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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Losing to Germany Wasn’t Actually the Worst Thing to Happen to Brazil This World Cup

Brazil fan World Cup

A Brazil fan reacts while watching a broadcast of the 2014 World Cup Semifinal. July 8, 2014. (Reuters/Uselei Marcelino)

The key numbers in Brazil are not 7-1, the score of yesterday’s historically lopsided World Cup semifinal loss to Germany. Yes, those numbers matter. Yes, it was a dark day in the history of Brazilian sports that will be remembered in shocked silences for as long as a soccer ball is kicked around in the country. Yes, it may even sway a presidential election in the country this October. But these are still not the key numbers.

Here are some other numbers that will have much more bearing on both Brazil’s present and future. These are the numbers that animate far more debate and discussion inside of Brazil than the US media, with their view from Copacabana beach, have portrayed.

$11-14 billion. That is how much the World Cup is going to end up costing the country. No one in government, when asked, is actually even sure as to what the final bill is going to be. This is not unique to Brazil by any means. Mega-events produce this kind of economic uncertainty and graft wherever they nest. But in a country where health and education are pressing issues, it stings.

250,000. That is the number of people—overwhelmingly poor—who may be displaced by the time all the confetti has been swept away. Many of those losing their homes live in Brazil’s favelas. These communities, under constant attack by real estate speculators and the military police, have formed the backbone of Brazil’s urban culture for over a century. Several of these communities have been under military occupation during the Cup leading to brave, albeit uncovered, protests far from the public eye.

2016. That’s the year the Olympics are coming to Rio de Janeiro. If people in Brazil were this upset about hosting a soccer tournament, how will they feel about paying for Olympic golf? Also if people in Brazil found FIFA to be imperious, wait until they get a load of the IOC. One of their lovely aristocrats in charge will undoubtedly say some variant of “Let them eat horse dressage” before it’s all said and done.

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Yes, a 7-1 loss is a brutal way to exit the World Cup. But masses of people throughout the country have already committed themselves to fighting a different kind of brutality: the hosting of mega-events on their backs. That anger isn’t going anywhere. The question will be whether Brazil can sustain the level of militarization that has muted the protests during the World Cup. It is probably economically unsustainable to maintain the FIFA police state for the next two years. That will open more space for dissent, and these dissenting voices must be heard. It’s Brazil now. FIFA and the IOC have both stated their desires to return the Olympics and World Cup to the United States. Unless we want to experience this brand of weaponized gentrification-on-steroids, we would do well to amplify Brazil’s fighting voices and encourage those around us to listen. It’s not about solidarity. It’s about common survival.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the truth about militarization and the World Cup

Before the World Cup Ends, Will the Media Tell the Truth?

FIFA protest

Brazilians protest FIFA. Photo by author. 

FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was strutting like a rooster over the weekend about the absence of mass protests during Brazil’s World Cup. “Where is all this social unrest?” he asked in mocking snark that, along with bribery and corruption, has become his trademark. Then Blatter waxed rhapsodic about how “football is more than a religion” in Brazil, as if that explains the absence of millions of people marching on his “FIFA quality stadiums”. Similar, sentiments were expressed by Brazil’s Deputy Minister of Sports Luis Fernandes , who said that “during the World Cup, the passion for football has taken over.”

This position has been echoed continuously in the US media. The Washington Post has carried headlines that have read, “In Brazil,smiles, parties have replaced protests” and “A nation’s haves, have nots unite for a common cause.” No need to pick on the Post, as this has been “the line” in multiple media outlets over the last several weeks.

As is often the case with the mainstream media, they have started with an indisputable truth and then have chosen to draw conclusions that match their own embedded perspective: a perspective shaped by Sepp Blatter, his broadcast partners and a blinkered reality of hotels and black SUVs. It is certainly true that the million-person protests have not taken place during the World Cup, as they did during the 2013 Confederation’s Cup. But the conclusion that now everything is awesome and “parties have replaced protests” is simply not true. I recently returned from Brazil and saw a different reality. The fact is that there are protests, strikes and battles with police happening every day. In the favelas, there are demonstrations against the police occupations that are happening because of the Cup. (Here is a terrific photo essay by Andalusia Knoll that shows images from all the World Cup protests that are not happening.)

