Thursday, January 22, 2009

Occupying Slum

[Image: The Dona Marta slum in Rio, Brazil. Photograph: Gregg Newton/Reuters.]

When the tough get going, well, you know what they do, they do what most governments do – they wall it off, right? That’s Brazil’s old but new plan to help “reform” the “gang-plagued slums” encrusting the hillsides of Rio. Actually, ‘walling’ is hardly anything new in Brazil.
For anyone interested in the wave of fortified enclaving that drove São Paulo’s rabid urban development through the 80’s and 90’s, I suggest reading Teresa Caldeira’s book City of Walls. I’ve been flipping through it – a very insightful and well researched documentation of the upper class’ exploitation of a culture of fear to justify urbanizing spaces of exclusion and enclosure (you know, gated communities, closed condominiums, secured shopping malls, restricted office space, neighborhood checkpoints, private security outposts, etc.), and how – in order to do this – social and political discourses around crime and immigration were dangerously intertwined with these transformations as they ultimately arose from the democratic “consolidation” following the military’s rule ending in the mid-eighties.
She pretty clearly documents the patterns of spatial segregation that emerged from Brazil’s democratization which was politically alleged to help neutralize inequality, but of course did not. City of Walls is a really good account of how the urban and political form is inextricably linked, and the ways the built environment serves as an arena for political contest and democracy’s reproduction of social inequality.
I mean, it’s something we can track in tons of cities these days, this neoliberal blueprint for secured enclaves and social division; neoliberalism as a perhaps softer urban form of socio-economic segregation; an absorption of the old powers of segregation re-spatialized through the postmodern spaces of transnational capital. I wouldn’t say the book is dated by any means but is certainly terrain most Subtopia readers are familiar with by now, still nevertheless highly relevant. Certainly the book’s real strength is in observing the Brazilian patterns of spatial segregation and shedding light on the roots of political stabilization dependent on these urban models of division to secure power. Caldeira raises lots of good questions about the kinds of social foundations and egalitarian principles that democratization is built on, and all the cultural sacrifice that comes with creating a city which boasts equality but is really defined by an urban DNA of separation.
Anyway, this is no book review, and I plan on talking to her more in the future about this very topic so I will hold my clumsy tongue until then. But, the result of the last couple of decades has turned São Paulo, like so many other cities around the world (LA, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, San Jose (CR), Mexico City), into a kind of hyper-fragmented segregopolis (or segropolis, might be easier, I don’t know) if I may coin a new more than likely useless term here: basically, an urban blotter of enclaves and secluded reserves for which the distribution patterns of class division and poverty no longer follow a center-rich/periphery-poor paradigm, but are completely internalized within and throughout the metropolis now in moneyed peaks and impoverished valleys, social islands, architectural pockets of wealth shadowed by de facto ghettos; it is a city that has stripped from and withdrawn into itself, peeling with an upper crust, abandoning old models of public space for egregious thresholds of privatization; I don’t know, an urbanism pockmarked by inner-fortification.
Anyway, Rio however is different in that it still highlights the classic peripheral geography of urban poverty with its tourist Mecca centered around a clump of beaches which is, for all intents and purposes, a militarized paradise surrounded by some of the densest poverty in the world.
As you can read here the plan is to build a “650-metre-long concrete barrier” to “encircle part of the famous Dona Marta slum” south in the city, which authorities are billing, audaciously enough, as an "eco-barrier" […] “intended to protect the nearby Atlantic rainforest from illegal occupation as well as improve security and living conditions for slum residents.” They’re also claiming this is part of a much bigger blueprint for rehabilitating the slums, but the wall (which would be 3 meters high) is part of a first step in helping to force favela residents to begin to connect with Rio’s greater public services, or so the Brazilian government insists.
Really? Wow. Ok, so maybe they are building some other accessible public works projects as well (also mentioned in the article), but if people are squatting on the hillsides and they want to prevent them from expanding, then how about helping to build a little more affordable housing first? If they want to draw people away from the narco industry, then how about getting a serious plan together for new job creation? What about city planners working directly with the favelas to better devise their own infrastructure, their own connections to the city without having to “be forced”? There is just something in the tone of “rehabilitating” the slums that seems to start off on the wrong foot. Where has the real help been for the last 20 years anyway? Why has it even gotten this way to begin with?

