Brazil's Mall Flash Mobs -- More Party Than Protest

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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Protests against corruption, lavish spending on sporting events and a faltering economy roiled Brazil's largest cities last year, a sign of rising dissatisfaction with the nation's political status quo. Brazil's leaders, accused of being out of touch, assured the public they would be more responsive.

Now, the country's political class may have gone too far in the other direction in dealing with the recent spate of teenage flash mobs that have disrupted life and shopping at some of the country's largest malls.

During the past few weeks, mobs of rowdy teens in gatherings known as rolezinhos, literally little strolls, have invaded shopping centers in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other major cities. Rolezinhos, orchestrated through social networks, have attracted hundreds or even thousands of youngsters who run through the malls in packs -- singing, dancing, shouting and enjoying themselves at the expense of everyone else's peace and quiet. It has been an unnerving experience for shoppers and a costly one for store owners who lost business.

Rolezinhos first drew notice in Sao Paulo early last month, when almost 6,000 adolescents showed up at the Shopping Metro Itaquera mall. The mall closed earlier than usual fearing vandalism. The police were called to reestablish order, using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Another rolezinho planned for Sunday led the Shopping Leblon mall in Rio to close all day. More than 9,000 indicated they would attend, according to posts on Facebook. At the behest of mall operators, some judges threatened to impose fines of as much as 10,000 reais ($4,214) on those who participate in future events.

Rolezinhos didn't begin as overtly political events, although it was inevitable that they would become so in a country wrestling with issues of race and class. The gatherings were started by kids with too much time on their hands who wanted to have fun, meet others their own age and blow off steam in an environment that's safer than the streets of the favelas, or slums, where many of the participants live. The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper even published a guide to the rolezinho dress code, which includes popular teen fashion brands such as Quicksilver or Oakley hats, and Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch shirts. In other words, a lot like your typical U.S. mall rat, only perhaps rowdier.

As Alba Zaluar, a professor at Universidad do Estado do Rio de Janeiro put it: "This is a game, not a social movement.''

Although Brazil's politicians wanted to ensure order, they seemed wary of repeating the harsh tactics initially used in the crackdown against last year's street protests. Gilberto Carvalho, secretary general for Brazil's presidency, told reporters last week that the police were "throwing gasoline into the fire," by rounding up unruly teenagers in malls. "We need to gradually approach these youths to try to understand them and maintain a dialogue." Just how this happens with a leaderless non-movement remains to be seen.

Others cited racism in the legal attempts by malls to thwart disruption. Rafael Portugues, president of the Association of Sao Paulo Public Defenders, told O Globo last week that the courts "could only prevent `rolezinhos' founded on serious threat or severe fear. The mall is a private space, but public in character." And he added: "This panic is being generated because these young people are from the periphery. It is an exaggerated and unjustified panic."

Barbara Mendes, a college student quoted by Folha, denounced mall security forces for barring entry to rolezinho participants: "They want to whiten the mall."

Jesse Souza, a sociologist and university professor, made the same point more forcefully, telling the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper in an interview Saturday that there is a "Brazilian apartheid" system "that separates, as if they were two different planets, the social space of 'Europeanized' Brazilians, the real middle class, and Brazilians perceived as 'barbarians', the popular classes."

Indeed, class divisions are a related concern spurred by the bored teenagers. Maria do Espirito Santo, a woman who joined a more overtly political rolezinho organized last week by the Movement of the Homeless Workers, told O Globo: "Next you'll have shopping malls for the poor and the rich."

Higher up the political food chain, Maria do Rosario, the minister in charge of human rights for the Brazilian presidency, told the Agencia Estado newswire on Friday that "people cannot be separated in those places between those who have money to consume and those who do not have it."

She has a point but neglects a crucial fact: There is a real difference, regardless of race or class, between the right of people to be left in peace and those who foment a public disturbance.

Meanwhile, another politically motivated rolezinho to protest racism, World Cup spending and President Dilma Rousseff's government, drew no more than 50 people to a Rio mall on Friday. One salesman at a clothing store held up a sign that pointed to one of the more tangible downsides of the gatherings: "I work on commission. Thanks, rolezinho."

One thing that rolezinhos have brought to light is Sao Paulo's dearth of easily accessible public spaces, which an editorial in Folha noted last week. The public prosecutor of Sao Paulo even offered Friday to join forces with businesses and the government to "encourage them to offer cultural and leisure options to youngsters, especially those from the periphery." This seems like it might be the most constructive development to come out of this controversy.

Racism and socio-economic discrimination should never be tolerated, and Brazil needs to battle them at every turn. But letting thousands of teens run amok in shopping malls is hardly smart, and it certainly isn't good for business.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.