Excavating Ocupa Rio II: Trouble on Love Street

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.  On Monday 7th November Part I of this two-part series, 'Excavating Ocupa Rio I: 'We are the 99%!?', was published.

Alongside its cosmopolitan image, Ocupa Rio is presented as a site of permanence which belies the actual transience of the protests and protestors. For example, while there are currently over a hundred tents set up in two lanes within the plaza, a large number of them are unoccupied, with their owners returning staying over some nights and returning home in others.

This idea of stability was emphasised early on with the christening of the first lane as "Love Street" and more recently re-inforced on Saturday October 29 when the Security working group stuck masking tape on the front of all tents and wrote addresses on them in order to more effectively regulate and patrol the space.

There is a constant presence from the working group (the majority of whom are members of Anonymous) on a platform constructed out of old pieces of wood (which has broken several times) and members of Security fulfill a scheduled patrol to uphold the safety of the camp and warn campers of approaching municipal guards, thieves or other dangers – such as when a homeless man tried lighting a bonfire of old posters next to Love Street's extremely flammable tents at 4.00am one Saturday.

These forms of permanent presence stand in contrast with the huge flows of people and ideas in the space. Given its student majority, the site is emptied late in the morning, slowly attracting more people after 4.00pm, while workers arrive after around 6.00pm.

During weekends the site is always more active than weekdays, while during the rain numbers plummet. Aside form a small number of unemployed people or students who miss classes to spend their entire time in the plaza, the only other more or less permanent presence is that of the homeless people who sleep on the outskirts of the camp, under benches or on old mattresses, and who take advantage of the constant security patrols and free food and water offered in the communal kitchen – although many of these attempt to participate in political debates and assist with the movement as well.

Aside from this accretion of disparate languages and messages on the building and construction site, there are a myriad of other objects which circulate through the site. Importantly, the communal library offers a very different insight into the interests and opinions of participants.

The library is constituted by donations from protestors, where books can be borrowed or swapped, and as such most books are replaced fairly quickly. While there are a number of titles on protest, Brazilian or Latin American politics, Marxist philosophy or Queer theory, the shelves are also stacked with pulp fiction, Dan Brown novels, or "Your Ideal Partner in the Chinese Horoscope".

Importantly, while religious posters are often taken down or replaced quickly from the walls of the plaza, there are a number of titles in this library, both Catholic and Evangelical, pointing to a group within the camp which is largely underrepresented.

In many debates or working groups any mention of God or Jesus, often by the many homeless people who began to participate after the first few days, is shouted down. Then again, given the system of swapping books the fact that these titles remain on the bookshelves also suggests that they are not, in fact, being read.

Working groups or other organisations within the camp also disseminate flyers and pamphlets in order to inform participants about their activities, goals and purposes. The Anonymous group, in particular, has spread a number of pamphlets around as well as organising forums to explain their role within Ocupa Rio after a number of protestors expressed discomfort or mistrust, particularly regarding their use of Guy Fawkes masks.

Ostensibly, the principle decision-making body within the camp is the general assembly. Originally organised at the end of every day, it has now become a weekly or twice-weekly event aimed at general discussion, airing the proposals of individuals and working groups, with any proposals needing to meet the consensus of the entire group to be passed.

Unfortunately, in practice majority time in all of the assemblies so far has been dedicated to questioning and critiquing the role of the assembly itself. As the number of protestors expanded, a system of hand signals was set in place with the aim of facilitating and streamlining discussion.

However, those new to the assemblies were unfamiliar with the signs and thus unable to communicate, while most speakers also had considerable power to ignore many in the group who attempt to make a contribution and the 'facilitator' who regulates the order of speakers and questions also controls to a large extent the flow of conversation.

Aside from these hand signals, there is an implicitly established discourse within the assembly itself which speakers are expected to conform to – the rhetoric is generally systemic rather than personal or specific, and debates about whether to use "encampment" or "permanent manifestation", or "movement" or "agitation" are fairly common, such that those who do not conform to this discourse are much less successful at dominating the assembly and are often interrupted or cut off.

The homeless population in particular is often ignored or interrupted, particularly in moments when they mention salvation through God. As a result, the assembly has become a very drawn out process (the most recent one, on Saturday October 29, lasted four and a half hours), people become frustrated or bored, arguments constantly break out and people and leave the group early.