from Rachel Neild, consultant with the Open Society Justice Initiative: Criticized as ''social apartheid'' by the Brazilian human rights groups Global Justice, this measure not only is offensive - even if couched as an environmental measure - but it will not work. Effective safety policies require situational prevention in urban design - generally cleaning up public spaces, redirecting traffic flow, street lighting, and so on - not walling off problem communities. But they also demonstrate that you cannot simply design out crime; you must also have targeted law enforcement and, most important, social prevention programs that address causes of crime in the family, schools, recreation and employment. For a Latin America example, the city government of Bogotá developed an integrated crime prevention plan by building an integrated information system and using community policing. The city achieved remarkable reductions in victimization, including homicide. (source)

Interesting point about community policing that I’ll get back to later. But, in this case I can’t decipher whether this planned wall is an attempt to wall out a mass of citizens from the paradise, or if it is more of a tactic of further containing them within their own cloistered hillside territory. Even if it is intended to de-limit the expansion of informal settlements in the jungle, or prevent hideouts for narcos, the wall will hardly achieve it. It’ll probably only increase the spatial compression within the favela and forcibly drive people over the wall even more, or teach them merely how to circumnavigate it – perhaps the wall will one day even be incorporated into the favela’s expansion someway. Either way, the wall in the interim will serve both exclusionary and containment purposes the same, I suppose.
I am reminded of a quote from Mike Davis who wrote towards the end of Planet of Slums, “The demonizing rhetorics of the various international “wars” on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion. And, as in Victorian times, the categorical criminalization of the urban poor is a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteed to shape a future of endless war in the streets. As the Third World middle class increasingly bunker themselves in their suburban themeparks and electrified “security villages,” they lose moral and cultural insight into the urban badlands they have left behind.”

[Image: Rio police hoist the Brazilian flag above the City of God shanty town, claiming they have now conquered the slum. Photograph: Hipolito Pereira/Agencia O Globo.]

According to the Guardian plans to erect walls around Rio's slums were first proposed back in 2004, but were scrapped. Some quick googling turned this up in an old Independent piece:

Luiz Paulo Conde, the deputy state governor, caused controversy last year by suggesting that the slums be surrounded by 10-foot-high walls. His proposal, with its uncomfortable echoes of Israel's West Bank "separation" barrier, has since gained a number of powerful supporters. But this week the immediate prospect of a favela barrier was delayed after Rosinha Matheus, the state governor, exercised her veto and stopped the project, saying the barriers "would be a form of discrimination of good citizens who make up the infinite majority of these communities".

Nevertheless, a wall itself would only be, in Davis’ terms, a further act of leaving behind, and in my amateur view would hardly serve real progress any better.
Though, in reading some other news it’s clear what President Lula’s primary goal for slum reformation is right now – not aggressive social or economic stabilization, or “protecting the living conditions of the slum residents,” but is, quite simply, to secure the ‘untamed hillsides’ in a more entrenched militaristic sort of way.
The wall is only part of the strategy. “In their long, bloody battle to take back control of hundreds of slums from drug gangs,” the New York Times writes, “Rio's police are trying a new tactic -- staying in place and talking to people.”

[Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.]

