Last Saturday in Rio, as the Olympics roared a five-minute walk away, a group of residents and their allies gathered in Vila Autódromo, to celebrate the survival of a community perched at the edge of the Rio Olympic Stadium complex. Vila Autódromo managed to beat the odds against the five-ring bulldozer and in doing so, perhaps provided what will be the longest lasting “Olympic legacy” of these games: the idea that you can fight the Olympic machine and win. A community of 650 families was down to their last 20. Bruised and battered by the experience, they nonetheless had beaten city hall.
Vila Autódromo is a working-class neighborhood nestled along the Jacarepaguá lagoon on the edge of Barra da Tijuca. In launching the Rio Olympic bid back in 2009, city leaders—including Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes—pledged to transform this western zone of the city into an Olympic playground for billionaire real-estate barons. Their master plans included razing to the ground Vila Autódromo, a community with roots going back to the 1960s. Originally a fishing village, the spirited residents of Vila Autódromo threw down their anchor and girded for a fight.
Paes and his henchmen adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy, negotiating individually with the more than 650 families as to the size of their compensation payments and relocation plans. Although the mayor aimed to undermine their collective strength, residents stuck together, and after a whipsaw battle including the facing down of brutal acts of police violence, the ones left standing decided to take an evening last weekend to have their own Olympic party.
In the late afternoon, people began to gather in the paved street that slices through the revamped community, dividing one row of identical, brand-new houses from another. As official Rio 2016 vehicles darted to and fro, DJs ramped up the music and various pungent meats and vegetables hit the grills. Residents of Vila Autódromo—including many children—milled about, alongside activists, academics, journalists, and curious onlookers, many of whom sported lanyards with Olympic credentials.
Nearby, the Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas (Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics) set up a table with informational brochures about displacement in Rio brought about by the Olympic Games. They also distributed a recently published book, Atingidas: Histórias de Vida de Mulheres na Cidade Olímpica (Affected Women: The Life Stories of Women in the Olympic City), a stirring collection of stories about women from Vila Autódromo and elsewhere who have stood up and fought for justice. Women played a leading role at Vila Autódromo as well as in the organizational structure of the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics. As Larissa Lacerda of the Comitê Popular rightly noted, “Throughout Rio, women are on the front line of resistance, claiming their right to housing, sport, culture, work—their right to the city.”
The Comitê Popular has long stood in active solidarity with residents of Vila Autódromo. In the lead-up to the Games, they joined forces with around 100 local activist groups to create a series of events and interventions under the banner Jogos da Exclusão (Exclusion Games). These events culminated in a mobilization and march on the same day as the opening ceremony for the Rio 2016 Games.
One of the newly built homes in Vila Autódromo played host to the Museu das Remoções (Museum of Removals), a project created in partnership with museum experts and an architecture school at a local university. The museum aims to collect stories and artifacts from spaces that existed in evicted community before the city targeted it for removal. It is a mobile archive of resistance designed to keep the flame of dissent alive.
By nightfall, the party had kicked into gear. The police stopped by briefly, red lights flashing, supposedly because they heard a protest was imminent. Officers lingered to complain about the decibel level of the music, but eventually residents and activists convinced them to vamoose.
Meanwhile, around a hundred activists—including a number of Vila Autódromo stalwarts—split off from the party and headed toward the Olympic Stadium. Once there, they unfurled three large banners reading “#CalamidadeOlímpica”(“#OlympicCalamity”), “Jogos da Exclusão” (“Exclusion Games”), and “Terrorista É O Estado” (“The State is Terrorist”).
Chris Gaffney, an urban geographer from the University of Zurich who attended the action, told us, “The protest in front of the Olympic Park was a result of years of organizing at multiple political levels in diverse places across the city. The banners touched on the major themes that have defined public resistance to Rio’s decade of mega events: uneven urban development, immeasurable opportunity costs, and perverse wealth transfers, and the militarization of the police with a remit to kill a vontade [at will].”
Thousands of Olympics goers streamed by as protesters held the banners and chanted about money spent on sports that could have gone to education and healthcare. The response from the sporty masses was generally positive. One passerby dressed head-to-toe in the Rio 2016 volunteer outfit remarked that the police do indeed get away with murder. Others belted out “Fora Temer” (“Temer Out”), an allusion to the country’s extremely unpopular interim president Michel Temer and their desire to extricate him from power.
For one man, who was buying and selling tickets outside the Olympic complex, the protests uncorked intense emotions. He approached activists in an agitated state, roaring about how he had numerous brothers who had been shot and killed by police, one as recently as two weeks ago. He railed against the lack of economic opportunity where he lives in Baixada Fluminense, the gritty suburbs of Rio de Janeiro that Stephanie Reist, a Duke University doctoral researcher, described as a historically neglected area “that’s never really been a place where public policymakers have been investing in terms of how you build functioning societies.” The man agreed with the activists, and his intensity injected even greater urgency into the air.
As the banners flapped in the wind, police kept their distance, letting the dissent play out. After about an hour, the pop-up protest marched along the street in front of the Olympic stadium complex, then folded up its banners and rejoined the party at Vila Autódromo.
But let’s be clear, the favela displacements in Rio de Janeiro will not stop with Vila Autódromo. Nor will the resistance. As these struggles continue, Vila Autódromo is a vitally important symbol and stimulus.
Take, for instance, the Horto favela, a 200-year-old community located inside the boundaries of Rio’s Botanical Garden. Around 600 families there are currently facing eviction and have been told that they need to clear out in 90 days. They are not—at this time—even being offered compensation. This is all happening right now, yet because it’s not in the Olympic zone, the international media have failed to notice.
Meg Healy of RioOnWatch told us that activists in Horto are drawing inspiration from Vila Autódromo and they are not alone. She said, “When you talk to community leaders in other favelas, people point to Vila Autódromo as a case study of what it takes to organize effectively, mobilize against removals. I’ve personally heard other community leaders in Babilônia, Vidigal, and Horto reference Vila Autódromo.” She told us that anti-eviction activists across the city are using Vila Autódromo as “a road map for their next steps as they resist removals.”
And Horto is the next stop for the Museum of Removals as well. As Healy noted, “The idea of the museum is that it’s going to be replicated and moved around to different communities as they’re facing eviction.” Those battles will continue long after the Olympic juggernaut rolls out of town.
Vila Autódromo has gifted the city and the wider world the key lesson that you can stand up to power and win, even when it seems almost impossible. This is not only their legacy, it’s an Olympic legacy; one that should be replicated not only throughout Rio but any country where the International Olympic Committee demands eminent domain for the “right” to stage the games.