When I was 14 years old, thousands of peaceful protesters occupied a park in Lower Manhattan – a movement deemed “Occupy Wall Street”. The people of the movement protested international corporatism. Within two months, the protesters were cracked down on by police and forced out of the park. Any similar movements in the United States undoubtedly come to an end through government intervention. For that reason, the fact that squatters have successfully occupying buildings throughout Brazil since 1999, and not any buildings, predominately former corporate and government buildings, left me stunned. Not only are the squatters making lives for themselves, but they are sending a clear message that is a threat to capitalism.
According to the site coordinator, the Brazilian government, unsurprisingly, has not taken proper actions to combat homelessness, inequality, and poverty. “If the government did its job it would take these buildings and they would put up housing, hospitals, schools and other fundamental resources,” she said. However, these buildings are left empty and the homeless barely benefit from any resources that are available to the poor such as bolsas. Considering how much bureaucracy exists in Brazil, I am sure that a lack of housing prevents individuals from being able to apply to several welfare programs.
In response, squatters have established what is essentially their own self-governing commune. The movement actually exists within a very structured order. There is a president and a series of other positions – all of which are voted for. In order to live in one of the buildings, a family or individual must apply and have certain requisite skills that will benefit all living in the building. The point is that all of those who benefit must give back and support the movement. Because of this, the movement is actually very selective with who it chooses to live in the co-ops and there exists a list which takes many years to get off of.
The movement sustains itself through several actions. Visibility is raised through the occupation of public spaces like parks, as well as of government institutions, which the founders don’t fear to get in trouble with since the government is already severely unresponsive. The movement organizes demonstrations, such as the blocking of demolition teams. It gathers supporters through Whatsapp. This demonstrates how powerful social media has become at mobilizing people, but I found it curious that here Whatsapp is used considering how vital Facebook and Twitter are to movements in the United States and in many other places throughout the world.
In return for supporting the movement, the squatters are supported with various resources like food, schooling, and limited healthcare. This is important, because aside from money transportation is a key barrier to many resources. When it takes people nearly 2 hours, sometimes more, to obtain these resources they are unable to obtain them. Taking 2 hours or more out of your day means losing work, time, and money. Taking time off is a privilege of the middle class and above. For this reason, it is also important that the squatters are occupying downtown spaces, because accessibility is highteined.
However, because they are downtown I could not help but think about gentrification and the effects it may have in the future. In the United States, I have seen government mandated low-income housing units vanish, because developers come into neighborhoods, build upscale condos, and the average rent inevitably rises. Thus, I am concerned about what the current gentrifying of downtown neighborhoods could mean for lower income individuals. If families, in masses, are pushed out of their homes, how will the movement reply to the influx of homeless people it must now account for?
I additionally kept thinking of the divide between not only the squatters and the government, but also the divide between squatters and the rest of the people in the city. One of my first jobs, when I was 14, was to go around a neighborhood collecting petition signatures so the community-based health center in the area could move into a newer, larger building. The new building, being at the entrance of a upper-middle class neighborhood, provoked the residents to protest us, because they perceived those who used our services as “dirty illegals”. So, I wonder how the rest of Brazilians feel about the squatters? I can’t imagine it is much different. I read in the magazine that the media has a role in portraying the squatters as lazy criminals which definitely impacts and hurts support. A lot of the success of movements is grounded in how much money and donations can be raised. Thus, it is also astonishing how the movement has supported itself financially through members’ small contributions, as well as the thrift store which had lots of great finds.
I believe person-to-person interactions with the squatters definitely aid and improve people’s perceptions of them. However, I can’t deny I felt a bit uncomfortable visiting. I understand that we were entering with context and to learn which is very different from what favela tours try to do, since the motives of those running them is economic. But it did at times still feel like I was invading the privacy of people’s homes, especially when we entered the room of the doll maker which is why I did not hesitate to buy a doll. Overall though, I do think the visit provided a lot of context and visibility.