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Democracy and Enclosed Spaces: From Social Movements to Fortified Enclaves to Hip-Hop in São Paulo
Teresa P. R. Caldeira, 2003
Conference prepared for the symposium  "(In)visible Cities. Spaces of Hope, Spaces of Citizenship", Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 25-27 July 2003


Modern cities have always been spaces for the affirmation of democracy and simultaneously for the reproduction of social inequality and practices of exclusion. Even in the most democratic of modern cities one finds patterns of spatial segregation. Indeed, the configurations generated by the interconnections of democracy, social inequality, and urban space shift continuously. In this paper, I take the case of São Paulo to explore some new configurations emerging in many metropolises around the world.

To think of the relationship between democracy and urban space through the case of São Paulo is to realize two things. First, that democracy is an uneven process that in practice contradicts the usual political models with which we are accustomed to evaluate it. These models tend to conceive of democracy as a homogeneous process affecting simultaneously and evenly all spheres of social life. Second, one realizes that there is no clear and direct correspondence between spatial form and political form, although the two are certainly related and influence one another. In many metropolises around the world today, in the south and in the north, we can identify both processes recreating and expanding democracy and citizenship and processes that undermine the very conditions of that expansion and delegitimate some of their most important claims. In these cities, the urban space itself has been at the center of both the creation of new claims and forms of citizenship rights and of new practices of segregation and discrimination, and none of these opposed tendencies has been able to completely eliminate the other.

São Paulo has historically been marked by clear spatial segregation and immense social inequality. Nevertheless, the character of this segregation and the ways in which it has been negotiated by different social groups have changed considerably. In the last 25 years, strong claims of democratization and expansion of citizenship rights by movements of residents of the urban peripheries have contributed both to democratize the country, expand the citizenship rights of poor urban dwellers, and improve the infrastructure and conditions of life in the urban peripheries. These changes have been met by processes of contestation of rights, especially civil rights, and re-invention of social separation frequently associated with the increase of urban violence and the fear of crime. From the urban perspective, the most obvious example in this direction is the proliferation of fortified enclaves for the residence, work, and consumption of the elites. In the last years, however, urban segregation has started to be resignified once more from spaces in the periphery, this time by hip-hop movements. These movements simultaneously expose in the clearest of terms the conditions of injustice and inequality pervasive in the peripheries and re-create these areas as ghettoes, that is, as enclosed spaces, perversely mimicking some of the practices of the elites that segregate them. By analyzing some of the dimensions of these different engagements with democratization and segregation I hope to contribute to the discussion about the character of public spaces and of democracy in contemporary metropolises.


Rights to the City

There is no doubt that Brazil democratized in the last two decades. There is also no doubt that democratization has not touched several dimensions of Brazilian society. As James Holston and I have argued elsewhere, it has been an uneven process, in which the democratization of the political system is its most successful aspect, and failure of justice and violation of civil rights its most unsuccessful.1 In the last two decades, elections have been free and fair, political parties and civil associations freely organized, the media uncensored, and imprisonment for political activity unheard of. Nevertheless, the institutions of order ―the police and the justice system― have been systematically incapable of guaranteeing public security, justice, and respect for civil rights even at minimal levels. The urban spaces of Brazilian metropolitan regions, especially their poor peripheries, constitute a dimension of Brazilian society in which we can observe both an inventive engagement with democratization and some of its most dramatic limits.

In São Paulo, as elsewhere in Brazil, poor workers have settled in cities by building their own houses themselves in the periphery. On the outskirts of the city, workers bought cheap lots of land sold either illegally by outright swindlers or with some kind of irregularity by developers who failed to follow city regulations regarding infrastructure and land registration. In São Paulo, as elsewhere in Brazil and in the developing world, workers have always understood that illegality is the condition under which they can become property owners and inhabit the modern city. And in São Paulo as elsewhere, metropolitan regions are marked by a clear dichotomy between the "legal city" (i.e. the center inhabited by the upper classes), and the illegal peripheries. On streets without pavement and infrastructure, workers built their own houses, without financing in a slow and long-term process of transformation known as autoconstruction. This process symbolizes perfectly progress, growth, and social mobility: step by step, day after day, the house is improved and people are reassured that sacrifice and hard work pay off. Thus, during the last half century and especially during the years of intense urbanization from the 1950s to the 1980s, workers in São Paulo have moved to the "bush" to build their houses and in this process were the agents of the peripheral urbanization of the city.

