johnston 

Focusing on movement organizations and networks, what they do, and how they articulate their ideas of justice and collective interests, What is a Social Movement? aims to lay the essential groundwork for understanding this significant and exciting field of research, where it came from, and where it is headed. 

What makes this book so useful is how thoroughly it maps the topography of social movement research. 

It not only summarizes particular approaches and tendencies within the literature, but also draws out the points of contention between them and illuminates the fault lines upon which social movements research has grown and changed over the previous century, writes Mark Carrigan.

Something very odd happened at the end of 2011. Time Magazine nominated ‘The Protestor’ as their Person of the Year. How did such a once reviled and satirised figure come to receive this mainstream acclamation?

The magazine themselves invoked the End of History thesis, suggesting that the protesters who had shaped liberal democracies in the ’60s and ’70s had become passé with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ascendency of capitalism to untrammelled status across the globe.

But with this era drawing to a close and finance capitalism seemingly struggling for survival, the “protester once again became a maker of history”.

The Arab Spring protests that inspired this choice have since led somewhere altogether darker than was hoped by commentators in the upswell of breathless optimism that accompanied them. The Occupy movement, towards which liberal opinion was decidedly more ambivalent, no longer enjoys the prominence it briefly did.

It would be silly to suggest that Time’s endorsement had any role in the subsequent perceived decline of these movements, if indeed this is the correct term for them, but I nonetheless found it hard not to ponder the correlation.

It seemed to indicate something interesting about the significance of contemporary social movements but also the contradictory nature of their relationship with the media, in part seeking the publicity the media afforded, but also at risk of being pacified by it.

Against this backdrop Social Movement Studies comes to seem one of the most significant areas of interdisciplinary research within the social sciences.

Developing alongside the social movements which have been its object, contemporary social movement studies has become a vast and multifaceted tradition of inquiry.

Speaking as someone who has been making a concerted effort to familiarise myself with the area over the last six months, the sheer size of this detailed and interconnected literature can be a barrier to new readers, whether they are aspiring social movements researchers or those with a more casual interest in the field.

It is for this reason that Hank Johnston‘s book What is a Social Movement? is so valuable, offering a broad and accessible overview of this field by someone who has been at the centre of it through both his own research and position as founding editor of the journal Mobilization.
social movement featuredImage credit: Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common (Wikimedia, Public Domain)
The weakest chapter comes at the end of the book.

This is a shame because it is in this chapter that Johnston tries to draw out the contemporary relevance of Social Movement Studies. The chapter feels somewhat rushed, lacking the measured pace which plays such an important role in ensuring the clarity of his exposition elsewhere in the book.

He addresses topics like digital mobilisation and tactical occupations but does so rather briefly, in a way which makes it hard not to wonder if he secretly wanted to write a longer book than this.

The final chapter simply doesn’t cohere as well as those that preceded it.It’s difficult to choose particular chapters to focus upon from this book, reflecting both its consistent excellence and its affable brevity.

I found the second chapter particularly useful, offering a perspicuous overview of this expansive literature. It identifies a series of influential approaches and explains them clearly while nonetheless avoiding the sort of irritating simplification that routinely afflicts text books about theory.

Beginning from Gustave Le Bon’s now largely rejected social psychological account of crowd behaviour, Johnston adroitly demonstrates how the social movements literature has been recurrently structured around a conflict between those researchers who, like Le Bon, conceive collective action as exceptional and irrational and those who see it as a rational extension of ‘normal’ politics.

The clarity with which Johnston draws out these tendencies across the literature reflects the depth of his own engagements over his career. I found this immensely useful, almost equivalent to having a jovial senior academic volunteer to sit down and talk you through a literature you’re unfamiliar with.

What makes this book so useful is how thoroughly it maps the topography of social movement research.

It not only summarizes particular approaches and tendencies within the literature, but also draws out the points of contention between them and illuminates the fault lines upon which social movements research has grown and changed over the previous century.

The relative brevity of the book makes this achievement all the more impressive. It is a short book, well under 200 pages, which nonetheless offers an admirably panoramic perspective upon a complex and detailed field of research.

What is a Social Movement? is an invaluable book, sign posting a vast literature in an accessible way likely to appeal to students and academics alike.

While some of the contents may be challenging to those without a social scientific background, Johnston’s prose is nonetheless clear enough that the book could be of interest to a more general reader seeking to better understand the ways in which social movements have shaped the world in which we live and are currently reshaping our collective futures.
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Mark Carrigan is a sociologist based in the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick. He edits the Sociological Imagination and is an assistant editor for Big Data & Society. His research interests include asexuality studies, sociological theory and digital sociology. He’s a regular blogger and podcasterRead more reviews by Mark.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

CivicLab: The Coworking Space for Civic Hacking


Something extraordinary is happening on Chicago’s West Side.

CivicLab, a coworking space dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation for civic engagement, is building community around citizen participation in government. 

Featuring a number of social change, policy and organizing projects, CivicLab also builds and deploys tools for government accountability and civic involvement.

Shareable caught up with CivicLab co-founders Tom Tresser and Benjamin Sugar to find out what inspired the project, the importance of DIY democracy, and what kind of response they’ve received to the project. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Shareable: CivicLab is a co-working space, a hub for civic engagement, and an event venue. What’s the big picture here? What’s your grand vision for CivicLab?

Benjamin Sugar: CivicLab is a community space devoted to supporting DIY democracy.

We do this by building a community of practice through affordable coworking, meeting, and event space; holding educational master classes and workshops at the intersection of civics and DIY culture; and developing original tools and research to mobilize networks of change agents.

CivicLab combines Chicago’s emerging DIY culture and its rich history of community organizing to create new tools and solutions for the common good.

Our grand vision is of a world where solutions to our problems are developed from the bottom up and can bypass the slow bureaucracy whose decisions are often based on the ideas of a select few that benefit a select few.

In the medium term, we hope to see CivicLabs on a ward-by-ward basis, and perhaps as a model that can translate to other cities as well. 

What was the inspiration for CivicLab?

Tom Tresser: My inspiration was born from my decades-long experience in community organizing and working on social change efforts and seeing the lack of progressive infrastructure that supports and nourishes change agents.

We've also had a set of circumstances in Chicago where massive corruption, coupled with a loss of community-championing civic organizations and the hollowing out of the daily press and the arrival of massive privatization efforts by big business, has led to a perilous state of local democracy and social justice here.

I felt that no one was really looking out for grassroots community interests and so felt compelled to help create a new instrument for strengthening civic engagement work here. I believe in the power of a physical space to spur community and innovation and in the blend off offline and online technologies to accelerate social change.