If the protests are far smaller than the ones a year ago, it is because the streets are militarized down to the last inch, ruled by a military police force who are tear-gassing any group of people who attempt to gather and raise political demands.

I attended one of these “FIFA Go Home” demonstrations, and it was a fearful exercise in state intimidation. The gathering was at a public square. An hour before the start of the march, the square was already surrounded by riot police with machine guns in hand. One would have had to gently push aside and say “excuse me” to someone with a machine gun and a badge just to get there. This was daunting for me as a gringo journalist. Imagine if you are someone with a family, a job and a life that you had to return to following the Cup.

Then once we gathered together, the police would, every few minutes, randomly pick out someone in the crowd of 500 and search their bag. People would chant and yell at the police, but five other officers surrounded the one doing the searching, all with their fingers on the trigger of their automatic weaponry. One protester took out a horn and played Darth Vader’s theme music from Star Wars, but other than that there was little anyone could do. Then when the march was finally underway, the demonstrators were gassed by the military police. One police officer, as caught by the Associated Press, fired live ammunition in a panicky fashion over the heads of protesters. Then the riot police moved in with baseball bat–sized batons.

It was an altogether ugly exercise that provoked chants calling FIFA “Brazil’s new dictatorship.” In other words, the demonstrations aren’t bigger because the military police have created a reality that it is terrifying for people to express their dissent, all to the joy of Sepp Blatter.

Larissa, an activist from São Paulo, explained the size of the demonstrations to Al Jazeera by saying, “Some of us are in jail, others are just being cautious. During our latest protests at Rio’s Maracana stadium, fifteen of us were arrested and are now in jail. The police beat many of us…. I love football. I actually play football myself. I just hate the whole industry around it, which—in the name of FIFA—has been eating up whole neighbourhoods here in Brazil. They think they can do anything in the name of football.”

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It would be helpful—even novel—if the US media would tell this story: a population angry about the Cup, but terrorized into compliance. But to tell that story one would actually have to talk to Brazilians who aren’t their cab drivers and concierges. There is still time in the next week, before the World Cup ends, for the media to wear out some shoe leather, hire some translators and tell the truth about what is happening in Brazil. With the 2016 Olympics coming to Rio, the anger and discontent over these mega-events is not going anywhere. The next two years should be a time when the stories of regular Brazilians are told and reckoned with, instead of ignored in the name of nerfy, feel-good narratives.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA’s negligence and the Belo Horizonte overpass collapse

Deadly World Cup Legacy Continues as Overpass Collapses in Brazilian Host City

Brazil overpass collapse

Rescue workers try to reach vehicles trapped underneath collapsed bridge in Belo Horizonte. July 3, 2014. (Reuters/Carlos Creco) 

At least two people are dead and nineteen have been injured in the World Cup host city of Belo Horizonte after the sudden collapse of an unfinished highway overpass. The overpass had been constructed to handle the bus lines to and from the World Cup games being held at Mineirão soccer stadium, less than three miles away. Instead, unfinished, it fell upon two construction trucks, a commuter bus and an automobile.

This tragedy now casts a shadow over the remainder of the tournament. It is a tragedy not only because it happened but because it did not need to happen. Brazil’s politicians and assumedly FIFA as well, had been warned as early as January that this was a possibility according to ESPN’s Leonardo Bertozzi. Make no mistake about it: this blood is on the hands of the international soccer governing body FIFA and Brazil’s ruling Workers Party. To conclude otherwise would be an act of willing blindness, but not only because of the early warning. It would be an act of blindness to the ways in which infrastructure projects were rushed with little regard for commuter safety or workers rights.

In the lead-up to the World Cup, FIFA went on a public relations blitz against Brazil’s lack of readiness for the tournament. This is a tried and true FIFA tactic that I saw firsthand in South Africa in 2010. Using a combination of threats, insults and public shaming, they bring their whip-hand down upon a host country, demanding that the promised infrastructure, security and stadiums be built on time and on schedule.

