Mega-Events and the Neoliberal Production of Space in Rio de Janeiro

By Sam Smith
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 6/7 |

Making Violence Visible: Protest, Subversion, and Global Social Media

Activists in Rio and abroad have challenged diverse aspects of the approaching mega-events and their concomitant processes of spatial re-organization of the city. Protests frequently take the form of efforts to achieve visibility at a number of scales, both locally, through national and trans-regional television and print, and via the internet. By modifying or inverting the scale-making projects of infrastructural and development discourses, these subjects attempt to perform a kind of discursive unveiling, and a rebranding of the category of violence upon seemingly innocuous modes of infrastructure as pacifying sport. Nonetheless, these efforts towards visibilizing violence are problematic insofar as they are mediated by technologies (including NGOs) that occur in spatial contexts far from local and collective subjectivities. The politics of recognition across spatial scale necessitates the investigation of complex modes of translation.

The Maracaña stadium renovations and accompanying evictions, for which a public hearing drew hundreds of protesters, stands as exemplary of the ways highly localized activism has emerged, drawing upon a language of community and constitutional rights of citizenship (Figs. 21, 22). These protests occur in an historical context of increased favela organization and political influence over the course of the 1990s (Oliveira 1997:16) and 2000s, seen in an overall decrease in instances of resettlement prior to their upsurge with Olympic development.

Fig. 21. “The Maraca [Maracaña] is ours!” March 15, 2013

Street protests in March 2013 criticize the privatization of the stadium and the destruction of homes. Recently, allegations of corruption combined with protests like these have led the city to reconsider its contract to privatize the stadium (

Trans-nationally, ‘citizen journalism’ groups have come together online, delivering first-hand accounts and analyses of the events in Rio (Fig. 23). Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter are all being utilized as sites of an emergent network of activists, frequently organizing from within the favelas themselves. An increasing number of favela residents have access to the Internet. One study found that nine out of ten moradores under the age of thirty now have access, primarily using it for social media. The use of online organizing to link a trans-regional audience to local events appears as an effective means for inverting the systematic invisibility that applied in development and mega-event discourses. I suggest that the use of protest and direct action locally, alongside legal efforts, is itself dependent upon processes of legitimation that take place through trans-regional modes of journalism and social media.

Fig 22. Protestors take to the streets at a public hearing on removals, 2012

“Removal is a Social Crime. Say No to Removal. Cariocas against Social Segregation.” Explicit references to spatial segregation reflect an awareness of the racial and class-based dimensions of urban geography. They reference a (1990) municipal law which guarantees ‘equal access for all citizens’, and fair ‘spatial distribution’ of civic investments. (Rio on Watch; Lei Orgánica do Município (1990))

The politics of recognition appear key in efforts at the translocation of the claims of the urban poor to the scale of international human rights discourse. In the case of Rio, something, indeed, has been recognized; just what that is remains to be seen. Recent public statements by the UN Human Rights Committee, including the release of a special rapporteur against police violence in preparations for 2014 and 2016 have made appeals to the language of ‘human rights’ in connection to forced removals and forms of structural violence occurring in Rio. Amnesty International has also condemned the evictions. Reactions on the part of the APO and Brazilian government have also made apparent the relevance of appeals to ‘world opinion’ on the violence of sporting mega-events. Ferguson (2006: 111) stresses the importance of ‘grassroots’ organizing and its appeals to visibility. He writes,

If state officials can still always be counted on to invoke the ‘national interest’ in ways that seek to encompass (and thereby devalue) the local, canny ‘grassroots’ operators may trump the national ace with appeals to ‘world opinion’ and e-mail links to the international headquarters of such formidably encompassing agents of surveillance as Africa Watch, World Vision International, or Amnesty International.

In this example, the scalar contestation of sovereignty has come to be articulated through trans-national networks that decouple the mediation of images from the nation-state. Instead, as new “agents of surveillance,” international organizations come to mediate the translation of images.