Benjamin: My inspiration for CivicLab came from a number of ideas and spaces I encountered during my time in the Boston area.

Early on I was exposed to the ideas of the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Lab whose students showed me that learning how to use technology was not only empowering, but given the right pedagogy, could be learned by anyone regardless of background.

This led me to a community space called Sprout which is dedicated to support learning and investigation and provide the necessary tools to do so including things such as precision machining equipment, 3D printers, and even a wet lab for biology.

My final influence came from working on a project called Between the Bars, a paper-based blogging platform for people who are incarcerated. This led me to the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab where I found people creating tools for empower people in the civic space using low-tech devices to create high tech impact. 

What kind of community has emerged at the space? What are some of the projects and organizations that have come on-board and how do they utilize the space?

Tom: It's a wonderful and dynamic space with co-working, classes, meetings, and events, happening almost every day, sometimes all day. Our co-workers have developed personal and professional relationships. People care about one another and their issues and problems.

Groups that have used the space so far include our anchor tenant Chicago Votes, the Raise Your Hand Coalition of parents of students in public school, the Working Families Party, the Young Invincibles, the Roosevelt Institute, Move To Amend, the New Organizing Institute, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, and Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration.

Groups are collaborating formally with major projects, such as a youth summit in the fall of 2014, and also informally, sharing resources, leads, knowledge and contacts.

We've had nearly 50 classes including Design for Empowerment Extended, Privatization 101, Storytelling 2.0, How to Run for Local Office, DIY Hydroponics, Art for Social Change, How to Investigate Elected Officials and The Commons 101.

Some of the meetings at CivicLab are Restore the Fourth Chicago who meets here on a weekly basis to advance mobilizing against mass surveillance; the Chicago New Leaders Council; Chicago Techno-activists; Chicago Meshnet and {She Crew}.

CivicLab projects or those we support include The TIF Illumination Project; I, Citizen, the Activists Board Game; MY PLACE (Media for Youth, Participatory Learning, and Civic Engagement); Workshop for Parental Engagement in Welcoming Schools; and Secure Drop. 

Teaching civic literacy is one of the stated goals for CivicLab. What does this mean to you and how does it inform the space and community?

Tom: Scholars of civic engagement often talk about civic engagement consisting of four aptitudes or dynamics:

1. Appetite or disposition for engagement - how likely are you to want to do public work, volunteering, etc.
2. Knowledge - what do you know about government and civics.
3. Intellectual Skill - what are your critical and strategic skills?
4. Participation - what do have you done around public life - volunteering, protesting, helping campaigns, running for office?

We aim to offer classes and opportunities for engagement and building/ making to address all these domains.

Benjamin: Additionally, computational and DIY methods are becoming part of the fabric of civic literacy so we aim to expose people to the the new ways these tools are being used and instruct them in how to design and use them.

Part of what you do at the lab is to research why people do and don’t involve themselves politically. Are there any interesting insights you’ve gleaned from your research and how do you integrate what you’ve learned into the lab?

Benjamin: Admittedly, we haven't had the capacity to reflect on this in a formal way since we've been too busy doing the actual engaging of people.

Tom: This is an area of intense interest and we plan to spin up original research tapping into the constituents of all our stakeholders and allies to address that question. I’m obsessed with making engaging in public life as compelling as Farmville or Halo.

Benjamin: Our most successful draw for audiences have typically been things that involve learning how to "stick it to the system" or how the "system is sticking it to us.” Engaging people in the actual creating of things has also been successful and we will be expanding these opportunities in the near future. 

Education is another aspect of CivicLab, with workshops and classes on a variety of topics, giving the lab a makerspace feel. What are some of your favorite workshops so far and why do you think having this hands-on aspect is important?

Tom: We have a wide range of subject matter experts sharing experience and information on policy, the state of affairs in Chicago, and how to topics. We've had workshops on how to run for office, how to start and run community gardens, the history of civil rights in Chicago, coding for teens, design for empowerment, how to start a nonprofit and much more.

I’ve taught classes on TIFs, privatization and the commons and one coming up on Servant-Leadership. Benjamin has taught classes on design and he co-organizes a monthly event called What's Possible, Chicago?

Benjamin: I often tell an anecdote about a time I walked into Sprout to find a red knob on a box fan. The fan had broken and instead of going out and buying a new one, they fixed it by printing a knob of their own with red plastic.

The DIY, hands-on part is important because introduces people to the fact that their world is malleable, the means to do so are available in everyday objects, and those objects can be combined to form solutions to everyday problems. We hope that these activities serve as a microcosm for printing new knobs to the broken box fans in our civic life.

CivicLab has created several initiatives including the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Illumination Project. What is the project and how does it reflect the lab’s goals and priorities?

Tom: Tax Increment Financing is a scheme where property taxes are extracted from an area and sent into a slush fund controlled by the local mayor. These funds can then be given to private developers with no strings attached.

This is done in the name of economic development and eliminating "blight" but the program is widely abused and is beyond public scrutiny or recall. In Chicago 154 TIF districts extract almost $500 million annually.

TIFs are in 47 states and extract as much as $10 billion in property taxes across the USA annually. Large companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, UPS, Coca-Cola, United Airlines and major downtown developers have collectively received hundreds of millions of public dollars.

All this money should've gone to the units of local government that rely on property taxes for operation. Our public schools are the primary recipient of Chicago property taxes and therefore the agency most harmed by TIFs. Across Illinois 550 municipalities contain 1,220 TIFs.

The TIF Illumination Project combines data mining, investigative reporting, graphic design and community organizing to reveal the impacts of TIFs on our communities on a ward-by-ward basis. We share this data with the community in TIF town meetings or "Illuminations."

In the past year we've done some 26 meetings across the city in front of over 2,000 people. We distribute a graphic poster that displays all the information. No one else can supply this complete picture. The next one is in the 48th Ward on June 18.

The TIF Illumination Project revealed that there was $1.7 billion in property taxes sitting in TIF accounts at the beginning of 2013. This has significantly changed the tenor of civic debate here and is being used to counter the mayor's position that the city is broke and essential services must be cut and scaled back.

Our work has also led to TIF impacts being placed on the Cook County property tax bill for the first time, starting in July. This will cause a major disruption in peoples' conception of how money is allocated as in their current form, the figures of property tax bills of those residing in a TIF are completely inaccurate.

The TIF Illumination Project is a great example of civic data and tool-making blending with design and old school community organizing and popular education work.