It started in January with reptilian FIFA chief Sepp Blatter’s saying that Brazil “is the country which is the furthest behind since I’ve been at FIFA.” This was only the beginning. In what was described as a “stark warning” by NBC sports in a headline that blared, ‘FIFA warns host cities in Brazil, as rush to finish venues continues’, FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke said in February that “none of the twelve cities can afford to sit back and relax.” One host city, Curitaba, was told that its games would be pulled if it did not step up the pace and that it would be “monitored on a daily basis.” In March, Valcke said specifically that Brazil’s transport infrastructure needed “a kick up the backside.” In May, Valcke said, “We’ve been through hell” in Brazil. With thirteen days before the start of the cup, Valcke described the country as being in a “race against time.” Most egregiously, in April, Valcke seemed to pine for Brazil’s old dictatorship remarking, “Working with democratically elected governments can complicate organizing tournaments.”

FIFA was whipping the Brazilian government to crack down on strikes and safety regulations to get the massive construction projects done, as if laborers were just undermotivated to finish. Workers endured eighty-four-hour work weeks, and rotating twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week shifts. This was not implemented without resistance. There were a series of strikes in response to the speedups and unsafe conditions. According to workers I spoke with, they also struck against overflowing toilets and cafeteria food described to me as “infested with vermin.” As Antônio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of São Paulo, said to Al Jazeera earlier this week, “The construction workers are among the poorest in Brazil and are often not aware of their rights. And the world soccer body FIFA has never shown any concern about the workers.”

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True to form, rather than address these conditions, the government’s response was either to summarily fire the complainers or promise bonuses for the extra work. They were using either the carrot or stick, with the goal of getting these projects done by any means necessary. These were the orders from Zurich to Brasilia, and President Dilma Rousseff committed to making this a reality.

The pressure on the Workers Party came not only from FIFA but Brazil’s all-powerful, politically connected construction industry. The almighty Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht employed their own private security force to make sure that news cameras were kept at bay and workers kept their heads down. We have already seen the bitter fruits of these priorities in previous months as nine workers died in construction accidents in the rush to provide “FIFA quality infrastructure.”

I reached out to Christopher Gaffney, a Rio-based activist and journalist who has been monitoring the planning for the World Cup. Gaffney said to me, “The repercussions of the collapse will reveal the extent to which Brazilian authorities can be held accountable for the projects associated with the World Cup. These hastily conceived, quickly built projects have dubious benefits for the long term and when the basics fail, it is even more difficult to have confidence in the so called legacy.”

The unfinished overpass had been lauded as yet another of the World Cup infrastructure legacy projects that would benefit all Brazilians. That is clearly not the case. Like the favela children living under military occupation, killed or injured by police since the start of the World Cup, today’s tragedy in Belo Horizonte did not need to happen. They are what results when breakneck neoliberalism arrives with a soccer ball in one hand and a gun in the other.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on Exporting Gaza to Brazil

‘Exporting Gaza’: The Arming of Brazil’s World Cup Security

World cup protest

World Cup Protest, 2014 (photo by Ben Tavener, courtesy of CC BY 2.0

When I was in Brazil for those first days of the World Cup, I was—with many other journalists—tear gassed by military police. I saw sleek, urban-outfitted tanks in the streets and I felt concussion grenades send subsonic shrapnel crashing into my eardrums. I didn’t see the drones flying overhead, but then again, no one without a Hubble telescope is supposed to see the drones.

I also saw militarism that was less high-tech, and more of the traditional boots-on-the-ground variety. Several of the favelas—precarious communities of the poor that were once sanctuaries for both outlaws and revolutionaries—are under full-scale occupation. This has sparked protests by favela residents against the violence of living under constant police subjugation

The level of high-tech hardware on display is hardly different from what we have seen at previous World Cups and Olympic games. Gunships and missile launchers have over the last dozen years become as much a part of the scenery as the FIFA Fan Park and Olympic Village. The problem, though, is not really how the media has yawned past these kinds of post 9/11 security imperatives (although this is a problem). It’s the way that in too many host countries the militarization does not go away when the mega-events end. Instead, it becomes the new reality. If you buy a drone you are not, as a security official in London told me in 2012, “going to just put it back in the box.” Surveillance culture becomes normalized, and through the Trojan horse of sports, a fresh Orwellian reality is born.

