February 10, 2014

Rolezinhos: Flash Mobs, Social Media and Teens

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Equity
large group of teenagers dancing in the street youth voices t-shirts

A new movement — the “rolezinhos” (meaning something like “hang out somewhere” or “little strolls”) — has taken hold in Brazil. Through social media, the rolezinhos started as a simple call for fun teen gatherings in malls, organized by teenagers. Because of their increasing popularity, however, they have evolved into something similar to a flash mob, attracting thousands of rowdy participants, causing some panic among mall vendors and sparking police clashes.

Rolezinhos are a phenomenon that started with teens from the urban periphery of São Paulo. But teens — nearly 80% — all over Brazil engage in some form of social media. Like teens in many other countries, Brazilian teens are on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp to name a few. They invest time creating an online profile and producing videos and content they think will interest their peers. They actively cultivate their reputation. As a result, many become famous and have many fans. Some say rolezinhos started by these famous periphery teens, organizing meetings with their fans, before they hit mainstream media.

On Dec. 7, more than 6,000 people met inside the Shopping Metrô Itaquera in São Paolo, causing fear and chaos. While three thefts were reported, panic ensued among shoppers and shop owners. Police were called and they used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

Rolezinhos quickly became a statement of inclusion of marginalized people in what was always understood to be a wealthy person’s space (the malls) and the message spread. Hundreds of Facebook pages invited the young and poor to the malls all around the country. A number of rolezinhos took place, and several malls started closing their doors on the scheduled rolezinho dates. More people started attending and organizing the events as a way to protest against social division and prejudice in the country.

Because of the anxiety among shop owners, police started to inspect shoppers who entered malls on scheduled rolezinho days. Then, on Dec. 14, a crowd entered the International Guarulhos mall singing funk songs. Police arrested 23 people, who later were released without charges.

The Brazilian Association of Shopping Centers petitioned the court and Facebook to exclude pages about rolezinhos, arguing that the users want to promote chaos in the malls. Soon after, several pages disappeared. While Facebook denied taking the pages down, several organizers and users complained about having their pages removed. By the end of December, another luxury mall, JK Iguatemi in São Paolo, and four other malls were granted restraining orders, allowing them to deny entrance to anyone who looked like a possible flash mob participant or protestor. Police officers started to patrol the malls, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The situation fueled the debate about what some called “race apartheid” in the country and the right of the malls to block entrance to certain people.  The police violence, media coverage and the propagation of the idea through social media led to political debate about class segregation. The debate took over on Youtube channels, Twitter and Facebook, where several bloggers, analysts and participants gave their opinions. Other rolezinhos were organized by movements and organizations to fight racism and exclusion.

In several interviews to mainstream media, the organizers of the first events explained the rolezinhos, saying they only wanted to hang out with their friends and to meet other people, and the malls were a great place for that because they allowed more people to meet, while other spaces were too small. They also argued the chaos that ensued at some malls was caused by small groups of troublemakers.

This video by Lucas Lima, one of the first rolezinho organizers, gives his take:

“My name is Lucas, I’m 17 years old. I’m a student and I work as a bricklayer assistant and do some other small jobs such as waiter, stocker. … Today, to me, things are kind of difficult because of the mall [rolezinho]…because I’m famous now as the organizer of the rolé [rolezinho]…and there was a commotion and other things. … What was supposed to happen was a rolé so we can meet each other, to make new friends, lunch at [McDonald’s], have some ice cream…and then leave. But, police were so aggressive. … they were supposed to be authorities, to protect us, but it was the opposite, they attacked us to make us leave, they used rubber bullets, gas…and that was wrong. If they had talked to us, like people, like grownups, we could have reached an agreement, maybe find a better place for the rolés. I live here in Itaquera [site of the first rolezinho that ended in police action]. … Because people are charging us with penalties of 10,000 reais (about 4,000 dollars), it is getting hard to grow and be someone in life. … I intend to…not ever go back again [to the malls] because of this repression. … Now, they are worried because of the World Cup, that is close…but the hospitals, how are they going to be (referring to the protests of June, when the president was criticized for spending money on the stadiums and not hospitals and other public services)? There are people needing medicine, people needing to schedule a doctor at health centers, and how many do we have? Two, three. … People are dying in line, waiting for an appointment. And they are worried about rolezinhos in the malls? What is this generation that sweeps the dirt under the rug? This is wrong.”

Rolezinhos are yet another phenomenon, created and spread through social media by youngsters. Millions of Brazilian teens have risen out of poverty in recent years and are able to consume more digital goods and have more access to social media. The panic that arose from the rolezinhos is a strong commentary on how class and racial division and social prejudice still is present in Brazilian society and how much it influences the way teenagers express themselves and fight for their spaces.

A sad update: Lucas Lima, the teen referenced in this blog post, died in an accident on April 6, 2014.

Banner image credit: iEARN-USA