[on the politics of space & cultural interventions]

Social Movements’ Traces: The 2013 Protests in Rio de Janeiro

FEDERICO VENTURINI, Research Associate, University of Udine, Italy

These photos were taken in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 as part of my doctorial research, during a wave of intense mobilizations that hit all Brazil (Venturini 2016). The movement started with a contestation of the increase of transport ticket fares but mobilizations soon acquired huge popular support, opposing the unequal development pushed through mega-events and mega-projects.

These social movements[i] were able to gather millions of people in the streets, especially in Rio de Janeiro which became a crucial point of the dissent. Riots broke out almost on a daily basis. These photos are the results of my involvement as an ac­tivist-researcher (Pickerill and Chatterton 2006; Shukaitis and Graeber 2007) in the protests. My participation was not aimed for the sake of academic knowledge but rather because I was (and still am) part of and aligned with the social actors who protest against injustice and fight for freedom and a more equal world. With my physical presence, I was able to help the cause on the ground as well as creating relevant and decolonized knowledge for social change (Bevington and Dixon 2005; Cox and Fominaya 2009).

Coming from Western Europe I had to stop to think that I know the 'right way to do things' or to impose my views on other people. Indeed, when coming from the Global North to the Global South there is an inherent difficulty in building reciprocity with different people, with different ine­qualities and oppressions. I tried to overcome these issues by listening with an open-hearth to learn from the people who accompanied me in the Rio de Janeiro experiences.[ii]

In this work, I present images of the traces left by social movements onto the urban environ­ment where we can see the material remanence of bodies in movement and action. Partic­ipants who took the streets remain faceless. What stays are their interventions, traces that become hints for future paths of freedom.

Intense mobilizations or riots have been called in different ways, as ‘moments of madness’ (Zolber 1972) or 'insurrections' (The Invisible Committee 2009) or ‘moments of excess’ (Free Association 2011). In these moments, politically speaking, it seems that 'all is possible' (Zol­berg 1972: 183) and that people act directly towards performing (and enacting) their liberties and civic rights. I argue that the intense mobilizations in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 belonged to the cycles of popular mobilizations that resonate together in contesting of the capitalist systems worldwide and as a result of that shaping (and demonstrating) new paths and alternatives modes of living together.

Looking at them and studying these moments is important both from an academic and an activist point of view. Indeed, it is important to academically approach these events as they break away from daily life. It deserves to be described and analysed in order to understand the current crises and in order to find possible ways forward. Moreover, it is important to effec­tively learn from them and get inspired from them to push for radical change as activists do.

As an amateur photographer, I took many photos over the 11 months in Rio de Janeiro, in order to use the evocative power of photography to describe the context of the urban social movements and to give examples of their initiatives. In order to ensure safety to activists and participants, I have carefully selected the subjects of my photos, avoiding using my camera during actions or confrontational moments in demonstrations and always asking for informal consent whilst taking someone’s picture.

On one side, during demonstrations, I documented police's acts of violence in order to dis­courage the authorities from continuing committing abuses. Moreover, the visual material pro­duced can be used as forensic documents that show police's brutality and potentially help releasing activists who have been wrongly accused.

On the other side, my attempt was to avoid photos that showed violent reactions by social movements not only for security and privacy reasons but also for two other main causes. First­ly, I wanted to avoid the fetishisation of these acts and what has been called 'porno riot' (Razsa 2014). Secondly, as an active participant, it was more important for me to be actively involved rather than photo-documenting.

Photos allowed me to record information on the events to capture the peculiarities of the urban space and understand its dynamics. What I photographed was what social movements left behind, how they left their forensic traces onto the urban environ­ment. In this series of photos, the traces of social movements are highlighted from unusual angles. Only the first photo is a more conventional photo of a riot. It is the only one that shows the 'actors'.