Starting in the mid-1970s, numerous neighborhood-based social movements appeared in the poor urban peripheries of Brazilian metropolitan regions. Movement participants, a majority of them women, were new property owners who realized that political organization was the only way to force city authorities to extend urban infrastructure and services to their neighborhoods. They discovered that being taxpayers legitimated their "right to have rights" and their "rights to the city," that is, rights to the legal order and the urbanization (infrastructure, piped water, sewage collection, electricity, telephone services, etc.) available in the center. With the social movements, rights surpassed the labor sphere, in which they have always been legitimated and practiced in regulated form. At the root of their political mobilization were the illegal/irregular status of their properties and the precarious situations of their neighborhoods, which the public authorities had failed to provide with services and infrastructure alleging exactly their irregular status. Thus, a central inspiration for these movements was an urban and collective experience of marginalization and abandonment, in spite of individual efforts of integration through work and consumption.

The urban social movements were central actors in the political process that brought the military dictatorship to an end. Their influence was especially important during the works of the Constitutional Assembly and of the numerous state and municipal assemblies that followed. They mark an important moment in the constitution of a new conception of citizenship grounded in the popular construction of the law and the exercise of new kinds of rights through legislation. The 1988 Constitution institutes many rights as a consequence of the approval of a series of popular amendments which urban movements and organized minority groups presented after unprecedented political mobilization. These include a variety of rights, ranging from reproductive rights and paid paternity leave to the right of urban adverse possession (usucapião urbano). The latter establishes the possibility of creating an uncontestable title of ownership for residents who have lived continuously for five years and without opposition on small lots of urban land. This constitutional article and another that defines the objective of urban policies as "to organize the full development of the social functions of the city" and establishes that property has a social function became the basis for a series of legislated acts, regulations, and plans that have since transformed the character of urban policy in Brazil.2

One of the most impressive examples of these acts is the remarkable Estatuto da Cidade (City Statute), federal law 10.257 of 10 July 2001. Among its many important achievements, two should be highlighted. First, it frames its directives from the point of view of the poor, the majority of Brazil's city dwellers, and creates mechanisms to revert some of the most evident patterns of irregularity, inequality, and degradation in the production of urban space. Second, the Statute requires that local urban policies be conceived and implemented with popular participation. Thus, it takes into consideration the active collaboration and involvement of the organizations and interests of civil society.

The City Statute and the practices that have inspired it are important indications of one of the ways in which democratization has taken root in Brazilian society and of how the grassroots experience of local administration, legal invention, and popular mobilization has made its space in federal law. Other examples indicating important expansion of rights and citizenship could certainly be added. Nevertheless, in the last two decades, powerful transformations in the metropolitan regions have jeopardized these diverse movements of expansion of citizenship and civic identities. These are processes that unmake the claims of incorporation and that are materially embodied in the urban environment.


Recreating segregation

As the periphery urbanized and was partially legalized and incorporated into the city, and as the democratization process took roots and the working poor were acknowledged as political actors, significant numbers of people from middle and upper classes began to retreat from the city and especially from its public space. They used the fear of violent crime ―which in fact grew from the mid-1980s on― as their main justification to migrate by the hundreds of thousands to areas in the outskirts of the metropolitan region that they could better control and from which they could exclude the poor. They built fortified enclaves for their residence, leisure, and work. They adopted a new view of the virtues of private initiative that is not in opposition to the neo-liberal policies that they adopted in the management of the economy. These policies resulted in the retreat of the state from various areas in which it had a traditionally central role, such as urban services, infrastructure, telecommunications, steel and oil production, and so on. Neo-liberal policies generated a deep economic crisis that partially jeopardized the poor's continued incorporation into the city through the process of autoconstruction.

The choice for private solutions also means a new approach to urban space by the elites. This means primarily to trade traditional urban and public spaces for new privatized spaces for collective use. This exchange has various manifestations. An advertisement campaign for a theme park gated community for the elites in São Paulo found a quite synthetic way of expressing it. The residential enclave called Place des Vosges literally copies the Parisian square. But it places it inside of a fortress of high walls and numerous security devices served by an army of private guards on 24 hours duty. The ad pictured the French square and its Brazilian fortified copy, announcing that: "The only difference is that the one in Paris is public. And yours is private." As private solutions proliferate and become the most desirable and distinctive ones, previously good urban spaces turn into left over spaces abandoned to those who cannot move out and live behind walls.