Since a consensus must only be reached by the end of the assembly, only those few that are left take part in this decision-making process. Equally, while working groups should bring forward proposals to the assembly, in practice they make a number of executive decisions which affect the entire camp and avoid passing through this overly-bureaucratic political body, while a group of eight or nine protestors who deny any leadership role yet in practice organise a significant amount of the movement have similar powers outside of the assembly.

Against this context the role of materials, specifically posters, within the assembly itself points to the dichotomy between the official processes and the more anarchic or pluralistic sphere of objects. The general assembly held on the October 26 highlights this contrast clearly.

As with most assemblies, this one began with a number of briefs about the state of food and recycling in the protest, moving on to a quick explanation about hand signals. From here the conversation moved rapidly to an argument about whether such hand signals were necessary, how people could communicate without them, quickly devolving into a debate (again) about the effectiveness of the assembly itself.

At this point M, who had shouted "We're fed up with bureaucracy in this assembly!" without being heeded by the speaker, began painting a number of signs on cardboard, including "+ happiness, – bureaucracy" and "+ pluralism, – consensus", then placing them around the speaker.

M's signs in the middle of the general assembly; and speakers presenting the Democracia Real principles at the following assembly. Photo by David Thompson.
M's signs in the middle of the general assembly; and speakers presenting the Democracia Real principles at the following assembly. Photo by David Thompson.

Through this she was able to communicate visually what she was unable to within the dialogue of the assembly itself. In an interview following the assembly she stated that she had painted the signs in order to encourage the members of the assembly to think.

Although while she felt that the assembly was inefficient and that another model should be sought, she would continue to participate as long as it was the working model of the protest. These posters then found their way to the base of the subway station walls for a few days before disappearing, while in the following assembly organisers appropriated her method by placing a placard explaining the hand signals and a poster with the principles of "Democracia Real" in the centre of the circle for everyone to read.

A large number of participants in the protest are not politically active and often have deep reservations about Ocupa Rio. Occasionally these feelings will be expressed on posters. One example comes from a protestor who in a later interview stated that he felt completely satisfied with the capitalist system.  His poster read: "Viva o Capitalismo". Predictably, this poster survived for a short-lived day and a half on the wall of the subway station.

While not expressed in working groups, debates or the general assembly, in interviews almost half of the participants stated that they either return to the site regularly out of an interest to see how the protest develops, or to participate in the parties, concerts or circus events that take place nightly.

Other people point to the posters themselves as evidence of a lack of direction of the movement. An interviewee from Germany who described the movement itself as "a space where everybody says something but it doesn't go anywhere", stated the posters "reflect that there's no idea what to do... for example 'tudo para todos' [everything for everyone]", a sentiment reflected in interviews with passers-by, for whom the posters are the primary source of information about the protest itself.

Even those who are committed to Ocupa Rio also exclude themselves from this form of expression out of a sense of lack of artistic talent or direction, with many people stating "I don't know how to draw!" to explain why they had not created any posters or placards. Furthermore, while this is a dialogue supposedly open to all, there is an important control mechanism in place to edit and organise the walls of the plaza.

Whenever it rains (and it has rained fairly regularly since the beginning of the protest), the majority are pulled off the wall and stored under a tarpaulin. Following the rain, they are placed back up again, with a number of posters missing. Most notably those which move beyond or contradict the basic goals of Ocupa Rio such as "Viva o Capitalismo". As such, this material forum is also subject to regulation, control and executive decision-making.

Finally, it is also important to think about the materiality of these objects. That is, the majority of the posters, and of course all of the flyers, are written on paper or cardboard, often on the back of commercial packaging (which often inverts the meaning of anti-capitalist signs hanging up on string between trees depending on which side you look at).

Subject to the weather and pollution, those which are not removed from the wall or which are pasted on tents instead become blotchy and illegible, resembling Rorschach tests more than signs of protest. Paint scratches or falls off the wooden signs, ink drips off, paper tears and tape loses its stickiness. This protest is constantly disintegrating and being built up again by its anonymous artists and authors, reflecting as well as rebelling against the now established political system inside the site.

On Saturday October 30 almost all of the posters were taken down from the wall during the rain. As of November 4 none have been replaced, despite several days of sun.

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part, 'Excavating Ocupa Rio I: 'We are the 99%!?' here.

'Everything is mad here'. Photo by David Thompson.
'Everything is mad here'. Photo by David Thompson.