Brazil’s leaders are unashamed of this overwhelming show of force. The state has expressed grave concern, at different times, about protesters, crime and terrorism. Tragically, if not predictably, they have also chosen to see protest as an act of crime and even an act of terrorism unto itself. I witnessed this repeatedly, with the effect of turning the World Cup host into, as one activist said to me, “a facsimile of the old dictatorship.”

Concern about protesters, crime and terrorism have all undoubtedly played a role in the security buildup, but Brazil has also built up its armed forces dramatically in recent years as a way to show the world that its new global economic might would be matched militarily. Yet the presence of such overpowering—not to mention high tech—weaponry raises a critical question: Who is arming Brazil? Who supplies—and profits—from their new normal?

The answer is found in Haifa, Israel, at two different multibillion-dollar weapons and electronics manufacturers: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems. Rafael is a for-profit company owned by the Israeli state, while Elbit is a private corporation. Elbit’s earnings are up dramatically, with its drone airplanes providing crowd surveillance during the World Cup. As Chief Executive Officer Bezhalel Machlis said in an interview with Bloomberg, “The intelligence-gathering electronic and optics technologies of Elbit and our Brazilian partners are perfectly suited for the homeland security challenges at these events.” The providing of high-tech militarism caused their second-quarter net income to “rise 30 percent to $50 million.” Bloomberg News wrote antiseptically that Brazil’s desire to increase purchases of Elbit’s weaponry was “given fresh impetus after the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June [2013] prompted record numbers of people to take to the streets in protest at a range of issues including spending on state-of-the-art stadiums.”

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As for Rafael, it was founded in 1948 by the newly established state of Israel to arm the country against those who once resided in its territory. Rafael has an even stronger foothold in Brazil than Elbit. As Flavie Halais, writing for Open Democracy reported last year, “Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has bought a 40 percent stake in Brazilian GESPI Aeronautics. Back in 2010, Brazil and Israel signed a security cooperation agreement, with news reports stating the agreement dealt specifically with the World Cup and Olympics. Since then, officials from both countries have met to develop partnerships for mega-events and Israeli security experts have given several conferences and workshops for Brazilian officials and members of the Municipal Guard.”

This flow of arms from Israel to Brazil has sparked a movement in Brazil led by the Frente em Defesa do Povo Palestino–SP (Front in Defense of the Palestinian People–São Paulo), which is composed of dozens of Brazil’s civil society organizations and unions, and is a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Last year they protested at the Latin American Aerospace and Defense fair in Rio attended by arms manufacturers from around the world all competing—with the help of scantily clad models—to arm Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics. The event was seen as a triumph for the thirty Israeli arms manufacturers who were, according to an insider,given special access to Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer and Secretary of Defense Celso Amorim.

“What Rafael, Elbit and Global Shield are doing is exporting the very tactics used on the Gaza Strip,” said one activist to me in Rio. “They are taking neighborhoods of poverty and anger and creating Gaza in the favelas of Brazil. The goal of anyone who sees themselves as a part of civil society should not be more Gazas.” From even the most basic humanitarian perspective, this is unassailable, particularly given the events of this week, as collective punishment, bombings and demolitions, have been the state response to the discovery of three dead Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. We should be figuring out how to demilitarize Gaza so the 1.8 million people who call that strip of land home have freedom of movement and opportunity without the constant specter of military incursion. Exporting the “Gaza security model” to the cities of the future is a recipe for dystopia. Using the World Cup—and our collective love of soccer—to create that new normal is both frightening and enraging. This sport, created and nurtured by the poor across the world, is now being played in exclusion zones under the watchful eyes of drones in the skies and boots on the ground. We may be rejoicing in the beautiful game right now, but we also need to fight to reclaim it.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA, the World Cup’s true bloodsuckers

Luis Suárez May Bite, but FIFA Sucks Blood

Luis Suarez Teeth

Uruguay's Luis Suárez holds his teeth after running into another player. June 24, 2014.  (Ricardo Mazalan/AP)

This is not a pro–Luis Suárez column. This is not an article in defense of his taking a chomp out of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s 1-0 World Cup victory. This is not a piece that will make apologies for Mr. Suárez, who has some longstanding issues when it comes to getting peckish with opponents, so much so, it was reported that 167 people won a “prop bet” that he would bite someone during the World Cup.