Privatization and rigid boundaries (either material or symbolic) fragment what used to be more open spaces and serve to keep groups apart. Separations are constantly elaborated in various ways: by walls, design devices, suspicion, prejudices, and the fear of crime. This fear is productive: it makes circulate everyday conversations that articulate new symbols of discrimination and criminalization of poor people and members of ethnic groups. Moreover, fear of crime is productive as it legitimates the expansion of a booming industry of security services needed to enforce the new regime of distances and boundaries in city space; an expansion that on the limit destabilizes one of main sources of legitimacy of the modern state: its monopoly of the means of violence.


The Periphery

During the same period of time in which fortified enclaves became the main choice of the upper classes, the periphery of São Paulo has undergone contradictory processes of improvement and deterioration. The social movements, in addition to their crucial role in the democratization process and in the constitution of a new conception of citizenship, provoked a significant transformation in the urban environment of the peripheries. The state administrators in São Paulo who received the demands of social movements responded to them. The city of São Paulo (and many others in Brazil) borrowed heavily to invest in urban infra-structure, especially in sanitation, to the point that Brazil became the World Bank's largest borrower in the area of urban development. As a result, the peripheries of São Paulo (and of other metropolitan regions) improved substantially in terms of urban infrastructure (asphalt, sewage, sanitation, electricity) and in terms of indicators such as infant mortality. City administrations also responded to the demands for legalization of urban land and offered various amnesties to illegal developments, enlarging substantially the amount of legal property on the peripheries ―although this still remains an enormous problem. This combination of legalization and infrastructural improvement radically changed the status of the periphery in the cityscape, a transformation analogous to that of the political status of their residents obtained through the organization of social movements.

Nevertheless, as the peripheries improved, and as democratization took roots in Brazil, the conditions that sustained industrialization, developmentalism, and social mobility eroded. They started to collapse in the 1980s with what is called the "lost decade", the deep economic recession associated with changes that significantly transformed Brazilian society and many others in Latin America and all around the world. Although this is not the place to analyze in more detail these changes, it is important to mention the most important of them as they affected the metropolitan region of São Paulo in the 1980s and 1990s. They include a sharp decrease in population growth; a significant decline in immigration and increase in out-migration, especially of upper- and middle-class residents; a sharp drop in the GNP and rates of economic growth; a drop in per capita income; a deep reorganization of industrial production associated with large unemployment and instability of employment; a redefinition of the role of government in the production and management of urban space; and a significant increase in violent crime. As a result of the economic crisis and related changes, the distribution of wealth ―already bad― worsened and perspectives of social mobility shrank considerably. In the periphery, important aspects of the urban inclusion achieved by the social movements eroded. Many people could no longer afford a house of their own, and the reduced horizons of life-chances seemed to preclude even the dream of autoconstructing one. The proportion of people living in favelas in the city increased from 4% in 1980 to 19% in 1993.

Certainly, one of the most important aspects of this deterioration of that contribute in significant ways to deteriorate the conditions of everyday life in the peripheries is the sharp increase in violent crime. With an overall annual murder rate of more than 60 per 100,000 population makes São Paulo one of the most violent cities of the world. However, many of the neighborhoods on the periphery have a homicide rate of more than 110 per 100,000 population, compared to less than 15 in the city's central districts.3 Moreover, most of the outrageously high number of cases of police abuse and killing by the police happens in the peripheries.

In sum, although the urban space of the peripheries improved and the political citizenship of their residents expanded, their civil rights have shrunk and their everyday lives have deteriorated as a consequence of various processes. The peripheries are more legalized, have relatively better infrastructure, and in spite of impoverishment their poor residents have much more access to consumption, information, and communication (from cell phones and computers to radios and phonographic electronic technology) than the older among them have dreamed they would ever have. Nevertheless, daily life in these areas is harsher in some ways and more uncertain than before, due to the expansion of violent criminality, police abuses, unemployment, the increasing precariousness of conditions of employment, and the partial dismantling of an already precarious welfare state. It is this periphery, where the marks of social inequality are quite obvious and the conditions of everyday life especially difficult, that became the space for the organization of a series of cultural movements and artistic forms that proliferated with democratization and with the broader access to resources of information and communication. I now turn to these movements which are articulating a different view of the periphery and reveal some important contradictions of democratization.