Over 60 people have come forward as volunteer researchers to help us with TIF and related work as a result of the community meetings and the some 40+ stories written about them. This work was profiled in the July 22, 2013 cover story of The Nation, "Chicago Rising!". 

What kind of response to the lab do you see among local activists, politicians and city leaders?

Tom: We are operating on a shoestring budget so we have not been able to advertise but all the same, our space and work is becoming recognized across Chicago's civic engagement community.

We have relationships with five local universities for research and internship placement and our work has been used by the Chicago Teachers Union, parents groups and other citizen advocacy efforts. We are just getting started.

Benjamin: I think it's been hard for people to understand what we're doing. It's a new approach for people in Chicago. Once people get it, they love it.

Community organizers have had difficulty embracing the serendipitous approach that you often find in maker culture. I've found that activities for them need to have clear goals and outcomes. [...] For designers, process is a valuable thing that can lead to better strategies and tactics which can lead to better outcomes.

I have found it challenging to engage the traditional makers/hackers in Chicago to the activist side of things. It's important to note that there are healthy emerging pockets of this combination for sure.

However, it's not fully saturated into the culture as it has in other cities I have spent time in such as Boston or Detroit. I don't think there has been a lot of exposure to the benefits that community organizing can play in gathering people in co-design, and deploying new tools once they have been created.

In other spaces where civic hacking is vibrant, I think there has been a tension between representing data about the city in a clearly agnostic way. This is very understandable as some of the best work relies upon partnerships with the city.

As one colleague enlightened me: one can view the city as a product, and improving the product with transparency and accountability will make it more likely that people will use it, hence engaging civic engagement. This brought up a question which was, what if the product itself is fundamentally flawed in some areas. How do you work with the city to force a recall of the product? 

Anything you’d like to add?

Tom: Come work at the CivicLab. Our desks are only $200/month! Email us at cowork@civiclab.us. Take a class.

On Friday, June 8, CivicLab will be presenting at PDF 2014 in NYC. As Tresser says, “We'd love to meet with civic coders, designers, investigators, organizers and people interested in operating co-operative spaces or maker spaces for social change.”
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Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

How To Convert a Business Into a Worker-owned Cooperative

by Cat Johnson, Shareable.net: http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-convert-a-business-into-a-worker-owned-cooperative

Cooperatives represent a growing segment of the economy with an estimated 30,000 enterprises and 100 million members in the U.S. alone

A great way to bring democracy into the workplace, coops can be built from scratch, but they can also be created by converting existing businesses into worker-owned cooperatives. 

For retiring business owners as well as entrepreneurs, selling a business to employees is a way to strengthen the business while getting a return on investment.

Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI), says that coop conversions are one of the most promising sources of new cooperatives as they already have customers, assets and employees, which makes it less risky than a startup.

She also notes that those coops created from conversions are among the most passionate members of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

“They’re the most engaged and the most attentive to the cooperative forum, principles and movement building,” she says. “I speculate that’s because ... to change something into a cooperative structure, they had to educate themselves about what that meant and connect themselves to movement organizations, models and peers.”

When converting an existing business into a coop, there are numerous questions that need to be answered.

Do the employees want to create a democratic business? Are funds available for a buyout? How will the business be structured? How long will the transition be? Does the selling owner want to stay on?

Though it takes time to work out the details, answering these questions is an essential part of the transition.

While every business has unique strengths and challenges, and there is no single way to create a cooperative, there is also no need to reinvent the wheel. Hundreds of worker-owned cooperatives have been created by converting existing businesses by following a series of steps.

How It’s Done

Shareable spoke with Joe Rinehart, Cooperative Business Developer at the Democracy at Work Institute to find out how to go from thinking about a conversion to opening the doors of a worker-owned business.

He provided the DAWI conversion timeline below which is based on previous versions created by the Ohio Employee Ownership Center.

As Rinehart points out, these steps provide an overview of what a conversion might look like. It’s not a hard-and-fast template. Some of the steps overlap, some may be unnecessary, and the timeline for every business will vary depending on how large the company is, how long the selling owner plans to stay involved, how much training is required and more. Here, he breaks down each stage of the process.



STAGE 1: Deciding to Move Forward

What it entails: research and reading, worker ownership succession options workshop (for owner and their leadership team), initial owner conversation with employees, Worker Coop 101 workshop for the employees, owner and workers decide to move forward, select steering committee, contact outside transition support team.

This stage is to get the ball rolling and for the business owner to decide if they’re interested in converting. It’s also about educating everyone involved about the cooperative model, determining if there’s interest in becoming a coop.

According to Rinehart, this is best done as a facilitated conversation with a skilled coop transition professional. If there is commitment on both sides, the next step is organizing the key players and moving the process forward.

One approach that Rinehart recommends is to start building a participatory workplace where leadership and management are shared as soon as possible. This can be done through practices including open book finances and letting employees have input in redesigning workflow.

“As you create a structure of participation,” says Rinehart, “you’re letting employees know they have a voice. [...] It’s a really powerful tool in creating a workplace that can transition.”

STAGE 2: Getting Ready: Employee Training and Business Valuation

What it entails: financial training for employees, business and industry training, cooperative trainings for employees, business valuation process, business valuation or owner’s price, determine financing options, review and revise current business plan.

This stage is where investment in the transition occurs. Employees receive training so they can understand the finances of the business, the business is valued and financial options are presented. Rinehart recommends having a professional determine the value then giving employees the opportunity to contest the valuation it if need be.

This is critical to clarify the process for the owner and employees, create a structure for moving forward, and give employees an opportunity to debate the valuation so they don’t feel like they’ve been taken advantage of down the line.

STAGE 3: Defining Structures

What it entails: document current management plan, draft cooperative by-laws, define post-transition management.

This is where the management plan, for both the transition and post-transition business, is laid out and those in management positions are trained in their duties.

“It’s important to note that [a worker cooperative] is not about making every decision democratic,” says Rinehart. “You want to open up the management process to be, not democratic, but participatory.” He continues, “It’s about deciding how you're going to make big decisions democratically, and management is one of those big ones.”

He explains that in most conversions the existing management structure is left in place but that the structure becomes about management and not about governance.

The important thing is to document the management structure. At this point, everyone should be very clear what the rules are and if they don’t like the rules, they have a voice in changing them.

“The people you’re engaging in participation know how to make the business better,” Rinehart says. “They have knowledge about the industry and the business and they know the impact of their decisions.”

