Rowdy Teen Swarms Throw Scare Into Brazil’s Shopping Centers

Mass visits to malls sustained beyond the holiday season would appear to be a retailer’s dream. In Brazil, they’re cause for concern.

A gathering on Jan. 11 at the Shopping Metro Itaquera in Sao Paulo drew about 3,000 young people who began to jump, sing, shout and scare shoppers, leading the mall to shut down briefly and ask them to vacate the premises, according to the mall. Outside, police launched tear gas canisters and, once the mall reopened, young people unaccompanied by parents weren’t allowed entry.

Get-togethers organized on social networks since December have lured thousands of teens from the city outskirts to malls, and in some cases prompted store closures and clashes with police. Concentrated in Sao Paulo until now, the so-called “rolezinhos,” or little strolls, are spreading, with at least two gatherings scheduled for this weekend in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The movement follows last year’s protests that were Brazil’s biggest in two decades and dragged President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity to a record low.

“Any type of movement that gets a little out of control generates fear of more aggressive groups joining, and any property damage would be a loss for the mall,” Marcelo Motta, a Latin America real-estate analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said by phone from Sao Paulo. “The possible indirect loss, which we haven’t seen yet, would be scaring people away from the malls.”

Public Spaces

Teens have swarmed the malls in part due to a dearth of public spaces in Brazil’s most populous city, particularly safe ones, according to Rui Tavares Maluf, a political science professor at the Fundacao Escola de Sociologia e Politica in Sao Paulo. The youths want to demonstrate they have just as much right to visit the shopping malls as the upper classes, said Jefferson Luis, the organizer of a December event.

“People think the gatherings are just so we can make trouble, but that’s not it, we’re stuck at home without anywhere to go for leisure or culture,” Luis said in an e-mail. “It’s controversial because there are a few people who seize the opportunity to rob or wreak havoc.”

While the objectives of rolezinhos remain unclear, the phenomenon prompted Rousseff to convene cabinet ministers on Jan. 14 and discuss the matter, newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported, without saying where it obtained the information. Rousseff’s office declined to comment.

Racial Equality

Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad asked his secretary for racial equality to persuade organizers to arrange the get-togethers in public spaces, Folha de S.Paulo reported today. Several malls obtained court decisions barring rolezinhos on Jan. 11, local media reported.

Rousseff’s government in 2012 and 2013 implemented tax cuts for consumer goods that it is now rolling back, as the central bank continues the largest rate-raising cycle of any economy tracked by Bloomberg. Consumers already took advantage of exemptions and lower rates to buy many of the durable goods they desired, according to Carlos Thadeu de Freitas, chief economist at the Confederation of Goods and Services.

“The prospect of durable goods sales is already less favorable than last year,” de Freitas said by phone from Rio. “Malls tend to sell a lot of durable goods and it’s obvious this movement in the shopping centers will hinder those sales.”

Among the rolezinhos scheduled for this weekend, more than 8,500 people have signed up to attend one on Jan. 19 in Rio’s Shopping Leblon mall “to support the people of Sao Paulo, and oppose all forms of oppression and discrimination against the poor and black,” according to the event’s page on Facebook.

Rousseff Rating

Last year’s demonstrations focused on government spending, public services and corruption, and reduced the number of people rating Rousseff’s government good or excellent to 30 percent from 65 percent before the protests. The rating has since improved to 41 percent, according to a Datafolha poll that surveyed 4,557 people with a two percentage-point margin of error.

“This evidently has a lot do with a repressed demand for leisure areas, culture and fun on the city outskirts,” Fred Lucio, an anthropology professor at the School of Higher Education in Advertising and Marketing in Sao Paulo, said by phone. “Tied to that, malls are areas in which most goods consumed are far from the socio-economic potential of the lower-middle and middle classes that mostly make up this movement.”

Brazil’s association of shopping centers, Abrasce, met yesterday to discuss measures to maintain order, according to its communications department.

’Cultural Phenomenon’

Sao Paulo’s head of public security, Fernando Grella Vieira, issued a statement yesterday saying that a rolezinho “cannot be considered a crime, but rather a cultural phenomenon, so it should not be treated as a police matter.”

“Police action will be unleashed only when there is an effective break in public order, once police assistance is requested,” the Sao Paulo military police said in an e-mailed statement. “As current episodes indicate a strong potential for security problems, the institution is attentive to groups’ movements and also has monitored social networks to identify possible problems.”

“At the end of the day, the safest thing is always to close the mall,” Motta said. “But then you affect sales.”

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