In various metropolises of the world, hip-hop has become a language through which youth and marginalized groups express the injustices, violence, and inequalities that they have been suffering. The same happens in São Paulo, where children of migrants who urbanized the periphery now engage with hip-hop, become rappers, marginal poets, graffiti artists, and break dancers to elaborate a view of the periphery that is quite different from the one their parents put forward. The previous image of the hardworking and resourceful periphery was elaborated by the generation of migrants who first settled there and later organized the social movements to claim their "rights to the city". The members of these movements, although young, were mostly homeowners and parents. A significant proportion of them were women. They came to São Paulo to work and strongly believed in the possibilities of social mobility and incorporation into the modern society offered by hard work and education in the city. The members of the contemporary artistic movements may be described as their children. They are mostly young, the first generation of children of migrants born in the poor neighborhoods of the city which their parents built dreaming of becoming property owners and modern citizens. Although many of them have children, they usually do not have independent households and almost never are homeowners. The conditions they encountered in the peripheries are quite different from those of their parents. They are part of the first generation to come of age under both a democratic political system and the effects of neoliberal policies, such as high unemployment, and a new "flexible" culture of labor. From many perspectives, their parents succeeded in their dreams of social mobility, and their own insertion in the city, in its modern consumption market, and in its public sphere of political debates and communication are signs of this success. However, while their parents believed in progress, they feel that they have few or even null chances of social mobility. They think of themselves as marginal and excluded, not as citizens, although they exercise daily their citizenship rights of integrating a public debate and creating a public representation of themselves. They grew up at a moment in which possibilities of incorporation were matched by their immediate undermining, when the expansion of consumption came with unemployment, broad access to the media with the realization of their distance from the worlds they represent, formal education with its disqualification in the job market, better urban conditions with violent crime. From this location they create one of the most powerful critiques to social inequality, injustice, racism, and disrespect of human rights ever articulated in Brazil.


Democracy and Enclosed Spaces

The hip-hop movements express dramatically the dilemmas of people living in a context of abuse and inequality that keeps them close to the universe of violent criminality and that supports their disbelief in alternatives that might be offered by the democratic state and the rest of society. The facet of the state they deal with includes primarily a violent police, and the deteriorated prisons, schools, and health clinics. They also confront daily what they consider an unjust justice system. They try to survive in a space they call hell, a word that stands both for their neighborhoods in the periphery and the prisons where many of the manos end up. They sympathize with their neighbors when they turn to criminality. It is not that they support crime. In fact, the desperate mission they imagine for themselves is to struggle for peace, to take their brothers out of the space of crime and death and teach them the necessary skills to stay alive. This mission is sustained by their sentiment of revolt. Indeed, probably hip-hop expresses the most powerfully articulated form of revolt that Brazilian society has seen in many years. The determination to talk from the perspective of black people, expose racism, express a direct class antagonism, despise rich people (especially the young "playboy"), and denigrate women has no parallel in a society in which the prevalent attitude is to avoid direct confrontation, both racial and social. The views formulated by hip-hop are probably not shared by the majority of the residents of the periphery, but are certainly a powerful view that sometimes gets to represent the periphery and set the terms of political debates and policies that affect it.

In recent years numerous movements in Brazil have exposed the inequalities that condition the lives of the working poor and their spaces. The social movements of the 1970s and 1980s are the most well-known example. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between these movements and hip-hop. What the latter expresses has largely remained unexpressed before: the violence of everyday life; the conflictive relationships between neighbors and between men and women; racism; police violence; the lack of alternatives; the vulnerability of the bodies.

The social movements certainly exposed a situation of inequality and injustice. But their perspective had two crucial differences in relation to that of hip hop's. First, the social movements countered the negative images of the periphery by presenting a positive image of themselves as members of a unified, "solidarity" community of hardworking families and property owners. In other words, they questioned the elite's images of themselves, but not the elite's values of property and progress. The notion of the unified community they learned from Liberation Theology. The ethics of hard work as a tool of betterment and guarantee of dignity has structured the worldview of the working poor during the whole period of industrialization and urbanization of São Paulo. Second, they articulated their demands from a position of inclusion. They placed themselves inside of the political sphere and indeed forced the expansion of its parameters so that they could fit in. They articulated their inequality as the basis for their demand for equal rights. In their demands for rights, they affirmed inclusion, belonging, and membership. Indeed, their mobilizations won them political inclusion and a significant measure of inclusion in the legal urban order. Now, however, their children are expressing some of the stark limits of this inclusion.

