Favela Social Movements: Lessons from Cidade de Deus

De Dicionário de Favelas Marielle Franco
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By Dr. Anjuli Fahlberg, Tufts University

Activism under Repression

Since Rio’s favelas were first built in the late 1800s, its residents have suffered numerous obstacles. Residents struggled to obtain social rights, such as access to formal housing, employment, education, running water, and healthcare. Their civil rights have also been regularly violated when police forces arrive to tear down houses, evict tenants, or arrest people--particularly young Black men. Many political rights are also out of residents’ reach frequently. Rarely have favela residents succeed in getting elected to city council, and those in political power may be sidelined by politicians with other interests or resort to clientelist practices rather than advocate for progressive legislation. These long standing issues have been compounded by the rise of organized drug gangs in the 1980s, who took over neighborhood associations, prohibited elections, and threatened residents who mobilized against them. Given these multifaceted challenges, it can be extremely difficult for favela residents to mobilize for their citizenship rights.

These obstacles are especially pervasive in Cidade de Deus, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro’s west zone that has an approximate 60,000 residents. Built in the 1960s as a conjunto habitacional, Cidade de Deus became home to a great diversity of Rio citizens from 63 different favelas, many who had lost their homes to floods, landslides, and forced evictions. Over the years, residents created residents’ associations and collectives through which they could mobilize around housing rights, healthcare, education, and a host of other issues. However, the take-over of the Comando Vermelho in the 1980s made many of these forms of organizing risky. There, unarmed activists have reconfigured their political and social mobilization tactics in recent years in order to continue to fight for citizenship rights in a context of resource scarcity and violent governance.

However, even in a context of extreme violence and political repression, residents continue to create spaces for organized, non-violent social action by taking advantage of external opportunities and internal cultural and political openings. Community-based organizations and collectives, many of whom are led by women, play an important role in the governance of their neighborhood by providing social services, organizing for social development, and advocating for broader social change, such as racial justice, gender-based rights, and progressive politics. However, favela activism differs from other social movements in a some significant way: Rather than organizing into one large, cohesive movement or organization, favela activism is dispersed and fragmented. By segmenting these activities, not only are activists able to organize around a broad array of needs, activities, and visions for how to achieve change; they also avoid forming a political body powerful enough to threaten armed actors. The consequence is a patchwork of organizing activities, each with a unique objective and audience, but which, in their totality, provide a broad, diverse, and comprehensive set of social and political activities aimed at helping the neighborhood and demanding large-scale social change.

Cidade de Deus

Cidade de Deus is a contested territory--a neighborhood whose geographic, social, and political boundaries are constantly being renegotiated by multiple state and non-state actors. Unarmed residents play an important role in creating and challenging their lived realities through various processes of auto-construction and systems of mutual resilience. Even those not involved in politics or social organizing participate in daily processes of building and changing their external environments through creative and informal strategies. Many of them also provide the financial and familial scaffolding that favela activists need to sustain their (usually unpaid) organizing efforts. In a context of so many shifts and negotiations, non-violent collective action emerges as one of the many strategies that residents use to resist the overlapping forms of structural violence imposed on them. Activism in Cidade de Deus is embedded within external shifts across Brazil and the globe that have created opportunities for favela activism. Most scholarship on politics in favelas is concerned with the closures residents face, including police repression, the rise of drug gangs, clientelism, neocolonialism, and poverty. Each of these has played a significant role in reinforcing the unequal relations between favelas and the urban core and imposing limitations on what favela residents can do to advocate for their rights. However, a number of openings have also emerged in the last fifty years. These include the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, the ascendance of the progressive left to power through the election of Rio de Janeiro Governor Leonel Brizola in the 1980s, followed by President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and the globalization of information communication systems. These, and many other changes, helped to increase the amount of resources available to support favela-based improvements and organizing. Favela activists, however, have played an important role in “milking the resource matrix” by identifying potential resources and strategically organizing themselves--their networks, language, and services--to gain access to these and bring them to favelas. Ultimately, it was the combination of political opportunities and intentional mobilization among activists that helped to fuel the many infrastructure, economic, and cultural improvements that Cidade de Deus has witnessed in recent decades.

