Brazilian police dressed in riot gear stormed an old museum in Rio de Janeiro with tear gas and pepper spray in order to evict some 20 indigenous people squatting there. The building, the former site of the Brazilian Indian Museum, is adjacent to the Maracanã stadium and set to be demolished as part of plans to renovate the stadium for next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
The mansion that housed the Indian Museum and its surrounding land were donated to the government in the mid 19th century by a son-in-law of an emperor of Brazil. Although the plan was to create a research center to study indigenous cultures, the site instead became a center for the protection of Indians, the predecessor of the National Indian Foundation, according to Reuters. In 1953, the Indian Museum took over the building, staying there for 25 years. Eventually, the museum switched locations, and the mansion was abandoned. In 2006, a group of squatters from a number of indigenous groups moved in, building homes and a community that they dubbed Maracanã Village. “Indians from across Brazil regarded the site as a safe place to stay when they came to Rio to pursue an education, sell trinkets in the streets or get medical treatment, and dozens of people regularly cycled in and out,” writes the Huffington Post.
But now, with the coming of the World Cup and the Olympics, the Brazilian government wants to turn the area around Maracanã stadium into — what else? — a complex that includes a new parking lot and shopping center. There has been a long legal battle between the Indians and the government, but by the time of the March 22 eviction, a deal had apparently been negotiated that offered the Maracanã Village community a new plot of land where they could settle. News reports say that the majority of the inhabitants had already left by the time of the standoff, but around 20 people remained, in addition to supporters who had gathered to protest the eviction — roughly 100 of them, according to the New York Times, or some 500, according to an activist who was there. The Times characterized the police as “200 camouflage-clad police officers” who used force, tear gas, and pepper spray, largely on the crowd of protesters and journalists. The Huffington Post described the aftermath:
An elderly man in a feather headdress lay collapsed on the sidewalk after police pulled him kicking and screaming from the compound. Protesters and journalists were temporarily blinded after officers fired tear gas and pepper spray and detonated stun grenades in the thick of the crowd.
Global Voices links to a handful of YouTube videos that capture some of the commotion, including this one, which has a clip of the police using tear gas and riot shields against protesters:
A set of photos from the Denver Post also captures the intensity of the clash, including a haunting image of a pained-looking man in a blue feather headdress handcuffed and escorted by police. Another set, at the Reuters photo blog, documents the community before the eviction as well. There, photographer Sergio Moraes writes, “It was clear to me that the authorities had ignored the Indian cultures, and they had denied any chance of success to an idea that could have spread the knowledge of those cultures and brought tourism and education.”
Marcelo Freixo, head of the Rio state legislature’s Human Rights Commission, spoke to the media afterwards with tearing eyes and a red face from the tear gas. “It was a show of unnecessary force,” he said. Public defender Daniel Macedo is looking into suing the police commander over the use of force.
In theory, the Olympics should be a feel-good affair, a harmless excuse for national pride and a show of competitive good faith among nations. But given the headlines of the past few years — Ai Weiwei’s boycott of the Bird’s Nest stadium he helped design, the British crackdown on street artists ahead of the London games — it seems increasingly clear that the Olympics offer countries a chance to project a certain kind of falsely unified face to the world while ignoring the more unsettling realities and divisions within their borders. I’m reminded, too, of Gary Hustwit and Jon Pack’s Post-Olympic City project, which was on view last summer at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Some of those photos show former Olympic sites abandoned and neglected, their actual long-term use value never thought out by the governments that built them. Even if that doesn’t end up the case with Maracanã, and the stadium goes on to become a widely used commercial hub, the human and cultural cost is disturbingly high. (And I say this as someone who loves a good game of soccer.)
Or as Christopher Gaffney, a professor of urbanism at Rio de Janeiro’s Fluminense Federal University, put it to the New York Times, “By resorting to force, this reflects the general attitude of state authorities toward the people getting in the way of their sports projects.”
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