Suárez should be suspended because what he did should not be a part of the sport and is, frankly, kind of gross. But for the sports media to climb their branded pulpits and say that Suárez demands suspension precisely because young, impressionable, wide-eyed youngsters the world over would emulate him and start adopting a particular kind of paleo diet on the pitch, is absurd.

Hopefully, it goes without saying that if your kid is biting people, they probably have issues that need addressing above and beyond just their affection for Luis Suárez. But all that aside, there is something so profoundly noxious about the thought of Boss Sepp Blatter and FIFA doing anything for anyone’s children, and being permitted to bathe themselves in that particular kind of sanctimonious light.

This is an organization that loves children when they are needed for commercials or to release “doves of peace” before an international audience. But when the cameras are away, its record is less dovish and more akin to vultures. FIFA has long cared for children only insofar as they show up to work on time to stitch the very balls kicked around the pitch. The organization, which is a stakeholder in soccer equipment produced the world over, has held a public opposition to child labor since 1997. Yet even its own commitment to “raising awareness of and attempting to curb child labour” has left a great deal to be desired.

In 2010, right before the World Cup in South Africa, the International Labor Rights Forum released a report titled “Missed the Goal for Workers: the Reality of Soccer Ball Stitchers.” The study outlined how child labor in sweat shop conditions was still a part of the FIFA production line in Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, concluding, “The existence of child labour and other labour abusive practices were found to varying degrees in all four FIFA licensed supply chains.”

Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign said in the report, “As fans worldwide get excited about the games, the public expects FIFA and the soccer ball industry to finally live up to its promises.”

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But at least FIFA gives lip service and even throws some money at organizations that aim to curb the use of child labor. It says and does nothing about the children of Brazil getting removed from their homes or having them occupied militarily in the name of World Cup security. These children are the invisible casualties of the World Cup, victimized by FIFA’s security and stadium demands as well as the Brazilian government’s efforts to use these mega-events as a way to displace impoverished communities that sit upon valuable land. In one destroyed favela I visited, the wreckage of a child’s toys was all that was identifiable amidst the rubble. As families are compelled to move with little time and preparation, it was stunning to see what was left behind. Then there are the favelas that are still standing but are occupied by the police and military for the duration of the World Cup. A 14-year-old boy suspected of robbery was reported to have been shot and killed by Brazil’s military police after being taken into custody.

The Suárez incident for me highlights less that a player has a biting problem than the fact that international soccer is run by vampires. It highlights the need for a body that oversees international soccer that doesn’t do symbolic acts “for the children,” while aiding and abetting the robbery of their childhoods. It showcases the need for new leadership and new principles to guide the beautiful game. Sepp Blatter and company may lower the boom on Luis Suárez’s biting, but it will only serve to highlight the fact that they are all bark. On issues that require real leadership, FIFA is actually part of the problem.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the invisibility of indigenous people in sports

From the World Cup to the Washington Football Team, Indigenous People Fight to Be Seen

Indigenous leader Cacique Babao of the Aldeia Tupinambá Serra do Padeiro people at the launch of the 2014 World Cup campaign. (Courtesy Frontline Defenders/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A thirteen-year-old boy from Brazil’s Guarani tribe makes a political stand in front of 70,000 soccer fans and what he thinks is an international audience. A movement led by indigenous women in the United States beats a billion-dollar brand of the big, bad NFL. These two stories share more than the fact that they took place during the same week. They have in common the ways that people in power have been reduced to combatting their courage by trying to render them invisible. They both demonstrate how if you are an indigenous person, you can be on the highest possible cultural platform practically surrounded by fireworks, sparkles and neon signs blaring “LOOK AT ME” and your very presence can still be denied.

Before the opening game of the World Cup, FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer, thought it would be a good idea to have three Brazilian children each release a “dove of peace”. One of those children was a 13-year-old from the Guarani tribe, Jeguaká Mirim. The Guarani are Brazil’s largest tribal group. They have also been subject to incredible levels violence by ranchers who occupy their land for cattle and sugar production. Forcibly herded onto reservations where disease and malnutrition are rife, their situation may actually be getting worse. The ruling Workers Party is attempting to take away even more of their land, which led to violent confrontations—and dramatic images—on the eve of the World Cup in the capital city of Brasilia.

