Business, Finance & Economics

For Brazil's new middle class, 'little strolls' are becoming a protest movement

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Credit: Zoe Sullivan
Activist Janaina Oliveira enters a mall in Recife.

It started as a way for kids from Brazil's new middle class to hang out. Crowds of young people, mostly of color, descended on a mall in São Paulo in December.

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Now these gatherings, called "rolezinhos," have turned into a social protest movement that's spreading around Brazil. Ramón Cesar was one of a handful of young people who responded to the call for a rolezinho in the most exclusive mall in the Brazilian city of Recife.

Ramón, 18, slender and soft-spoken, says he's tired of the way he gets treated whenever he goes into a mall.

“Just because I'm black and I’m wearing flip flops, I’ve got two security guards following me around,” he says.

Rolezinhos, which translates as “little strolls,” weren't designed to be protests. They began as a way for young people from Brazil's new middle class to leave their low-income communities and hang out. But they’re slowly turning into a battle over participation and social space.

“The best place for a young person to relax is at the mall, in the food court, or maybe in the movie theater,” says Janaina Oliveira, an activist who took part in the Recife rolezinho. She says malls are also among the few safe places for young people in Brazil.

The first rolezinho took place at a mall in São Paulo in early December. Word of it spread on Facebook, and about 6,000 people showed up, most of them young people of color.

The gathering was relatively peaceful, though it was definitely loud and animated. There were rumors of thefts and assaults at the event, so mall owners moved to quash the phenomenon.

In mid-December, 22 people were arrested at a rolezinho. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up another one, and six malls petitioned for a court order to block them entirely.

The rolezinhos — and reactions to them — have sparked a heated conversation in Brazil about race, class and social change. With Brazil's economy growing, there's a new group of people with money to spend. But some Brazilians aren't ready for that, says Noelia Brito, an activist attorney in Recife.  

The current government likes to say that it promoted a new middle class, but this new middle class is considered second-rate by the traditional middle class,” Brito says.

The rolezinho in the Recife mall in late January didn’t end up drawing that many participants. Some who planned to attend cited fears of violence and prosecution. People working in the mall were also feeling the chill that day, like Andrea Lourenco. She didn't want it to turn “into the kind of mess we saw in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.”

But she said she didn’t mind the rolezinho, and the people it attracts — as long as it didn’t affect her sales commissions.

That's a big issue. Some mall operators have complained that the rolezinhos are scaring away customers and cutting into their bottom line.

Brazil experienced a wave of demonstrations last summer around preparations for the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. The rolezinhos didn’t grow out of those protests, but they’re another sign that the country's social pressures are bubbling to the surface, at a time when Brazil wants to seem as welcoming, and stable, as possible. 

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