Fig. 23. “Long live Vila Autódromo – Rio without removals,” 2013

An image produced by the advocacy group Comitê Popular, and distributed online via Facebook and Twitter along with new articles on Rio’s favelas and forced removals. Comitê Popular is involved with (thus far unsuccessful) efforts to prevent the demolition of the community through presenting an alternate plan for Bus Rapid Transit routes, designed in cooperation with architects and planners from local universities (

The materiality of eviction, demolition, and the spaces of cultural politics that accompany it, we must constantly remind ourselves, are tied to specific and local contexts of spatial productions and visibility. In an age where technology mediates the translation of social movements into contexts far from the physical ‘ground’ of contestation, the possibilities of mistranslation, and multiple levels of appropriation, are thus greater than ever.

As Albro (2005) is careful to note, an etic vantage point mediated by social media has the tendency of rhetorically collapsing multiple and dialogic struggles into a clash of monadic forces. This is certainly the case in the world of investigative reporting and media coverage of the Olympic games, where advocates tend to claim transparent and objective footing. Indeed, calls for ‘transparency’ frequently elide the problems of recognition inherent in mediation by so-called ‘watchdog’ organizations.

The favela has already been appropriated to a large extent to causes that may or may not match the interests of neoliberal governments. For example, the favela has appeared as a font of ‘sustainable development’, employed in advertisements for DOW chemical company. The emergence of ‘sustainable favela’ discourses, thrust forth by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) indeed, reveals complicity (intentional or not) with triumphalist narratives of the sporting mega-event as an ideal locus of sustainable development and ecological and social harmony.28

NGOs in Rio’s favelas take on heterogeneous and contradictory roles. They frequently function as mediators for modes of trans-regional visibility by publicizing projects and seeking foreign funding for development projects that may or may not collude with neoliberal techniques of government. A multitude of foreign-sponsored NGOs in Rio’s favelas provide medical, educational, and ‘cultural’ services (for example, efforts to divert children from criminal lives through religion, music, and sport), and have a degree of acceptance in the favela (Arias 2004:16). However, many of these interventions are also the subject of criticism and skepticism by moradores.

One recurrent emic distinction emerges between those of state or foreign-sponsored NGOs and those that emerge from community organizers within the favelas themselves. As I have outlined above, infrastructural violence is taken here to represent forces of privatization, city planning, and securitization, engaged via forced removal and pacification. When moradores critique the activities of external NGOs, they frequently comment on their disjuncture with local community priorities. As organizer Iara Oliveira, born in the urban resettlement project Cidade de Deus suggests,

There is a difference between an NGO with a community base and an NGO that was created outside the community that doesn’t have the same experience. An NGO created within the community was born from the desire of the people to better their community, to rethink their country. An NGO that came from elsewhere was not created with this characteristic community-based vision… (Kaiser 2013, n.p.)

Oliveira’s concerns reflect the notion that social justice movements must conform to collective wills formed within movements, rather than translations of these goals interpreted by foreigners.

Indeed, NGO tactics and goals may directly or indirectly reflect the interests of neoliberal governance, couched in the language of development. A large number of these NGOs are funded by state or international organizations that emphasize opening access to markets through microcredit and job training, and are also implicated with the phenomenon of problematic ‘volunteer tourism’ in the favelas (Aquino 2012). Serious issues are raised by the forms of discourse they produce, and its implications for the explication (or visibilization) of infrastructural violence.

Such roles are part of a trend in ‘the developing world’ for NGOs to be increasingly conflated with “business-” or “state” administrative priorities, including Business-Oriented NGOs (BONGOs) and government-organized NGOS (GONGOs). NGOs, particularly those with national and transnational prestige, are often taken as the arbiters for the visibility of infrastructural violence, and “accepted as the legitimate representative of communities of the people” (Elyachar 2005: 172). They are in this sense accepted as authoritative representatives of a singular entity, whereas in fact forms of collective subjectivity are in play that are ever-shifting and heterogeneous (Albro 2005).