The effects on the tribe are brutal. There is poverty, there is infant mortality, and in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Guarani-Kaiowá suffer the highest suicide rate on earth. Jeguaká Mirim wasn’t going to allow himself to be feel-good FIFA scenery while his people suffered. After releasing the dove, he unfurled a banner that read, “Demarcação,” or “Demarcation Now!” This is the highly charged slogan used by indigenous groups attempting to retain their land rights.

Jeguaká’s father, Olívio Jekupe, said he had no idea that his son was going to do such a thing. Olívio did say that the action “showed the world that we are not standing still.… My son showed the world what we need the most: the demarcation of our lands.” There was only one problem however with this brave display; the cameras quickly cut away. His actions went undiscussed by broadcasters and analysts on the scene. They also met with a series of non-comments by FIFA itself as to who made the decision to cut the cameras. Whoever was responsible for censoring Jeguaká Mirim, the end result was that the only politics that FIFA allowed to be on display would be the banality of doves.

There is a similar dynamic happening in Washington, DC, where federal trademark court made legal what was obvious: that the name Washington Redskins is racist as all hell. For now, the team has no trademark protection because the name, it was ruled, “disparages” an entire group of people. This effort to recognize the moral bankruptcy of the name has been led by powerful indigenous women such as Suzan Harjo, Jacqueline Keeler and the person whose name was on the trademark lawsuit, Amanda Blackhorse. It is a movement that stretches back decades but in recent years, the tribal councils of the Oneida Nation, the Seminole Nation, the Choctaw Nation, and the oldest Native American civil rights organization the National Congress of American Indians have all called upon the team to change the name. A commercial funded by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation that aired during the NBA Finals has been viewed on YouTube more than 3 million times.

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And yet, the response to the victory by DC sports radio host Steve Czaban was that this was really a win for guilt-ridden white liberal sportswriters.” Czaban said, “Go ahead, dance around and do whatever it does that assuages your white liberal guilt, but nothing has changed.… Maybe we can get therapy for [them], chip in, get to the core of their guilt and understand what is it that’s nagging you.”

In response to Czaban and his broadcast partner, Chris Cooley, who made similar statements, the NCAI put it perfectly. They said that these comments “represent a sadly typical attempt to dehumanize Native Americans by pretending we do not exist. In this case, Mr. Cooley insultingly pretends that the Native American groups representing hundreds of thousands of Native Americans haven’t been leading the fight to end the Washington team’s use of a racial slur”

One has to wonder if the Czabans, Cooleys and Chris “Mad Dog” Russos of the world realize how racist it comes off to just willingly ignore the very existence of those who have been “leading the fight.” This gets to the heart of the connective tissue between Brazil and the United States—two nations who share a conjoined, horrific history in their treatment of indigenous people—as well as between Jeguaká Mirim and Amanda Blackhorse. The battle by indigenous groups across the hemisphere is for land, recognition, respect and, most of all their own humanity. It is an unassailable argument. Their opponents increasingly realize that they have lost the debate, so they are reduced to pretending their opponents do not exist. But by branding Natives with invisibility, they have provided the most damning possible evidence of both the persistence of anti-Native racism and the power of a new hemispheric-wide movement for indigenous rights.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on Brazilian Government's Ousting of Favela Residents to Make Room for the World Cup 

FIFA Ignores Brazil’s Economic Woes, Provoking Resistance

Dave Zirin appeared on MSNBC last night to comment on yet another round of protests and tear-gassing in Brazil. Yesterday in Porto Alegre, Brazilians marched against FIFA’s draining of public coffers, arguing that the $11 billion World Cup budget should go towards alleviating poverty. When the government agreed to host the games, Brazil was experiencing an economic boom, but now a recession has hit the country. FIFA was indifferent to the economic change: “They say, you made your commitment, and we want to see your skin in the game regardless of how your economy is doing. And that’s what I think fueled a lot of the anger Brazilians feel,” Zirin explained to MSNBC’s Ari Melber.
Hannah Harris Green

Dispatches From Brazil’s World Cup: Real Estate Frenzy Provokes ‘Psychological Attack’ to Oust Favela Residents

Graffiti on the walls of Vila Autódromo.