STAGE 4: Finalize the Transition

What it entails: transfer business ownership, negotiate final price, seek financing, future members approve final price and financing, structure, complete the transaction, transfer governance and elect new board, transfer management as necessary.

This stage is all about dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. It’s where you finding the financing if necessary and pull the deal together. You will elect a board and do a first board training.

“It’s about making sure everything is legal, and clearly and carefully done so that you’re able to move on,” says Rinehart. “You close the door on the transition and effectively move forward as a business.”

STAGE 5: Follow Through and Monitoring

What it entails: ongoing training with current employees

Once the worker coop has been launched, it’s important to have regular check-ins about the business and to maintain clear and open communication. The structures put in place are not only for current employees but for future employees as well.

You want to make sure there are processes in place for training those employees in what it means to be a cooperative and lay out plans for growth. All of this requires ongoing training and monitoring.

“No structure is perfect,” says Rinehart. “You’re designing a human technology for participation and democratic ownership and no technology is perfect the first time out the door.” He adds that you’ll want to be able to take time to evaluate it, refine it and get help from people who are experienced with worker cooperatives.

Among those are the DOWI and its associated organization the Democracy at Work Network, other cooperatives, cooperative developers, and members of Cooperation Works.


Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans (CC-BY-2.0)

The Big Picture

Worker-owned cooperatives, whether created from scratch or converted from existing businesses, are a central part of the sharing movement. As Hoover says, they’re the “original sharing platform.”

For those considering converting to a coop, Hoover recommends talking with other business owners who have made the conversion to see that it’s possible and that there are huge benefits to doing it. She also encourages business owners to think about what they really wanted to build and where it’s going to go after they’re gone.
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Top photo: takomabibelot (CC-BY-2.0). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

No-One Sits Here Anymore: How Spikes and Fences Erase Communal Life

anti-homeless spikes
Photo by Léonidas Martín, 2014
by Leónidas Martín, Creative Time Reports: http://creativetimereports.org/2014/06/16/no-one-sits-here-anymore-anti-homeless-spikes-anti-immigrant-fences-communal-spaces/

Since the day it first opened, the windows of my neighborhood gym have been a gathering point for neighbors.

They’re right at street level, and they’re big.

Lots of us had sat on their deep windowsills for many years, most of all the Pakistanis who live in the surrounding area.

Note that I wrote, “had sat,” because ever since Barcelona’s City Hall installed some giant metal plates, no one sits there anymore. The gatherings and chitchats are over. “Keep it moving!”

The phrase “metal plates” might make you think of something like those iron gates that restrict access to someplace, or the spools of barbed wire you often see along the borders. They’re nothing like that.

The metal plates they’ve installed at my gym are lovely. They’re designed by a young architect - one of the many young architects that work for City Hall - and they’re perfectly integrated with the structure of the building.

The window glass, the ledges and the plates complement one another like parts of a Franz Joseph Haydn symphony. In fact, I’m sure that if anyone passed by there today - anyone who didn’t already know what these windows had been, and what they were used for - they wouldn’t notice anything strange. And that’s what’s so interesting.

It’s a given that movement within city spaces has never been free; architecture and urban design have always directed it. But unlike the fences, bars and walls that were once used to restrict and channel our mobility, this contemporary urban furniture is all but invisible.

Previously, regulating the behavior of bodies in space required visible elements directing what they could do and how to do it.

Today, however, it seems that this kind of indoctrination calls for something altogether different - cues that go all but unnoticed. Urban furniture like the metal plates serves its repressive purpose while hardly changing the landscape.

anti-homeless spikes
Floral spikes in Barcelona. Photo by Léonidas Martín, 2014.

It isn’t always like this; there are still places where these urban elements controlling bodies in space are crystal clear. You only need to have a look at the southern border of Europe to get the idea.

In Ceuta, for example, the walls and the barbed wire aren’t hidden behind any pretense whatsoever; in fact, it’s just the opposite. In these places, the features of control are clearly visible. They have to be. Their effectiveness depends in large part upon their conspicuousness.

An undocumented immigrant who wants to enter Europe must plainly see the material obstacles he’ll run up against, the barriers blocking his entrance. Presumably, one would think twice after seeing things like that.

But this piece of mine isn’t set in any of those locations. What I’m talking about here is other places, where the immigrants who already crossed those borders end up.

I’m referring to those cities where they come to seek their fortune - particularly those that profit from advertising themselves as if they were commercial brands. Cities like Barcelona, Paris or London.

In these places, the devices dictating behavior go virtually unnoticed. They’re integrated into the visual matrix of the city itself, hardly perceptible, serving to uphold the aesthetic values and morals associated with the city, while hiding their primary function, which is to constrain people’s mobility.

The plates installed outside the windows of my gym are far from the only example of this kind of urban installation designed to prevent unwanted situations and social behaviors.

The city-brands are full of these elements: low hedges and bushes, strategically located to prevent people from making themselves at home in public places; magnificent wrought iron fences blocking access to restricted areas; exquisite spikes preventing people from laying down where they shouldn’t; geometric forms in noble materials placed in corners to dissuade people from getting cozy where they oughtn’t … endless urban designs which, as in the Edgar Allen Poe story “The Purloined Letter,” are right in front of everyone yet pass unnoticed.

We come across these things a thousand times, but we never see them, or, at least, we never see their true, hidden purpose.

anti-homeless spikes
Elegant spikes in Barcelona. Photo by Léonidas Martín, 2014.

At first glance, these elements may seem irrelevant, just little urban bits not worth considering. But as I see it, these fragments represent - although slyly - the spirit of the economic and political model that created them: the spirit of the market. A spirit that sets everything (people, cities, countries, works of art) in motion under the criteria of the one and only law: extract the most profit possible from any human activity.

This spirit is everywhere; it affects us all and all that surrounds us. The immigrants themselves, as mentioned earlier, were driven here by this spirit. It’s what set them in motion, what pushed them over the walls, dodging barbed wire.

“Motion” here doesn’t imply freedom - far from it. All movement prompted by the spirit of the market must be conducted under the law it imposes. Otherwise, this mobility could deviate, resulting in a non-consumer-economy objective - and that’s a risk the market can’t take.

In this sense, the metal plates at my gym, or other similar urban elements, are the grease that helps to run the indoctrination imposed by the spirit of the market.

The behavior of the citizens, as with the identity of a city, is not something to be taken for granted. Instead, it’s one’s own actions, and the changes these acts make to the social fabric, that spur and shape further behavior patterns.

These actions and behaviors could be, a priori, infinite. To limit them, to make them respond to a certain spirit, takes a lot of creativity.