The possibility of surveillance as a Foucauldian ‘panopticon’, whereby visibility is uni-directional and disciplinary, is in some ways contested by trans-regional appeals to visibility. In Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’, a primary consequence of a disciplinary gaze is the ‘invisibility of the monarch’ as concurrent to an ‘unavoidable visibility of the subjects’ (1995: 189). As a regime in which surveillance functions as a capacity of comparison and individuation of units, the sovereignty of the state’s gaze is here taken for granted. However, as scales of governance and visibility partially transcend the nation-state with ‘globalization’, the possibility emerges for the panopticon, so powerful at the level of police occupation and surveillance, to be rhetorically, and perhaps practically, inverted.

Fig. 24. Olhos (Eyes), 2008. Morro da Providência

An anonymous artist appended these photographs to the houses of Morro da Providência, with the permission of their residents. The images feature the eyes of mothers of those who died in police violence (

The possibility of reversing or subverting surveillance is suggested by a 2008 installation in Morro da Providência (Fig. 24), which features photographs of the eyes of mothers of children killed in police violence. The eyes are also positioned on top of houses, such that airborne and satellite forms of surveillance (and consequent social media) are exposed to the rhetorical inversion. A similar, and more pragmatic appropriation and reversal of surveillance is seen in Vargas’ (2006) study of Jacarezinho favela.

In the early 2000s, the AM of the favela independently “decided to become a condominium” by installing gates and security cameras. The idea was to prevent police abuse through counter-surveillance, and subsequent publicization. By inverting the ‘panopticon’ in this way, the scales of visibility might be turned. I suggest that a similar movement may be in play with the rise of independent investigative journalism, and uses of social media for organizing resistance. In a context where up to the minute news and photos of protests are shared among millions of online users, the capacity for certain forms of state abuse is limited. No longer do national (and trans-national) institutions possess a monopoly over the power to render visible; rather, we seem to be steadily transitioning towards an ‘omnopticon’ facilitated by social media, where the ‘many view the many’ (Joyce 2003).29

As means of establishing recognition, social media sponsored by NGOs, techniques of counter-surveillance, and imaginative transformations of visibility here appear as possessing their own independent contexts, and cannot easily be reduced to a simple and formulaic ideal. I might suggest, however, that manipulations of the encounter of seeing across scale and media, the appropriations and manipulations of visibility, appear as techniques of remarkable relevance to the multiple competing scalar contexts of neoliberal cultural politics. Where visibility can be attained through technologies that transcend and subvert the contiguity and fragmentation of urban space, it may also be seen as an extension of urban space into realms that assume new and distinct footing towards the state as an apparatus. Conditions for the discursive and practical contestation of spatial production are seen to expand where trans-national media challenge the sovereignty of the nation-state, and where satellite photos and social media alike reveal a visible subject gazing back.

Nevertheless, the world has not become ‘flat’ (as in Thomas Friedman’s (2005) polemic). The local specificity of encounters with the political technologies of neoliberalism, and the social technologies of the World Wide Web, remains of foremost concern in this politics of recognition. The locus of the double-edged sword of securitization and privatization remains the favela, not its first-world appropriations. The demolition zone remains the home of the marginalized, the black, and the poor. And the fragmented community remains localized to its place and history in the urban geography of the city, regardless of its economic ‘deterritorialization’ from the nation-state.

It is only by understanding the ways in which locally specific articulations of claims to urban space are contested and reproduced that we can hope to comprehend the dynamics of visibility as Rio’s infrastructural overhauls continue. As a space that is immanently socially produced, the urban geography of the favela must remain analytically coupled to the dual forms of discourse and material. The co-constitution of these forms remains essential to understanding competing spatial scalar interpretations of terms like ‘community’, ‘civic participation’, and ‘integration’.

In this chapter, I have tried to illustrate some of the ways that visible and invisible forms of violence collude and comingle in the context of Olympic development. Discourses that seek to attain the visibility and recognition of crisis and conflict occur in a highly fraught context, in which their linkage to material consequences of violence is never simply transparent. Nonetheless, the collusion of militarization and privatization of space form a site of indisputable violence, even as its modes of contestation reflect deeply complicit subjects. As tropes that appeal not only to the capitalist’s gaze, but also to the dreams of the urban poor, modernist visions of development remain pervasive and powerful.

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