Graffiti on the walls of Vila Autódromo. On the Brazilian flag, instead of "order and progress", "freedom" is written across the iconic blue globe. June 17, 2014. (Photo by the author)

Before returning to the favela Vila Autódromo for the first time since 2012, I had already been told that the community would not look the same. As a friend said to me, “It will resemble a perfect smile with several teeth knocked out.” Vila Autódromo is situated just yards away from the site of the 2016 Rio Olympic village, and Olympic planners as well as construction interests have long targeted this close-knit community for demolition. Located on an achingly beautiful lake, where glittering new high-rise condominiums have sprouted “seemingly overnight”, the city’s business and political leaders see prime real estate, with pesky favelados in the way of their development dreams.

Despite a fierce resistance to their removal that has stymied the efforts of Olympic planners, I had heard before arriving that 150 of the 500 families living in Vila Autódromo had left. I expected many of their homes, places I had visited, to now be piles of rubble. What I did not expect was the absence of trees.

Majestic trees punctuated the Vila Autódromo I remember. They were the shade and the breeze for residents. It was where you listened to music, argued, laughed and watched your children safely run the streets. Yet in an effort to coax residents to accept a cash payout and leave, the city has uprooted and torn out many of the trees. The city has also, according to residents, slowed garbage pickup and kept streetlights sporadically turned off at night. They cannot legally just evict people from their homes if they want to remain. But they can make life uninhabitable for those who stay.

“It’s a psychological attack…a perverse strategy to weaken community and weaken our resolve,” said Jane Nascimiento from the Vila Autódromo Neighborhood Association, the group that has led the favela’s resistance.

The situation in Vila, once imbued by a great deal of hope that the city would back down from its constant pressure to remove residents, has become grim. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes—and the real estate interests that back him—has engaged in a remorseless battle of attrition. “It was a beautiful community,” Jane says, “but it’s becoming uglier as they remove the trees.” She continues, “We leaders—directors of Neighborhood Association—have fought our own depression, but we can’t show it for fear of spreading depression to those who remain.”

Unable by law to move the people out by force, the city has turned neighbors of this tight-knit community against one another, as they have been doing in neighborhoods across Rio where people resist the city’s development efforts. First they offered larger payouts for those who would willingly leave—but only if they could convince two other families to pack up and go as well. This pyramid scheme of people’s lives embittered those leaving against the holdouts. As a resident named Francisco said, “I’ve lost friends because I wouldn’t leave. Many of them left the community, but I lost their friendship before they left because I was keeping them from getting the extra money. [These tactics make us feel] either angry or ashamed.”

The city also said—falsely—that an injunction against demolitions won by the Neighborhood Association prevented them from providing payouts to those who wanted to depart. All of a sudden, the Neighborhood Association, which has provided leadership and strength through several difficult years, became an enemy for a minority of residents. A rock was even thrown through their window.

I spoke to another resident, Osimar, who was offered public housing and a great deal of money to vacate. One small problem: he doesn’t want to leave. “The government has money earmarked for favela communities but instead of using them to pave roads, or to provide schools and medical clinics, it goes to the demolition and construction crews. On the other side of the lagoon, in Santa Monica, a condo sells for BRL 6 million ($3 million US). This is why they want us gone…. The flag says ‘order and progress.’ But we are not given ‘order and progress’. We are being given ‘speculation and real estate.’”

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There is something very precious in the favelas that is becoming endangered by the worship of “speculation and real estate”, not to mention the mega-events that fuel speculation and real estate beyond Odebrecht’s most fevered dreams. One should never minimize the very real poverty, lack of services and other challenges faced by the favelas. But those concerns should not blind us to the community, care, and vibrant culture that emerge from the narrow streets, and makeshift cafés. Hundreds in Vila Autódromo want to stay. They are fighting not only for their community but also for favela culture, and against the gleaming, charmless high-rise gentrification springing up all around them. They are fighting against those who aim to bury the favelas—one World Cup, one Olympics and one demolition at a time.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on tear-gassing tourists in Brazil