Sounds civil enough, right? Basically, they’re beefing up a community policing campaign with new higher paid recruits (untainted by corruption) who’ve gone through some sort of special community training courses to effectively occupy the favelas through stationed outposts, regular foot patrols, and by trying to befriend the community through normal and constant presence, long term.
As good or bad as that may sound, at first it sure comes off as an improvement over the old tactics of crashing the hillsides with air raids and violent searches, vicious arrests, informal assassinations, and regular accidental killings. But wait, read on, those tactics are apparently being reserved, too. Of course they are. Who are we kidding here. Still, in light of Rio’s violent legacy, this new approach at least seems more conscientious, more tactfully responsible, if not minimally more humane than just the business-as-usual bloodthirsty counter-terrorist-like interventions that have traumatized these communities for years.
But, wait a second, let’s not get carried away. Do the police really think that writing themselves into the daily reality of the community will be as easy as just buddying up to residents with some new faces and innocent smiles?

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

After decades experiencing some of the most heinous police brutality and corruption ever witnessed, where roughly 4000 people die in Rio each year (1,330 of whom at the hand of the police alone in 2007!) do Brazilian officials really believe that “hearts and minds” will be won over by a good old fashioned dose of “good mornings” and “good evenings,” or that some neighborly conversations about football are going to regain the trust of those who by-and-large view Rio’s police with extreme prejudice and more than justifiable intolerance and suspicion?
This article suggests it’s all so the police can get close enough to sort out the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” According to Conor Foley, “The Brazilian government has even invited officials from Britain to draw on their experiences from Helmand province in Afghanistan and Basra in Iraq.” Hmmmm…..that doesn’t exactly immediately put my suspicions about insidious militarization at rest.

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

It’s old news now (yet still utterly contemporary) that the Pentagon is training for future wars to be fought in cities and slums buffering their periphery. Mike Davis and others have written extensively about the shift in military thinking around the city and the informal urbanization of the surrounding slums that poses a new terrain for the military in the coming (and current) days of geopolitical conflict. Many Third World cities and slums of the Global South are officially cut off from the main industrial conduits of the core cities of global capital and thus are built upon informal models of economy and space. So while the global favelas have been “left behind” and become autonomous in a sense they have also become through a military perspective more or less demonized as dens of potential anti-western extremism and combatant hives of an anti-globalization movement; or, more dangerously as incubators for terrorism.
Brazil’s military is to a very large degree helping to evolve this notion of the “feral city” and of the “necessary” military practice of pacifying the slum. Raúl Zibechi produced a fine piece last year on how the military establishment has been forced to retool its doctrine and practice towards new models of warfare to secure the city in the context of globalization where urban poverty has reshaped the battlefield. Early on, he mentions how Brazilian armed forced admitted in the media to employing military tactics in the Morro da Providéncia favela that had originated with Brazilian soldiers on a UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and how ultimately Brazil has been adamant about keeping members of its army there in order “to test, in the poor neighborhoods of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, containment strategies designed for application in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other large cities.” Further, he points out that Brazilian newspapers went on to reveal how their military in Haiti used other community-friendly tactics like throwing Christmas parties and film nights in the desperate places in order to more secretly gather information on the slums and their inhabitants. A basic befriending in order to snoop strategy.