Governance and Social Mobilization: From the Favela Beyond

Activists in Cidade de Deus have taken advantage of the gendered division of governing labor, whereby the masculinized sphere of violent governance concerns itself with formal politics and security issues while feminized activism provides social and cultural services to the neighborhood. While activists are both women and men, local organizations are generally run by women and espouse values often associated with motherhood and femininity, such as caring for children and the elderly, providing education and social assistance, and focusing on gender-based issues and social development. As activist groups are seen by outsiders (and armed actors) as women doing women’s work, their mothering of the community helps protect their more political efforts to make demands from the state for resources and rights. Favela activists also engage in “political upcycling,” re-deploying cultural values and discourses widely embraced by their neighborhood to serve more political purposes. For instance, it is common for the family members of “innocent” people--those not involved in gangs--killed in shootouts to march to the cemetery carrying signs asking for peace. Activists sometimes take advantage of the commonality of this practice to organize their own marches, yet their rallies take on a distinctly political tone, demanding an end to militarized policing and the devaluation of the lives of Black and brown people living in favelas. Activists also tend to refer to themselves as “social educators,” drawing on the widespread appreciation across favelas for education and teachers, who are believed to be among the greatest hope for improving the life chances of the next generation. Finally, activists regularly decry racism and racist police brutality. While this focus on racial violence can be owed to the globalization of racial justice movements and the many statistics indicating the over-targeting of Black men, it is also a way of aligning their interests with those of local gang members. By protesting against the racial state, activists demand not only their own rights but also the protection of gang members’ civil rights, thereby indirectly positioning themselves as political allies with local armed actors. By embedding themselves in local frames, activists thus avoid directly confronting drug gangs, choosing instead to focus on the practices and language that resonate with local cultural practices and norms. Although favelas are often characterized as sites of social exclusion and marginality, favela activism helps to connect the favela to broader spaces in which politics and social movements, including the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the globe. One way this happens is in spaces for “participatory democracy,” where favela residents work collaboratively with public administrators, private volunteers, and staff from larger NGOs and research centers from across the city. In these ways, activists and allies help make the state and the private sector more accessible and legible to the favela. Activists also participate in a range of political parties, unions, and NGOs, and social movements across the city. This positions them as contributors to broader social change projects while also helping to resist the social and political isolation that favelas frequently suffer. At the same time, favela activists do not occupy the same privilege spaces as their allies, most of whom tend to be wealthier, have more access to formal education, and in many cases are lighter skinned. Consequently, favela activism remains an integral yet subordinated component of urban and transnational social movements.

Learning from Favela Activists

Cidade de Deus offers a number of important lessons that can be applied to other contexts of violent repression. The most important of these is that even in areas of violence, there is also dedication to non-violence, collective efforts undertaken by local residents to improve life for their neighbors and make demands for a better, safer and more just society. The second is that people who study activism in areas of violence will only be able to locate non-violent activism if they listen to residents. By this, I mean not just hear their stories, but ask their opinions and solicit their analyses and theories. Favela residents and other marginalized populations must be treated not simply as objects of knowledge, but producers of knowledge. Finally, non-violence operates differently than other forms of politics and social movements. It is often mobilized by female leaders and relies on subtle forms of power that dispersed, fragmented and piecemeal approaches to social change can have, particularly in contexts where organized claims-making is so dangerous. Favelas are communities with thousands of brave, dedicated, intelligent women--and men--who are changing their neighborhoods through “passos de formiguinha.” It is important that those from outside favelas recognize the many “good things” that are happening in the terrains that might otherwise appear most hostile to democratic, non-violent organizing.

The Research Process: A Participatory Action Research Approach

The above text is based on the book “Activism under Fire: The Politics of Non-Violence in Rio de Janeiro’s Most Dangerous Favela” (Forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Research for the book took place between 2014 and 2018. During this time, I traveled regularly to Cidade de Deus and lived with local residents. I conducted over 100 interviews with local residents and activists, as well as public administrators, elected officials, NGO staff, and others. I also attended meetings hosted by activists, volunteered at community-based organizations, and spent time in the spaces where residents were organizing for rights. As a White American raised in Rio de Janeiro, I believed it was especially important to consider the ethics of my research. By this I mean that it has become common for people--often White outsiders--to enter Black communities to study them and write about them without including residents in this process. This is harmful on multiple levels. For one, it positions the researcher as the “knower” and community residents as research subjects, whose stories become the “raw material” to be extracted and reused for the benefit of academics. It limits the depth and breadth of knowledge, since only the perspective of the researcher is taken into account. Many critics view this type of research as a form of intellectual imperialism. To combat the colonial legacies that get reproduced by traditional research, I employed an approach called Participatory Action Research, or PAR. PAR is based on three principles:

The participation and leadership of community members in each component of the research, from determining the research questions and methods to analyzing the data and construction theories. Collective education and the co-construction of knowledge through dialogue and shared learning. Research that promotes the well-being of the research community and their broader interests and goals.

Given these objectives, I began my research by asking interview participants what types of issues they thought were important and what stories they wanted told about Cidade de Deus. Although people pointed to a number of different issues that they saw as important--the recent increase in robberies near the UPP precinct, the need for road repairs, and the lack of healthcare services--they were in agreement about the stories they wanted told: stories about the good things people were doing for their community. Cidade de Deus, like many of Rio’s favelas, are used to being the focus of studies, films, and news articles about violence, poverty, and criminality. They viewed this narrative as overly simplistic and stigmatizing. Based on these conversations, I transitioned my original study--which was going to be about the impact of the UPP on residents’ experiences of insecurity--to an examination of how favela residents were engaging in non-violent, organized forms of service provision and social mobilization. Throughout the research process, I volunteered with a community-based organization and offered to help other collectives whenever possible. I also presented my findings to favela activists and other participants on several occasions and asked them to share their reflections, reactions, suggestions, and critiques. When a first draft of my book manuscript was completed, I shared this with several key participants and asked them to read some of the chapters relevant to them and provide feedback. We held two workshops on Zoom where participants could discuss the book, what they found accurate and helpful and what they believed needed to be revised. Participants were remunerated for these efforts. Their opinions and contributions were incorporated into the next draft of the book. Finally, several Cidade de Deus residents and I co-founded the Building Together Research Collective in 2019, which aims to bring knowledge from the periphery into the academy, and produce research that is relevant and useful to favela residents. We have undertaken several collaborative research projects in recent years (see www.construindojuntos.com).