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As World Cup Takes Spotlight, Brazilian Police Attack Artists and Activists [UPDATED]

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 18, 2014

Clashes between #OcupeEstelita activists and the police in Recife, Brazil (photo by Leo Falcão, via Facebook)

Clashes between #OcupeEstelita activists and the police in Recife, Brazil (photo by Leo Falcão, via Facebook)

Yesterday, the soccer team of World Cup host Brazil played, and tied with, Mexico. But on the same day that Brazilian players were proudly representing their country on the field in the northern city of Fortaleza, some 450 miles south, military police attacked nonviolent protestors in Recife, the country’s fifth-largest city.

The clash took place at the site of a controversial urban development and gentrification project underway at the José Estelita Pier in the center of Recife. Activists had been camped out at the site for nearly a month under the aegis of #OcupeEstelita; among them were filmmaker Leo Falcão, artists Fernando Peres and Cristiano Lenhardt, and many others “involved in the art world,” in the words of Zanna Gilbert, a postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of Modern Art who’s been in touch with some of the protestors and spoke to Hyperallergic about the situation. (Artist Jonathas de Andrade, who has a work on view in the newly opened Guggenheim exhibition Under the Same Sun, was absent yesterday but has been largely involved with the movement.)

Gilbert translated for Hyperallergic a comment posted on Facebook by Lenhardt, explaining the larger cultural symbolism of the fight:

Imagine all your friends, those that work with art and culture and so on, many thoughtful people, thoughtful professionals, taking a hit from a rubber bullet and pepper spray in the face. it is inadmissible. We are fighting against the powerful and the “bosses” that destroy the city’s culture, they are imprisoned by greed.

A graphic tweeted by @OcupeEstelita shows a rendering of the planned towards

A graphic tweeted by @OcupeEstelita shows a rendering of the planned Novo Recife Project towers (via @OcupeEstelita on Twitter)

The controversial commercial development plan, the Novo Recife Project, has been in the works since 2008, according to a post by Falcão on Facebook. Spearheaded by the Novo Recife Consortium, a group of construction companies, it calls for the demolition of historic warehouses on the pier and, in their stead, the construction of twelve 45-story towers for residential and commercial purposes. The project “will be completely disproportionate for the area standards, and will affect the landscape with potentially hazardous consequences to the historic district of São José and its surroundings,” according to a report on NINJA.

For two years activists have been fighting the development, objecting not only to the scale and aesthetics of the plan, but also alleging corruption in the approval process — Falcão claims the construction companies involved “sponsored the political campaign of the current mayor” — and fearing that the “vast land of green and free space” will be lost to private interests. Falcão also writes that there are five lawsuits in process against the project.

Despite the opposition and a murky legal status for starting construction, the Novo Recife Consortium began demolition of the warehouses on May 21, prompting members of the group Direitos Urbanos | Recife (Urban Rights | Recife) to organize an occupation of the site, hashtagged #OcupeEstelita and #ResisteEstelita. The group managed to win a public meeting on May 28 with government officials and city developers, Al Jazeera reported, and Falcão writes that this led to the opening of new negotiations and an agreement on the part of developers to suspend work until the process was resolved.

Around 5am yesterday, however, military police showed up at the site and began attacking peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets in an attempt to evict them from the site. A source in touch with the activists told Hyperallergic that the police were attacking the protestors every 15 minutes. Cristiano Lenhardt posted a harrowing video on Facebook that captures some of the attacks and confusion:

Other videos of the attack have surfaced, including this one posted on YouTube by another filmmaker, Pedro Severien:

And in this video, the artist Fernando Peres explains in Portuguese how the police attacked:

Hyperallergic contributor Laura C. Mallonee translated part of his statement for us:

It was about 5 o’clock in the morning, but was already light outside. There were whistles and about 20 to 30 special forces guys surrounded us and made a wall there, and the cavalry also came, also on the front, and we left to talk with them. They arrived telling us we had 5 minutes to choose 2 people to organize the retreat. We said we wouldn’t to that, because we were going to wait for our lawyer; that is how they had told us it was going to be. There would be someone from the public ministry who would talk to us, and it would be peaceful. So we told everyone to calm down and not to yell, so everything would be coordinated. A law expert who was helping us with the invasion told us that everything we put on the federal part of the land where the railroad is would be preserved, but that didn’t happen. From then on, they started to come and throw pepper gas, a lot of it, and also rubber bullets, and they started to surround us on the railroad, and with horses here, and began to whip us. They whipped Milton (?) who was practically dragged by his neck, and he was arrested.

According to a report in Brazilian business newspaper Jornal do Comercio, read through Google Translate, there were about 50 protestors present when the police arrived, and four people were arrested. Based on the Jornal‘s account, clashes between police and activists continued throughout the day. In the wake, people have been Instagramming photos of their injuries:

A protestor at #OcupeEstelita shows his injuries from rubber bullets (via @damaia on Instagram)

A protestor at #OcupeEstelita shows his injuries from rubber bullets (via @damaia on Instagram)

Some of them have turned into a kind of meme, with people showing their wounds while holding up signs that say, “I was assaulted by PM-PE” — “PM” stands for “Polícia Militar,” or military police, and “PE” for “Polícia do Exército,” or army police:

A composite of wounded protestor photos (via tulipeiros on Instagram)

A composite of wounded protestor photos (via @tulipeiros on Instagram)

The clash represents the latest in a long line of protests and violent police actions leading up to Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup, including the eviction of indigenous people from their lands in order to make way for a new stadium. Thousands of Brazilians have protested what they see as the government’s neglect of large segments of its population — including the homeless and impoverished — in the name of sports.

Today the Guardian reports that the Estelita protesters have returned to camp outside the site. They also held a press conference about the situation this afternoon. Meanwhile, Amnesty International Brazil issued a statement condemning the police’s use of excessive force at the pier.

Update, 6/19, 10:40am: This article has been revised to reflect a few clarifications and updates that have been brought to our attention: Jonathas de Andrade has been involved with #OcupeEstelita but was not present at the police raid on Tuesday; the most recent occupation lasted a month, but activists have been fighting the Novo Recife Project for two years; it is unclear if the Novo Recife Consortium has the legal right to begin demolition; the man in the third video has been identified as artist Fernando Peres.

#OcupeEstelita has also issued a new statement outlining its principles on Facebook:

(via Movimento#OcupeEstelita on Facebook)

(via Movimento#OcupeEstelita on Facebook)

Gilbert has translated it for us:

They say that Ocupe Estelita is against tall buildings, as well as other fallacies. The movement is neither for nor against tall buildings.

The movement is:

AGAINST the irregular/illegal approval of projects with strong impact with the collusion of public power

1)   AGAINST the lack of effective urban planning following a stable directed plan (that would allow tall buildings in some areas of the citybut not in others).

2)   AGAINST censorship, extreme partiality and the manipulation of the media.

3)   AGAINST hygenizing and segregating notions that do not allow a broad dialogue with popular communities and their inhabitants, utilized by some to speak about these places.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: it is in favour of an effectively democratic city where people who manifest their rights are not treated in such a violent manner by those who govern them.

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  • Yammertime

    This is what happens because commerce thinks we are disposable bodies. This is how we change the narrative. Resistance is NOT futile. It takes courage and persistence…

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