Here is where the role of artists comes into play - or has this not always been the artist’s task, to bring a touch of common sense to something that has neither preexisting logic nor order (as Oscar Wilde wrote, “to teach Nature her proper place”)?

It comes as no surprise, then, that it’s the artists, the architects and the designers who are in charge of translating into form (urban furniture, in this case) commercial law and its objectives.

They do it because it’s what they know how to do; it’s how they make their money. But they also do it because they’re more concerned with form, with those aspects that lie at the heart of art itself, than with the end-uses derived from their work. And they do it for one more reason.

In the world we live in, each of us goes it alone in society. No intermediaries. A stranger among strangers. This emboldens a “me” full of pride, ready to believe he’s almighty. But it also encourages a “me” ready to fall at the feet of any effigy that crosses his path. A “me” ready to take on the world, but beaten by fear and loneliness.

So this young architect designs the metal plates that later get installed by City Hall in the windows of my gym, because he feels lost in some incomprehensible hieroglyphs.

This young architect looks at life as characters in Kafka’s novels do. He knows not who decides things, nor to whom he may turn in search of justice or help. For him, to live is to be dragged along by a mysterious force whose sheer power and great size reveals his own utter helplessness. This is the starting point from where our young architect designs the metal plates that serve to prevent immigrants from gathering in the street.

anti-homeless spikes
Cacti in the entrance to a hotel in Barcelona. Photo by Léonidas Martín, 2014.

Each time I go for a swim at the gym, I wonder, what would it be like, an art that could break this damned aesthetic statute that prevents gathering? An art open to a dynamic concept of life, where our surroundings are created in direct relation to constantly changing behaviors?

What would it be like, an art that stood up to established forms of behavior, that was able to adapt to new ways of life, ones we’ve been seeking for a long time? And what about a form of urban design that, instead of concealing repression, visibly organized our shared world as a commons?

Because this, and nothing else, is a city: the organization of our shared world.

Translated from the Spanish by Jane Loes Lipton and Stacco Troncoso.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Our Democracy is the Loser When Voices of Youth are Marginalised

Authorities limiting peaceful assembly (AAP/Julian Smith)
by Lucas Walsh, Monash University

In the current political environment, young people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Typically stereotyped as having an inflated sense of entitlement, uninterested in civic participation and apathetic, when young people do speak up they are readily dismissed in very public ways.

Student protests at federal funding cuts to higher education, for example, have met with derision and disdain.

One protest briefly interrupted an ABC broadcast of Q&A involving education minister Christopher Pyne. Some described the students as “ferocious” and an “embarrassment”. Q&A host Tony Jones labelled them “unruly” and “undemocratic”.

Turning away from politics

Perhaps this begins to explain the troubling findings in recent years of the Lowy Institute poll on attitudes to politics and democracy. The annual poll suggests an entrenched ambivalence about democracy among some young people.

This year’s poll found that only 42% of 18 to 29-year-olds see democracy as preferable to any other kind of government (compared with 65% of those 30 and over). This is down 6% from last year. A third of 18 to 29-year-olds agree that:
In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.
Nearly one in five say:
It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.
Interpreting this data raises several questions, such as: how do young people define democracy? Is it different to how others define it? Have the divisive and intensely personal politics of recent years shaped this view?

The main reason for not preferring democracy in the poll is that:
Democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties.
Also strongly supported was the belief that:
Democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority.
The wider evidence confirms that young people see politicians as remote and party politics as unappealing.

Research such as the Youth Electoral Study has found that “career politicians” make it almost impossible for young people to differentiate political parties from their members. Possibly as a result, party identification among youth is low.

Voter registration continues to be low among 18 to 24-year-olds. Australian Electoral Commission records suggest that more than one in six young Australians was not registered to vote in the 2013 federal election. This was more than twice the rate for the population as a whole.

Conventional institutions and methods of participation have been characterised by some young people as tokenistic, old, closed, controlled, institutional and irrelevant. Maybe this is in part why the youth vote remains untapped by Australia’s political parties.

Shutting the front door

Politicians such as federal treasurer Joe Hockey have implied that their own protesting years were a rite of passage and that their opinions change and become more conservative over time.

But why deny the former rite of passage to young people today? And when so many politicians speak of a passion to make a difference, why stifle this in young people?

It is argued that young people should use other means to make their voices heard. But it is unimaginable to consider a youth campaign similar to the A$20 million spent by mining companies on advertising attacking the Rudd government’s original mining tax and other tax increases.

And attitudes to youth protest need to be understood within a broader curtailing of the legal right to protest.

In Victoria, for example, the Summary Offences Act passed in March this year enables police to “move on” groups of people, including those involved in peaceful protests.

The courts are able to issue an exclusion order preventing those repeatedly told to move on from entering a particular public space for up to 12 months. Breaching such an order could result in two years’ imprisonment.

Even other channels for expression, debate and protest, such as “ethical consumption” through consumer boycotts, are under threat.

In 2013, Liberal senator Richard Colbeck indicated that the government might ban consumer and environmental activists from launching secondary boycotts to pressure companies to change their ways. This is despite the view that this is “a completely legitimate way to express political views”.

Nevertheless, research has found that young people continue to be civically engaged in politics, but in more informal ways. Many are values-driven and attached to issues rather than traditional political institutions such as parties.

The closure of political channels may be forcing participation between the cracks of rigid institutions. This can happen through online campaigns, social enterprise and volunteerism in ways that do not register on blunt measures of participation such as the General Social Survey.

More mixed messages

Contradictory messages are sent to young people about both when they qualify to be adults and the value of their participation.

In some states, 16-year-olds are treated as legally independent and at the age of sexual consent, but cannot vote on issues such as the legalisation of abortion. They can work and be taxed by a government that they cannot elect. At 18 young people can vote but be paid less than someone over the age of 20 doing the same job.

Added to this is a government that selectively supports freedom of speech, such as its effort to partially repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, while discouraging protest, free political debate and the political expression of civil society actors.

Common interests forgotten

When the 2014 Lowy poll asked people to choose between having a good democracy or a strong economy, only a small majority, 53%, chose “a good democracy” while 42% nominated “a strong economy”.

Other surveys have found young people rank the economy and financial matters as the number one issue of national importance.

But even on economic matters, mixed messages are sent to young people about their place in the economy. For example, the recent federal budget seeks to enforce a six-month waiting period on Australians under the age of 30 before being able to claim unemployment assistance.

As Veronica Sheen observes, this kind of policy serves “to infantilise, disempower and disenfranchise this group”.