The law and the state that the residents of the periphery engaged with and that incorporated them during the democratization period have protected their political rights, improved at least partially their spaces, changed the way in which the management of urban space is conceived, and even protected their property rights. But was unable to protect their bodies and lives, which remained largely unbounded.4 It is this vulnerability that hip-hop movements dramatically express. They use the only right they think that poor blacks like them still have, the right of free speech assured by democratization, to try to bind their manos' bodies and help to keep them alive. Under the rubric of "attitude," they articulate a rigid ethic (even if they doubt and contradict it at times): no drugs, no alcohol, no conspicuous consumption, no contact with whites, no trusting women, and so on. The brotherhood produced by this ethic and good behavior is kept together by the invocation of God (and sometimes the orixás), by manos patrolling each other's behavior, and by authoritarian "rational trials" in which they judge manos that they consider that have misbehaved. There is no institution other than the disperse hip-hop groups and posses to articulate the rules and functioning of the brotherhood. These groups avoid relationships with outside organizations, including all the NGOs that try to work in their neighborhoods. They feel that they are isolated and alone and cannot trust anybody. The hip-hop movements conceive of the neighborhoods in the periphery as ghettoes that will not be socially and politically included, as spaces that will remain confined and excluded, as kind of enclosed spaces.

Undoubtedly, the young and black residents of the periphery have many reasons to be skeptical of assistance and of institutions. Undoubtedly, too, it is hard for them to find notions such as justice, rights, and belonging, as articulated by the institutions of the current democratic state, relevant to them. However, it is important to note that they evoke the same notions, re-articulated, as part of their ethics. Nevertheless, their self-enclosure and intolerance for difference (any difference, in fact, as they emphatically reject the presence of women, their sisters) set limits to the kind of community and politics they may create. Democracy is not a word in their lexicon. It is in fact a notion that belongs to the other side, the side of the white, rich society. Their evocations of justice are not necessarily those of citizenship and the rule of law ―as were the ones of the social movements. Theirs is a moralistic order, and one in which difference has no place.

The construction of a position of self-enclosure by hip-hop movements gets to be especially problematic when one considers that it is paralleled by other practices of enclosure, this time from the upper classes. For some time, groups from the upper classes have been creating spaces of isolation for their activities, from housing to work, from entertainment to consumption. These are secluded in fortified enclaves and kept under the surveillance of private guards. When both sides of the wall think of themselves as enclosed and self-sufficient, what are the chances of democratization?

Since the 1980s, Brazil has produced a remarkable democratic constitution and some associated legislation, such as the City Statute, that altered significantly the way in which social relations are structured in various dimensions of social and urban life. In various metropolitan regions, residents of the poor peripheries have organized themselves to express the conditions of discrimination and injustice to which they are subjected and to change their status as citizens and the conditions of the spaces they inhabit. Nevertheless, they have also been the target of new forms of segregation and injustice and have sometimes contributed to discriminate against some groups and to isolate their own areas. The same democratic system that has been able to invent remarkable legislation to deal with the urban space has failed to reform the apparatuses that protect lives and civil rights. Democratization is undoubtedly an uneven process and the transformations in the urban space and in the public sphere in general bear the marks of this unevenness and the various contradictions and perversities they generate. The challenge for Brazilian democracy is to give meaning to the sphere of civil citizenship it has neglected. This is a challenge that becomes more dramatic on a daily basis as people's distrust of the justice system deepens and the search for private and enclosed solutions to the protection of lives are adopted on both sides of the walls.







1. For a detailed analysis of this uneven process, which resulted in what we label "disjunctive democracy," see Caldeira, T. and Holston, J., "Democracy and Violence in Brazil", In: Comparative Studies in Society and History 41(4), 1999, p. 691-729.

2. For a complete analysis of the new urban legislation and the especially of the City Statute of 2001, see Caldeira, T. and Holston, J., "State and Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions", In: Ong, A. and Collier, S. (eds), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics,London: Blackwell. In this article, we argue that the City Statute and other legislation that follow it in fact consolidate a new type of urban planning and engagement with city management that we term democratic. We contrast this model with the modernist-developmentalist type of urban planning that prevailed in Brazil and elsewhere from the 1950s on and which was based on a notion of total planning, usually implemented in authoritarian fashion.

3. For a detailed analysis of crime trends, see Caldeira, T., City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

4. I elaborate this notion of unbounded bodies in Caldeira 2000: Chapter 9.