Excavating Ocupa Rio I: 'We Are the 99%!(?)'

David Thompson has been travelling around South America since he completed his Honours thesis on cosmpolitanism and urban poverty in Latin America at The Univeristy of Sydney, Australia, in late 2010. He is currently in Rio de Janeiro, where he is flash-researching the Ocupa Rio protests. This is the first entry in a two-part series. Part II, 'Excavating Ocupa Rio II: Trouble on Love Street', was published on Wednesday 9th November, 2011.

On Saturday October 22 a group of approximately sixty protesters began an occupation of the Floriano Plaza, a historical point of protest located in Cinelândia, part of the city's financial centre. While the first meeting was on October 15 next to the nearby Municipal Theatre to decide on whether to protest, the following Saturday was the beginning of a permanent presence and camp in the plaza, which has seen crowds of up to 500 people and approximately 120 tents.

Linked to the Occupy Everywhere movement, Ocupa Rio (initially anglicised as Occupy Rio) shares the majority of its goals and methods with other Occupy protests around the world; that is, aside from a general claim for a reform or revolution of the global economic system and greater political involvement of ordinary citizens, specific causes are crowdsourced rather than pre-established.

The camp is organised politically in a general assembly, a number of working groups with specific focii concentrate on both the day-to-day running of the movement (as in the Recycling, Security or Activities working groups) or certain causes (e.g. Queer, Education or Direct Action groups), and debates, film screenings and performances organised individually or collectively.

Alongside this, there is a huge proliferation of material culture on the site, from tents to placards to smashed up televisions, libraries, flyers and even an urban farming system which is cultivating medicinal plants around the trees of the plaza.

This material dialogue – particularly the placards and billboards on the walls of a subway station, a bus stop, a construction site on the south end of the plaza, hung on a number of lines strung between trees, stuck on tents or spray-painted on t-shirts – offers a more pluralistic and anarchic avenue for protestors to express a huge variety of political opinions than the increasingly regulated and bureaucratised political bodies, particularly the general assembly.

The protest emphatically denies any leaders, yet a specific rhetoric has been established that while promoting participative democracy and decision-making actually excludes the majority of protestors, particularly as the movement grows.

By contrast, the posters, billboards and other material forms of protest offer a greater diversity of opinions, discourses and perspectives, including criticisms of the movement itself. These objects offer largely anonymous spaces for debates running parallel to the political discussions of the group, becoming an alternative forum for the movement.

For example, the poster in the photo above stating "we are the 99%!" ("somos os 99%!") was initially taped onto the wall of a kiosk in the plaza on the first day of the protest, alongside a number of other posters exploiting the idea of being the oppressed, under-represented 99%.

When I returned the following day someone had written a question mark at the end of each one of these posters, effectively inverting their meaning. From a general statement about popular uprising these became an explicit questioning of the real representative nature of the body of protestors, who particularly in the first few days of the protest were wealthy middle or upper-middle class students (this is still largely true today, although there are increasing numbers of homeless people, the unemployed, and white-collar workers from the financial district, and the composition of the group depends largely on the time of day and the day of the week).

Nevertheless, this message did not stay taped to the walls for long - eventually they were removed during one of many bouts of rain in the plaza and have not been replaced.

In fact, after the third or fourth day this slogan practically disappeared from both the posters and the debates inside the working groups and assemblies, replaced with placards demanding "Real Democracy Now" ("Democracia Real Jà"), inherited not from the Occupy movement but from the Indignados protests in Spain earlier in the year.

In part this represents the development of a specific cause in the movement, a call for a new system of participatory rather than representative democracy driven by a national sense of disenfranchisement owing to corruption in all levels of government – a reason many interviewees cited as the primary cause of their involvement.

As one woman – M – stated, herself an employee of the Brazilian Department of Communications, "representative democracy doesn't represent me". Examples of this altering of signs abound, as protestors add further information, cross out statements they disagree with, or tape posters over others.

The placement of the posters is equally as important – while on Sunday there appeared taped to a nearby bus stop the phrase "we are all one like the infinite God", the following day another piece of cardboard was stuck underneath it stating "God does not exist!". Unfortunately this debate was prematurely cut short when a third party separated the two posters, posting them on different walls.