For Many Brazilians, the World Cup Means Chaos

Dave Zirin on Democracy Now

Standing outside the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin described how he, as well as hundreds of protesters and tourists, were tear gassed just blocks away yesterday. He watched with his cameraman as police prepared to take down Brazilians marching against FIFA’s upheaval of their society. Nearby tourists were rooting for the police, but that didn’t last. “A headwind blew the tear gas onto the tourists,” Zirin told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, “sending 200 tourists scattering.” Zirin himself was also hit, and so couldn’t see the police officer who fired a live round into the crowd. In his appearance on Democracy Now!, Zirin also discusses Brazilians who have been uprooted from their favela homes at gunpoint to make room for World Cup development.
Hannah Harris Green

Dispatches From Brazil’s World Cup: ‘Don’t Tear Gas the Tourists!’

Fifa Protest Banner

This is the lead banner for Sunday's protest that was gassed by Brazil’s military police. June 15, 2014. (Photo by the author)

It was like a scene from some heavy-handed satire, directed by a wannabe Luis Buñuel. Rio’s military police were marching down the Avenida Maracanã pounding their shields with their batons in a perfect, practiced rhythm. They had positioned themselves roughly a block and a half away from a group of about 500 World Cup protesters marching behind a banner that read, “FIFA Go Home.” The protesters were trying to get as close as possible to legendary Maracanã Stadium, which was about to host a World Cup game for the first time in sixty-four years. The protesters were already surrounded by riot police with bat-length batons, so this particular line of armored officers, while very dramatic in appearance—with their all-black regalia and a line of horses wearing gas masks—seemed a bit superfluous initially, their purpose unclear.

As the police beat their shields, a sizable group of World Cup tourists at an outdoor cafe cheered them on. They even produced a warped version of the classic soccer chant, “Olé olé olé polícia!”
 Then the distantly placed military police established the reason for their presence and fired several large canisters of tear gas toward the protesters. What the military police possessed in presentation, they lacked in geometry, as the trajectory was tragically flawed and the first round landed only about fifty yards in front of them. That plus a strong headwind sent the gas back onto the gas-mask-adorned troops, and back onto the cheering tourists, who quickly went from enjoying the show to wearing nothing but expressions of pain and panic, some stumbling while scooping up their crying, young children. (In full disclosure, I was also gassed which may have created a bias against those firing tear gas. At the risk of stating the obvious, it burns like hell.)

Within seconds, the tourists dispersed in a mad panic and a packed cafe became a chaotic mess of overturned chairs and unpaid checks. Technically, even if gassed, it was against the law for all these tourists to “dine and dash” from their tables, at least it was more of a crime than anything I saw the protesters do. The demonstrators stayed together as a disciplined group until tear gas, concussion grenades and, as I discovered later, live ammunition was fired by police at the scene. Then they scattered, creating a predictably chaotic and dangerous state of affairs. I didn’t see the gunfire—I wasn’t seeing much—but the Associated Press caught it and published photos and video of an undercover officer brandishing his weapon and firing bullets into the air. I also didn’t witness the AP’s claim that the police fired the gas as a response to windows being broken by “black bloc anarchist” protesters. But I had received the first misfired dose by then and cannot say for certain. I also saw nothing to support the government’s claim that “Molotov cocktails” were thrown by protesters.

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There is a narrative already emerging from this World Cup—even after just a week—that the protests are effectively nonexistent. Everyone is just in a party mood, and the demos are a shadow compared to last year’s Confederations Cup uprising that saw more than 1 million people in the streets. Yes, it is certainly true that the numbers are smaller in comparison to the ones a year ago—hundreds and low thousands instead of hundreds of thousands—but tonight I had a taste why that was the case. It’s not quiescence. It’s fear. For a nation with a president, Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured in her youth fighting a dictatorship, the police acted in a manner that connects more with the dark past than its future. FIFA has returned to Brazil after sixty-four years carrying an echo of a dictatorship thought to be dead and buried. Yet it at least is comforting to think that the events of last night would have even outraged the Lords of Football. After all, if there is one moral principle that guides FIFA, it’s “don’t gas the tourists.”


Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA’s destruction in Rio.

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