Ironically, other surveys show that the concerns of young people are not all that different from the “adult” population. Young and old alike are concerned about the economy, the environment and personal financial security.

A big difference, though, is that young people inherit the future. To deny them the opportunities to speak about and participate in shaping this future risks the prospects of all Australians.

To put it another way, young people seeking to voice concerns about access to higher education and training, as well as issues such as the environment, would argue that they are fighting for their future - and by extension ours.

Either way, if the current state of politics is what having the “adults in charge” looks like, no wonder young people are fighting back or opting out.

See the rest of the Another Country: Youth in Australia series here.
The Conversation

Lucas Walsh does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Adding Injustice to Injury: One Year on From the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey

Tear gas attack against mourners of Berkin Elvan © Unknown | Revolution News
(Revolution News)
by Public Seminar: http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/06/adding-injustice-to-injury

Our colleague, Zeyno Ustun, is back in Istanbul this month. We corresponded about the situation there on the occasion of the anniversary of the Gezi protests. 

She reports political paralysis with maximum police presence and sent a report from Amnesty International that she judges to summarize the situation accurately.

Zeyno came across the following piece in Revolution News. It is re-posted here with permission - Jeff Goldfarb

The repression of peaceful protest and the use of abusive force by police continues unabated one year after the Gezi Park protests.

Across Turkey, more than 5,500 people have been prosecuted in connection with the Gezi Park protests. Only five prosecutions have been brought against nine police officers, despite hundreds of complaints of police abuses.

Medical associations, doctors, and other civil servants have faced sanction and prison sentences for their alleged care of injured protesters.

Social media users are on trial and facing prison sentences for sharing information about the protests.
New laws restrict access to social media and criminalize the provision of emergency medical care during protests.

One year on from the Gezi Park protests, the government’s approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant, Amnesty International said in a report on June 9.

“The Turkish authorities have been relentless in their crackdown on protesters - be it police violence on the streets or by prosecuting them through the courts. Meanwhile the police enjoy near total impunity. The message is clear: peaceful demonstrations will not be tolerated,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“Just in the last ten days, demonstrations across Turkey to mark the anniversary of the Gezi Park protests were banned and arbitrarily and brutally dispersed with tear gas, water cannons, and beatings. The government must change course, allow peaceful protest, and ensure accountability for police abuses.”

Amnesty International’s report, Adding Injustice to Injury: One Year On from the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey, examines developments following the small protest against the destruction of the park in central Istanbul that spiraled into nationwide anti-government demonstrations. 

It calls on the Turkish authorities to end impunity for human rights abuses by law enforcement officials and to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly.

Gezi protest, Taksim Square, Istanbul on June 15, 2013 © Fleshstorm | Wikimedia Commons
Gezi protest, Taksim Square, Istanbul on June 15, 2013 © Fleshstorm | Wikimedia Commons

Eight thousand people were injured during the Gezi Park protests and 11 people died as a result of police violence, but investigations into police abuses have stalled, been obstructed, or closed.

Only five separate prosecutions have been brought against police officers to date. In stark contrast, more than 5,500 people face prosecution for organizing, participating in, or supporting the Gezi Park protests. Many are being prosecuted for nothing more than peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly.

Protest organizers are being prosecuted for “founding a criminal organization” while scores have been charged with unsubstantiated terrorism offences.

“The government must revise the law on demonstrations, remove excessive restrictions on where and when demonstrations can take place, and repeal provisions used to criminalize peaceful protest,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey.

Doctors have been disciplined and, in two cases, criminally prosecuted for providing first aid in makeshift medical clinics during the Gezi Park protests. 

In January 2014, the government introduced legislative amendments that could be used to support criminal punishment of those who provide emergency medical treatment during protests.

In a crude violation of the right to freedom of expression, criminal investigations have been started against commentators who documented the protests. These investigations were followed by random prosecutions of people posting opinions on social media during the protests. Increased powers to shut down websites have been introduced.

“One year on from the Gezi Park protests, the Turkish authorities seem to be firmly set on the path of intolerance, conflict, and polarization. Unless checked, this will lead to further violations of human rights in the country,” said Salil Shetty.

“It is not too late for the government to change course. However, this requires the political will to acknowledge legitimate grievances and reach out to the disaffected; to accept criticism and to respect the right to freedom of assembly; to stay the prosecution of peaceful protesters and to ensure accountability for police abuses.”
* * *

Demonstrators overwhelmed by tear gas during Gezi anniversary protests © Unknown | Revolution News
Demonstrators overwhelmed by tear gas during Gezi anniversary protests © Unknown | Revolution News

Cases:

On June 3, 2013, Hakan Yaman was beaten up and thrown on a fire by four riot police officers and a person in plain clothes operating next to a water cannon vehicle. A witness recorded the incident on his mobile phone. Despite the number of the water cannon vehicle being visible in the video, the Istanbul police authorities have failed to reveal the identities of the officers assigned to work alongside it.

Five members of Taksim Solidarity, a coalition of over 100 NGOs, political groups, and professional bodies that came together to oppose the redevelopment of Gezi Park, stand accused of “founding a criminal organization,” “provoking others to participate in an unauthorized demonstration,” and “refusing to disperse from an unauthorized demonstration.” There is no evidence in the indictment that the five people participated in or incited violence or engaged in any other conduct not protected by human rights law. All five face up to 15 years imprisonment.

Twenty-nine young people in Izmir are on trial for “inciting the public to break the law” via social media posts. Three of the defendants are additionally charged with defaming the Prime Minister. The case is based entirely on tweets that were sent about the first weekend of the protests. They provide information, such as available wireless passwords and locations where the police were using force against demonstrators, or contain opinions and messages of support for the demonstrations. None of the tweets in the indictment contains any incitement to, or indication of participation in, violence. A number of the tweets is said to defame the Prime Minister, who intervened in the case and is listed as a “victim.” After two hearings, the case was postponed until July 14, 2014.

This article was originally published by Revolution News.

Friday, 20 June 2014

It's not Just the World Cup Brazilians are Protesting About

Debating Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex on t...
Debating Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex on the Xingu River (Photo credit: International Rivers)
by Steffen Böhm, University of Essex and Rafael Kruter Flores, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul

The World Cup has highlighted Brazil’s dissatisfaction with the mega-development involved in building the tournament’s infrastructure.

But the football stadiums are just the latest in a long line of Brazilian meg-developments, including building venues for 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as the Belo Monte Dam and the Cuiaba-Santarem Highway - all of which have caused controversy.