Many newspaper or academic articles pasted up have also been annotated by passers-by, and their annotations further annotated. Even in cases where posters are not altered, authorship of these materials is confused or essentially non-existent – three separate interviewees, for instance, claimed to have drawn a "Fuck the Whole World" ("Fode o Mundo Inteiro", a play on the Portuguese initials of the I.M.F) billboard which appeared on October 23.

Protestors take a huge interest in these posters particularly because it is one of the primary mediums with which they project an image and identity to the broader public. Newspaper and television coverage of the protest here has been minimal and generally negative, with Globo, the largest daily newspaper in Rio, referring to the manifestation as a group of hippies camping in the plaza to legalise marihuana (this coverage and the regular presence of journalists also prompted one interviewee to throw out a number of signs along the outside of the camp which stated "we're here to talk about marihuana").

The negative sentiment towards mass media constantly appears on the walls of the kiosk and construction site, as well as a television which was thrown onto the ground and smashed on the first weekend (later removed for safety reasons). In spite of this, the internet has been the principle vehicle for the organisation of Ocupa Rio from its inception, and a large number of billboards contain Twitter hashtags or links to follow specific debates or the general movement online.

Hashtags in posters at Ocupa Rio. Photo by David Thompson.
Hashtags in posters at Ocupa Rio. Photo by David Thompson.

Again, however, this is evidently not a unanimous opinion. Another poster taped up on the first Saturday stating "Internet: The Voice of Truth" was edited to read "Internet is not the Voice of Truth". There are also a number of old computer monitors in different parts of the site, often moving around every few days, which have been painted over, smashed up or dismantled - although their age (these are old vacuum-tube monitors rather than LCDs) suggest that they may not have been used for some time earlier (a video of the destruction of two is available on YouTube ).

While many older protestors point out that the increasing dependence upon the internet for organisation in fact excludes a large number of Brazilians from the protest, these opinions are generally not heard in a young, student crowd who speak a technological language at odds with their older counterparts.

The fact that most protestors heard about Ocupa Rio on Facebook and discussions themselves are formed on social networking sites also suggests that those without internet access are excluded from the developing protest. Faced with this growing material chaos, the Communications and Recycling working groups are conscious that the physical state of the plaza greatly impacts perceptions of the movement itself, and within the general assembly both groups have pleaded for participants to keep the area clean, particularly as many journalists have taken rather unflattering photos, for instance, of protestors smoking next to piles of garbage.

One concerned participant in the assembly also voiced the concern that "whoever passes by here every day just sees people drinking, dancing and partying", although her complaint has not diminished the level of festivities on the site. Again, in an attempt to regulate the space posters have been placed reminding participants to recycle and labelling the organic, plastic and recycling bins throughout the site, while the urban farm group and popular garden are explicit attempts to beautify the space. Every evening and morning volunteers also now sweep the entire plaza.

This image consciousness is also evident in the use of language in posters. While the majority are written in Portuguese, there are a large number in English (in varying degrees of fluency) as well as a few in Spanish and French. Some of this may be due to the diversity of protestors themselves; aside from the majority Brazilian population there are people participating from Germany, France, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Australia, the Phillipines, the United States, Mexico and England, at least.

Equally though, this plurality of languages points to an awareness of the international nature and coverage of the Occupy Everywhere movement and a desire to communicate across these spaces; when a group of campers marched to the United States consulate to protest over the use of violence in Occupy Oakland, the majority of the placards were messages of solidarity written in English.

This conversation is not unidirectional; media coverage from other Occupy movements is taped to the walls of the plaza, including Slavoj Zizek's address of Occupy Wall Street and the front page story in Le Monde about the movement.

There is a distinctive international bricolage in terms of the materials stuck up onto the construction site in particular, from an EZLN (Zapatista) manifesto to Arundhati Roy quotations, to articles over the Chilean student strikes, and even the simple word "Ghandi" spray-painted over a construction sign. While Ocupa Rio may belong to the global movement, it clearly has a number of ideological descendents.

This is the first entry in a two-part series. Part II can be read here.