It’s been in the cards for a while. We all knew it was coming, but there isn’t really anything we could do… just wait, and try best to deal with it when it happens. And last Thursday, it did.
To understand the why, you need to realize that in less than a month, the city of Rio is hosting the 15th Pan-American games. It is a big deal for Rio, and a big deal for Brasil as well – over 5000 athletes from over 40 countries will be converging in my backyard. There will be a huge amount of media attention, and thousands of tourists who will descend upon the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (the Magnificent City). This is Rio’s coming out party – a blind-date, if you will. And like any blind date, you want to spruce yourself up before meeting whoever you are going to meet. So, Rio is building new stadiums, has the metro line fixed up, extended, and polished, the Maracana has been refurbished and is better than ever… Everything is going to be sparkly, shiny, and new. Oh, and also, they’ve decided to try and cover up the nasty problems they’ve had with poor people – especially the most visible ones – the homeless, the street kids, the runaways who make their homes on the pavements and sidewalks of downtown. And while they’re at it, why not go after the criminals in the favelas. Who cares if things get a little out of hand – after all, only criminals and their friends live there.
You see, the problem with poor people downtown is that you can SEE them. They look at normal people. Sometimes, they try to make eye contact, or even touch someone to get their attention. What if they did that to a tourist? What would they think of Brasil, of Rio? Sometimes, they smell bad. Other times, they’re high on God knows what. And yes, some of them do steal. They are the marginalized, the forgotten ones. The only times people pay attention are those moments of fear, or of pity, or of indignation. It is much easier to categorize them all as criminals and thieves, no-account children who are losers, and will always be losers. And it is even easier to sweep them all up every now and then and clear them out – a few threats to those who are let go, place a few others in criminal detention centers or “shelters”, and abra-cadabra – problem solved. Now, who wants to go to the beach? Surfing? Bikinis? Hang-gliding?
We knew this was coming. We KNEW it. But it still comes as a surprise. On Thursday we went down to the streets, and no one was there. An older girl came up shortly after our arrival, slipped me a piece of paper with Anderson’s name on it, and told me that he was arrested this morning. Would I be able to go check on him and make sure he was OK? (He doesn’t have any family here in the city…) Oh, and everyone else was picked up in a “recolhimento” (a clean-up, or picking-up, or gathering-in) that morning. Everyone from the area we were hanging out in (Praça XV.) Everyone from Cinelândia. Everyone from Lapa. Everyone from Praça Mauá. Everyone.
Usually after one of these sweeps, the kids are back on the streets within 12 hours. Not this time. Sunday – still no one was around. Today – the same thing. We found G and R, and E and E. G was upset and frustrated as we talked about the cleaning up of the city. “They don’t care about us. All they want to be able to do is show a nice city for the tourists to take pictures of. If they really wanted to help, or change things, they would have started programs last year, the year before…”
Rio faces big problems. Violence, marginalized communities, drug gangs, corrupt police, and poverty and inequality among others. These are serious issues that need resolution. They can’t be solved by sending the Army and Military Police into the favelas people live in with their grenades and machine guns and armored cars and searching children coming home from school at gunpoint, or by simply brushing the street population under the rug and carting them away. That just distracts from the root causes. Remember, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate… (or something like that.)
(On a positive note, I got to read “The BAD Wolf” story many times today to K, one of the sons of our street friends. It’s his favorite. He loves that there is a bad wolf (and also three pigs or something. But it’s the wolf that is important.) He is four. The bright spot in an otherwise rough couple of days…)
So what now? I don’t know. Will things get back to “normal” after the Pan-Am games? I don’t know. God, I hope so. But for now, just taking it one day at a time…