Shopping Leblon rolezinho

There is a youth movement in Sao Paulo that has many mall owners and mall-goers concerned about safety and numbers, and is stressing police and politicians alike.

Since early December, large groups of teens and young adults have gathered in Sao Paulo shopping malls, sometimes numbering in the several thousands. The gatherings, dubbed rolezhinos (strolls or little excursionsare like a flash-mob. They’re planned meetings (via social network) of a large group of youth from poor neighborhoods, who want to see each other, flirt, eat at McDonald’s, take pictures to post on Facebook, and simply have fun. These rolezinhos were originally intended to be peaceful gatherings of capitalism on display, but they’ve become violent, crime-laden, and politicized.

During the scorching days of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, those who can afford it flock to the beaches for relief from the heat and humidity. (This has been the hottest December and January on record.) But, the majority of the youth in this richest of Brazilian cities,  who live in packed favelas, can’t afford vacation, and so they seek other places to gather: places with air conditioning, accessible food, and distractions for their restless minds and bodies. What better place than a shopping mall?

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Initiated by a 20-year-old via social media, the first rolezinho brought together no less than 6,000 teenagers to a mall in Itaquera on December 7 on the outskirts of São Paulo. The mob was met by fear and panic from both the shops’ owners and other customers, followed by a police response that prompted fear and accusations on both sides.

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This month, a rolezinho at Shopping Tucuruvi on January 4 caused the mall to shut down. On January 11, Shopping Metrô Itaquera had another rolezinho. A mob in Jardin Sul caused havoc in the mall and along the main road leading to it. But this time, police had begun responded with force, using tear gas and rubber bullets, and cops were caught on video beating teens with nightsticks. Several attacks by teens on stores and looting have been reported.

The administration of the shopping malls is at a loss of what to do to prevent rolezhinos. These have resorted not only to private security, but also state police force – in some cases legitimated by judicial decisions – either to keep the youth literally out of these spaces by locking the doors and deciding on an individual basis who is allowed in, or to welcome them with tear gas, rubber bullets and, in the most extreme cases, arrest. These decisions on who is allowed in have been decried as racism and have been challenged in person and in court. Mall administrators have responded by obtaining judicial orders to fine anyone caught participating in a rolezinho R$10,000  (roughly $4,200). (Good luck enforcing that one!)

Those gathered sport the latest fashions in Nike footwear, Oakley sunglasses, baseball hats, etc. It’s a  fashion flash mob. Reportedly, fans aspire to whiskey and cars, a sign of a generation that, while poor, has become more integrated into capitalism. They celebrate their newfound wealth (based on credit), and want to display the emblems of that wealth.

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Typically at nights and on weekends, you can find large groups gathered in the streets, where they park their cars, block the roads, and turn their souped-up stereos on full volume. These gatherings are called pancadões (big thump), or funk da ostentação street parties. Dancing and drinking is a huge part of these events.

In January, Sao Paulo police began cracking down on pancadões, imposing hefty fines on stationary cars emitting loud music. Sao Paulo has a 10 p.m. curfew on noise, which effectively shuts down youth hours of fun.

Now the youth say they have nowhere to gather, saying they can’t stay locked up at home, which is true. And public space is dwindling, as expensive buildings are erected and many parks become “private property.” Where are the youth of this massive city supposed to gather and recreate? In a city of 22 million people, where high rises are erupting on the horizon every day, I can understand their need for space. But are shopping malls really the best venue?

The youth have a point, as do the mall authorities. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am certain of one thing. If I see a rolezinho developing where I am, I’m out of there.

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For me, it’s a matter of critical mass, as “The Crowd” swirls in its own group emotions, setting its own group intention, and influencing the emotions, will and eardrums of everyone within the grasp of its energy field. In this group energy, all it takes is one spark to set off the Crowd in a release of emotions. This is one reason why I am so uncomfortable in crowds. Once control is lost, there is no turning back until the energy has spent itself.

Rolezinhos are powerful stuff.