Even if the second and third are taken in the heat of the movement, they do not show the performers but what they leave behind. All the other photos explore the effects of intense mobilizations from the point of view of the ‘day-after' and again without show­ing the subjects, capturing only the traces their past movements. Not focusing only on the moment of violent acts of the mobilizations gave me the chance to see their effects on the city and the citizens' daily life in the short period. This series of photos represents some of the myriads of facets that make up the reality of the social dissent and the possibility (and drawbacks) of 'collective actions' (Tarrow 1993).

1. Barricades on the Avenida Rio Branco, Rio de Janeiro, 7 October 2013. This is a classical image of the popular mobilizations: the dark of the night, masked people, flames of a bus on fire in the background and various material that form a barricade to block the road. As said in a slogan from the '68 mobilizations in Paris ‘Barri­cades close the street but open up the path’ also in Rio de Janeiro the act of building blockades stressed the conscious choice of denying the existing and opening new possibilities.

2. Itaú Bank, near the Legislative Assembly, Rio de Janeiro, 18 June 2013. Traces are expressed through destruction of an unidentified target of the protests: banks. It shows that coconuts were used as weapon, for a ‘tropical’ version of the riots.

3. Bus with the graffiti Aumento è um assalto (the increase (of the ticket price) is a robbery) Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, 10 June 2013. The world ‘assalto’ refers to the violent robberies happening in the Brazilian streets. With this am­bivalence, the anonymous author wants to stress the violence of the increase in the ticket price. In this occasion traces are mobile, visible in the streets but not by the passengers inside. The message travels through the city in this way.

4. The facade of the Bank of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 7 November 2013. The bank was hit by protesters the night before. Workers are placing plywood panels to protect from new protests, while life continues around the city. Social move­ments have changed the appearance of the streets of all the city, pushing banks, corporate and public buildings to cover their facades with plywood panels.

5. Bank of Brazil, Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, 7 November 2013. The bank was hit and vandalized by protesters the night before. Passers-by are looking at the traces left by the range just a few hours earlier, with the darkness of the night.

6. Bank of Brazil, Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, July 2013. This is how the bank was looking during the Summer mobilization and before November mobilizations. It is possible to see a key message of the mobilizations, Por uma vida sem catracas (For a life without turnstiles). The turnstiles symbolised the public transport whose increase in the ticket price ignited the protests.

7. Bank on the Avenida Presidente Vargas, July 2013. During the heat of the mobiliza­tions, the banks were continuously hit during the nights as symbols of domination and oppression. However, during the day they functioned almost regularly but with their glass windows covered with makeshift protections.

8. The facade of the Municipal Chamber, Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, 7 November 2013. The Municipal Chamber saw an attempted invasion by social movements the night before. The facade was totally covered by pichação (graffiti slogans) with messages target­ing the corporate media, the corrupted politicians, the state and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

9. Gate of the Municipal Chamber, Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, 7 November 2013. The Municipal Cham­ber saw an attempted invasion by social movements the night before. Red paint is what is only left after the confrontation in one of the main entrances.

10. Ocupa Camera - Occupy Mu­nicipal Chamber encampment in Cinelandia square, Rio de Janeiro, November 2013. Acts of destruction are just one of the many aspects of social movements. This photo shows the lively encampment of Ocupa Camera on the steps of the Munic­ipal Chamber. This governmental body was one of the key targets of the mobilizations, especially regard­ing the increased bus ticket price, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and a series of corruption scandals. So­cial movements decided to occupy the square and put pressure on the politicians for several months. It was violently cleared up on the 20th of October 2013 when, at the end of a demonstration, when the police ar­rested 200 people peacefully sitting in the square, among whom 64 re­mained imprisoned for several days.


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-Venturini, F. 2016. A Critical Perspective on Social Ecology and Urban Crises: Learning about, with and from Urban Social Movements in Rio de Janeiro. Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds.

-Zolberg, A. R. 1972. Moments of Madness. Politics & Society. 2(2), 183-207.

[i] I use the plural in order to capture the multitude involved (Hardt and Negri 2001) [ii] Thanks to this approach I was able also to contribute to the realisation of MAR­AKÁ’NÀ, a video documentary that reports violence and abuses that occur due to the FIFA World Cup 2014. The video is available from: https://vimeo.com/313694605