The Brazilian government and private investors claim there is a need for these mega-projects. They promise they will develop rural areas, boost employment rates, add much needed infrastructure, foster economic growth and preserve energy security.

But they are often controversial because they tend to benefit a small group of elites, and involve stark environmental and social impacts.

The term “mega-project” usually refers to an infrastructure project whose cost exceeds US$1 billion, or that receives a significant level of public and political attention due to high monetary or environmental and social costs. For this reason, such projects must be part of a wider set of policies, which are environmentally viable and meet community expectations.

But scarce public trust and lack of confidence in the benefits of these projects is rife, a fact that decision makers continue to ignore. The ongoing protests against the World Cup is a prime example of this.

So too are the controversies around the Belo Monte Dam, a huge hydroelectric dam complex the government is building on the Xingu River in Brazil’s north. So, what are the problems with these mega-development projects?

The costs

First, there are grave environmental costs that are often unaccounted for. The Belo Monte Dam, for example, is a mega-project with severe ecological consequences as the development involves flooding over 1,500 km2 of Amazon rainforest.

This kind of severe flooding of the Xingu River basin threatens to damage one of the world’s most rich and fragile ecosystems.

There are also a range of social and human rights concerns involved. The building of the Belo Monte Dam is displacing entire communities, for example indigenous people living by the Xingu River.

This community of up to 40,000 people was not consulted on the project, as is required under international law. This is a particularly serious breach, considering that the area is legally protected for conservation purposes and the preservation of indigenous livelihoods within the Xingu National Park.

These mega-projects are rarely effective and often don’t reach their stated objectives. The Belo Monte Dam, for example, is unlikely to achieve its goal of preserving energy security for the growing Brazilian population.

The seasonal flow variation of the Xingu River suggests that during high flow the Belo Monte will produce only 40% of its energy capacity, and barely 10% during the dry months.

Given the extraordinary amount of often public funding involved with mega-projects, there is a lot of public concern over corruption, crime and police extortion. For example, there is now evidence of corruption, involving companies that have built the “white elephant” stadiums for the World Cup.

Plus, the methods used to make way for the Belo Monte Dam’s construction have been questioned, as they don’t seem to have the public interest at heart. No wonder why Brazilians’ anger is bubbling over onto the streets.



Thousands protest rising public transport costs in Rio de Janeiro. EPA/Marcelo Sayão

Most of the above problems have been known for some time. But Brazil cannot resist the temptation of constructing more football stadiums, large dams, highways and other infrastructure.

And, despite professing to bring benefits to the wider country, there is evidence that the many large scale infrastructure projects begun by former President Lula’s Accelerated Growth Programme, mostly enrich small groups of corporate elites.

The benefits

Large infrastructure projects are often very lucrative, as the public purse - in the name of development, growth and progress - pumps large amounts of taxpayers’ money into them.

The cost for the Belo Monte Dam, for example (estimated to be anything between US$13bn and US$18bn is largely financed by BNDES, Brazil’s large national development bank, which now has loans exceeding those of the World Bank.

Belo Monte is led by Norte Energia, a new corporate consortium, involving the Brazilian federal power utlity Eletrobras and the mining giant Vale.

Critics argue that the financing of such large-scale infrastructure projects can be seen as a massive transfer of funds from public to private hands. This has the potential to further increase social and economic inequality in Brazil, which is already among the world’s highest.

And then there is the question of what the power generated by the Belo Monte Dam will actually be used for. It is estimated that Eletrobras has already purchased 30% of its projected power for re-sale to mining and other export-driven industries.

Brazil’s economic boom has been largely driven by energy-intensive production of primary commodities for export, largely to China. Again, these export industries tend to be controlled by a small group of corporate elites.

It is for these reasons that there has been a lot of public opposition in Brazil to current mega-development projects - even the World Cup. People are angry that billions of dollars of public funds have been invested in projects that don’t benefit the wider community.

It seems to be the corporate elites that are profiting, while funding is lacking for public services such as transport, healthcare, education, culture and employment.

Far greater democratic scrutiny of these ongoing mega-development projects is needed in Brazil. It’s vital that their social and environmental costs are kept to a minimum and the benefits shared by the masses - rather than just a handful of corporate elites.
The Conversation

Steffen Böhm has received funding from the ESRC, British Academy, the East of England Cooperative Society and the Green Light Trust.

Rafael Kruter Flores does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Rio de Janeiro: A Story of Occupations and Evictions

Favela Metro-Mangueira
Favela Metro-Mangueira (Photo credit: CatComm | ComCat | RioOnWatch)

It’s been five years since Brazil celebrated its selection by FIFA to host the ongoing 2014 World Cup. 

The announcement was made in great style on Copacabana Beach, packed with thousands jumping, dancing and in many cases partying all night - in what many would consider to be true Brazilian style.

FIFA clearly thought that this was the safe choice in its gradual march around the globe, bringing recalcitrant nations and continents into its orbit. 

Brazil, after all, is the prototype football-crazy nation, where the whole country grinds to a halt to watch its squad in action. So who could possibly imagine that four years later millions of people would be marching through the streets not only of Rio and São Paulo but also Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, Goiania, shouting Não Vai ter Copa! (‘There won’t be a World Cup!).

The original impetus for the massive demonstrations of 2013 was a nationwide rise in bus fares, but with the upcoming Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup, public attention quickly focused on the vast sums being invested in stadiums and the infrastructure for the tournament. 

The “FIFA standard” of the new stadiums was contrasted with the recurrent problems of public transport, health and education. The double whammy of also being selected to host the 2016 Olympics engendered a wildly ambitious restructuring and development plan in Rio de Janeiro.

On December 5, 2009, the Strategic Plan of the City Government announced by Mayor Eduardo Paes presented as one of its core aims the reduction of the total surface area occupied by favelas (shanty towns) by 3.5%, purportedly because they were located “in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, conservation areas, or areas of public utility.” 

But as a banner carried by a protesting victim of this eviction policy read: “When rich people live in the South zone, it’s called a noble area, when poor people live there it’s called an area at risk.”

 
Graffiti on the walls of Metro Mangueira by Moroccan-French artist Pleks Kustom (photo by author).

Even the beloved Maracana stadium, an international icon of Rio’s identity, had to be entirely reconstructed in line with FIFA directives. 

In the process the geral - the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans - has been abolished, effectively excluding the poorer part of the population from attending games. 

Watching live football is now the privilege of the “whites”, the upper and middle-class spectators who are able to pay more for the right to watch the game sitting down. 

