One of the leaders of Brazil’s flashmob movement that is sweeping across shopping centres, sparking violent clashes with police, is a soft-spoken 55-year-old piano teacher that has never organised a protest in his life.
Around 1,000 people are expected to turn up at São Paulo’s upmarket JK shopping centre on Saturday for a gathering – known as a ‘rolezinho’ – which he has organised over Facebook.
He was motivated by a crackdown on other flashmobs, which began last month as parties but have become more political. “I couldn’t bear to see the criminalisation of poor, black kids,” he says.
Similar protest-cum-rampages are planned in at least eight other states across Brazil this weekend, with more than 8,000 expected at one shopping centre in Rio de Janeiro. Popular among poor, largely black, Brazilians, the flashmobs have begun to snowball into a nationwide movement against racism and inequality, threatening the government with further violent mass protests just as the country prepares to host the football World Cup, academics say.
In June the biggest protests in 20 years spread across Brazil following complaints over a bus fare increase, bringing businesses in Latin America’s biggest economy to a standstill and prompting a plunge, albeit temporary, in President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity.
Rousseff called an emergency meeting, worried that the protests might spiral out of control, local media reported.
Many say the government has good reason to be worried, pointing to a similarity with the London riots of 2011.
São Paulo’s first major rolezinho took place at the beginning of last month, when about 6,000 teenagers occupied Shopping Itaquera in the city’s poor eastern suburbs.
Similar gatherings followed across the city but muggings and robberies prompted a tough response from the police. Last Saturday, military police used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up the crowds and were caught on camera beating teenagers with truncheons.
Messages of outrage spread quickly over social media in Brazil, which has the second biggest Facebook community in the world, turning the mass parties into a nationwide political movement.
At least four shopping centres across the city secured court orders to ban suspicious teenagers from entering, leading to accusations this week of racial segregation and even a “Brazilian apartheid”.
In spite of Brazil’s image as a harmonious melting pot of races, racial tensions run deep. The country still suffers from one of the most acute income divides. “Although Brazil has progressed in reducing poverty, we note that there’s still a great contrast between the situation of black Brazilians and the country’s rapid economic growth,” the UN concluded in a report last month on racism.
Income growth has inspired a sense of social ascension, leading to demands for greater equality, as well as allowing people to buy their first mobile phones, giving them access to social media.
The movement might also be the symptom of a disenchanted youth that is facing a slowing economy and a shrinking job market.
While Brazil’s unemployment rate remains at a record low of about 5 per cent, research by Ipea, a government agency, has shown many young people in poorer regions are dropping out of the workforce and are not going into higher education either.