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

So, when we find out today that Brazil is trying this new approach in the favelas one is forced to reconcile, for all the good nature officials are trying to show with this community policing effort, isn’t it really just a military modus operandi that’s been practiced elsewhere already, from Haiti to recent Human Terrain tactics battle-tested in the “War on Terror” in the Middle East? How can we not question the sincerity then or false pretense of this latest move? Is the new favela militarization a sincere effort to avoid counter-insurgency warfare in the slums, or is it somehow just the evolutionary means for executing the vanguard of those tactics? Just as Brazil uses its army in Haiti to develop slum-securitization techniques, aren’t they simply using the slums in their own country to devise the same types of warfare that are expected to be used across the Global South in the future?
Nevertheless, I expect the residents in Rio’s favelas are even doubly more suspicious of the police with this latest move.
In this article one resident warned, despite the police’s decent disposition now, that this assures them of absolutely nothing since there’s no telling how people will be treated on the outside by the police once (or if) the police retreat from the favelas. Nor does it account for what will happen to the residents if the gangs decide to retaliate against those residents who began to trust the police. The mistrust is deep and widespread, and what the police gather as ‘resident trust’ may be shortlived as well. Another resident said that in their opinion if given the choice a majority of the residents would probably rather be protected by the drug lords than the police (should that even be surprising?....hardly), but as it is now the residents are being more strategically situated somewhere in the middle of the two powers, as both the police and gangs vie for public influence in the favelas.
The police have stated that the way the favelas are set up the drug gangs are protected somewhat by a civilian wall, a barricade of residents who are strangers to the police. So, it makes sense, in order to protect lives and cut down innocent killings that it’s far more helpful to be able to recognize and identify residents, I get that – even though that doesn’t address the nature of some of the unacceptable police tactics used in the first place when storming these places.
However, my own cynicism tells me that this community policing effort is just another way to not necessarily dismantle the civilian wall that protects the gangs so that innocents don’t get hurt, but is a means for wrestling it away from them for the police’s own protection. In many ways, the battle in the favelas is a battle over the residents and the rights to control them and where they stand. That is the essence of urban warfare and securing the city: securing the population. Once residents become more friendly with police, the gangs will grow concerned about the residents’ loyalty, and no telling what could happen to them after that. The policing effort may in the end just draw violence against innocents from the gangs, who will then be blamed for the innocent killings, shielding the police from their own wrongdoing or misconduct, which makes this strategy seem all the more disingenuous and disgusting, if you ask me.
Even though I have been to Rio, walked near some of the favelas briefly, and have friends who try to help me understand the logistics and realities there better than my own vantage could ever afford (I confess I have no idea what’s really going on or what I think this latest strategy will bring), it sure reads like the police are in a more quiet and less obvious way looking to turn the tables and create their own “civilian walls” inside the favelas – the perfect counterpart to a real 10 ft. high barricade they’re assembling on the outside. Walls come in various shapes, sizes and forms, and if you can’t build walls on the inside then it looks like the new approach is to garrison the walls that already exist there.
Anyway, one by one, you can read, the favelas are being infiltrated by Rio’s police. The famous Cidade de Deus (City of God) was reportedly just cleared of all its “drug gang members” days ago, an iconic favela to start with, to say the least – while Santa Marta, heaped at the foot of the famous O Cristo Redentor statue, is beginning to see police outposts cropping up within. None of this news is the least bit encouraging, in my view. As someone who has great interest in seeing these communities develop, Rio, taking on the complexions of a more long term Israeli-style occupational tactic for conquering the slums, looks like it might slowly be turning into a Latin version of the West Bank more and more these days. But wait a second – that’s not necessarily anything new either, I’m afraid.

[Previously: MOUT Urbanism; Diagnosing Slum; Squatter Imaginaries; The City in the Crosshairs: A Conversation with Stephen Graham (Pt. 1)]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You article is very nice, the situation is well depicted and you had very interesting insights.
What I believe is that this wall is more a political marketing targeting votes from the middle class than
a concrete security strategy blueprint, although the irregular urbanization is a real problem. The
security in the favelas is in the hands of the parallel power (os commandos) and they have
very clear rules and the people follow theses rules otherwise the consequences obviously are
tragic. The police is conniving, and what you see in the media usually is not exactly a new
security strategy, the oppression is rather to get even with some drug dealer that probably
screwed up someway. What the corrupt ex-governor Rosinha said is true, almost everybody
in the favelas are nice workers and the relevant criminality is a tiny part of it. Thank you for writing
about the that, nice work, I really enjoyed !! (sorry for my poor English, I’m from Sao Paulo)

11:13 AM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

hey thanks for your comment, so sorry to be getting back to you this late.
but your point about appeasing the middle class makes total sense. thanks for pointing that out. it's all political theater.
your english is great, by the way.
i love Sao Paulo and can't wait to get back!
ciao for now!

10:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home