In the process of reconstructing Maracana, the developers hit on a perfect scheme for earning more money by knocking down the surroundings as well to make space for a massive parking lot and shopping mall.

The destroyed surroundings of the stadium included Friedenreich School, one of Rio’s best municipal schools (in a country which ranks 78th for quality of education); Lanagro, Rio’s only laboratory for analyzing foodstuffs (while Brazil has the highest consumption of pesticides in the world and all corn and soy plantations are genetically modified); the Olympic-standard Celio de Barros athletics complex and Julio de Lamare water-sports complex (both newly reconstructed at vast expense for the 2007 Pan-American Games and used for training Rio’s Olympic athletes); Metro Mangueira, a poor community built 34 years ago by the construction workers of the Rio underground, hence its name; and finally Aldeia Maracanã, a multi-ethnic indigenous community created in 2006 around the abandoned 19th century building, which had long been associated with indigenous culture and which housed the Indian museum for over twenty years.

Metro Mangueira is emblematic of the many evictions carried out or planned in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. 

It was once an orderly, close-knit community and, although poor, the houses were solidly built by construction-workers. 

In October 2010, employees of the City Council started informing the inhabitants that their community was “at risk”, marking their houses with crosses and numbers, reminiscent of the Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos. 

The 107 families who accepted were moved to Cosmos, some 45 miles away, causing enormous hardship for those with jobs or schools nearby. The City Council tractors then moved in to demolish the newly abandoned homes, leaving huge holes and piles of broken masonry, opening the community to drug dealers, prostitution and a plague of rats and mosquitoes.

As a result, the official explanation used to justify the eviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With families and individuals occupying the ruins and rubble of the demolished homes, the area was soon transformed into a risk zone. 

Finally, at the beginning of 2014, with the World Cup in sight, the demolition trucks moved back into the community. Instead of a real option for those about to be evicted, the city council proposed to register them in the federal programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) which subsidizes low income families to acquire houses. Although federal, this program is administered by city councils in each state. 

There have been no new public housing developments in the central area of Rio, so the register is just a piece of paper. Popular resistance to the demolition of Metro Mangueira lasted several days and led to a large contingent of military police attacking young and old alike with pepper spray, bombs and rubber bullets.

Resistance during the final eviction of Metro Mangueira (photo by Paula Kossatz).

Before the advent of Google Maps, maps of Rio de Janeiro depicted the older, more traditional areas of the city and the newer expansions towards Barra and Recreio while the rest of the area was apparently uninhabited space. 

Google maps dealt a serious blow to this bucolic image of the Cidade Maravilhosa (‘Wonderful City’) by revealing that all available space in the urban area - hills, valleys, rough ground - was occupied by favelas

The reaction of much of the elite was a sense of betrayal, but it’s impossible to sweep these satellite images under the carpet. Suddenly everyone was forced to admit the favelas‘ existence.

After the draconian austerity measures and structural reforms imposed by the IMF during the debt crisis of the 1980s, the favelas had spread rapidly as more and more people were driven to the cities by the expansion of industrial agriculture. 

In their new urban dwellings, the inhabitants lingered in a sort of limbo-state, as an auxiliary labor force at wages insufficient to adequately feed their families, let alone pay for housing. 

Signs of the acute housing crisis in Rio are reflected in the number of people - even entire families - sleeping in the streets in the city center, while new favelas continuously spring up in every available space.

So when at the beginning of April 2014 some of the leaders of the Movement of Homeless Workers identified a large building and surrounding yard and out-houses which used to belong to the former telephone company Telerj, and which had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, they quickly set about occupying the area. 

Thousands of families invested their minimal resources into buying planks to construct huts in the area which in the space of a week was occupied by ten thousand people. Although the occupants of the Telerj building included pregnant women, elderly people and thousands of children from babies to adolescents, no real attempt was made to identify the occupants or investigate their necessities.

TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, was quick to denounce the “invaders” as criminals, flying over the area for aerial shots of the “invasion.” 

The telephone company that took over from Telerj - Oi - had never occupied the building, which was going to be sold to the city government and which was destined for the ‘My House, My Life’ program. 

However, with the impasse of the occupation, the “owners” soon appeared and a suit for reintegration of the property was rushed through the courts. 

On Wednesday, April 9, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the occupation had been carried out by organized professionals, implying criminal intent, and declared that the area should be “disoccupied” and returned to its owners. The mayor went as far as stating that “really poor people who need houses don’t stake out their plots with planks and construction materials.”

 
Rubble is all that remains of the Metro Mangueira community (photo by author).

So what was the solution for all this “criminal activity”? 

At dawn on April 11, 1.600 heavily armed military police invaded the area. Sleeping women were kicked awake, huts were knocked down, everyone was sprayed with chemical spray - not from the usual hand-held canisters but from massive cylinders the size of fire extinguishers, which the police carried in backpacks. 

All members of the press, whether corporate or independent, were expelled from the area and even one of the Globo reporters was arrested by police on the spurious charge that he was “throwing stones.” Occupants allege that four infants succumbed to the chemical spray and rumors circulated that one of the reasons for keeping reporters out was to prevent them from witnessing the fatalities.

The sheer number of people involved, the fact that noone had time to create a real register of the occupants of the building, and the pandemonium that ensued makes it impossible to corroborate the facts. 

Nonetheless, the photographs and videos of independent reporters on the scene bear witness to the terror of the “disoccupation.” Testimonies of many of those involved reveal that these are people who have already been evicted from other areas in recent demolitions and evictions, while others are victims of the rising prices engendered by the militarization of the favelas.

The occupation and subsequent eviction of the Telerj building, just as the destruction of the Metro Mangueira community, is exemplary of the complete disregard for right to housing of Brazil’s poorest people. 

On the one hand, entire neighborhoods are demolished to make space for parking lots and shopping malls, and on the other many favelas have been occupied by militarized police forces (UPPs). This means that communities lacking any form of public services are basically placed under permanent curfew, which goes under the dubious title of “Public Security,” and any kind of protest is treated as a criminal uprising.

The contagious spirit of the mass protests that have been rocking Brazil over the past year has also found fertile soil in the favelas, where the death of every young person murdered by police is another rallying cry for popular resistance. 

As the current wave of anti-World Cup protests shows, the genie is out of the bottle - and it will take a lot more than violent evictions and police repression to silence the awakened and indignant multitude.

Vik Birkbeck is British by birth but is a long-time resident of Brazil. As a media activist she has been filming and photographing popular culture and street movements since the eighties. All the photos in the article are by the author.

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who - dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification - has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. 

In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. 

We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.