Scholars from a great number of disciplines have pointed to the centrality of the concept of the spectacle when discussing mega-sporting events such as the Olympics. Indeed, architectural grandeur, elaborate opening ceremonies, and host-city marketing campaigns are just as much a part of the Olympic spectacle as are the performances of sport, camaraderie, and national pride that characterize the competitions themselves.
As Guy Debord’s (1983) now classic scholarship on the topic indicates, the spectacle visually dazzles, occluding the processes that underlie its performance. Debord’s descriptions of the “society of the spectacle,” were also echoed in the work of other social theorists of the time, who wrote about the growing pervasiveness of “psuedo-image” (Boorstin 1961) or “simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1981) as forms of commodity production characteristic to late capitalism. According to these authors, intensely visual phenomena enchant by drawing our eye to the dramatic and stunning, legitimating certain forms of political and economic power that make and remake social hierarchies.
John MacAloon (2006), discussing the relevance of the spectacle for an ethnographic analysis of the Olympics, argues for a more grounded, in-situ analysis. For MacAloon, if the spectacle works to mask a larger process of commodity production, the ethnography of the spectacle is necessarily a labor of defetishization, an examination of the way that locally situated social actors both reproduce and resist the spectacle. In light of this useful injunction, in this short piece, I trace the multilayered construction of Olympic Rio de Janeiro through an emphasis on the spectacle of security. More specifically, the city’s favelas (or slums) are a privileged stage for violence, profiteering, and the performance of state power in the lead up to the Games.
Olympic spectacle is often centered on the transformation of host-city architecture and the introduction of novel designer buildings and extravagant competition facilities. Eclipsed from official accounts is the degree of dispossession this entails. Many people (often poor people) must be removed and relocated to make way for these new and exciting architectural features. Rio is no exception in this regard, and the coming mega-sporting events have simply provided urban planners and politicians with a more urgent framework for the removal and relocation of marginalized favela populations (cf Valladares 2008; Fischer 2008 for a historical view).
These apparent solutions to the perennial slum “problem” entail the intervention of the state. In the context of the Chinese Olympics, Anne Broudehoux notes that “One of the chief roles of spectacle is to maximize the visibility of the state on the landscape (2010, 52).” While in the Beijing case, the process of rendering the state from an imagined to an embodied manifestation was accomplished largely through the construction of mega architecture, in Rio the process of making the state visible is carried out primarily through the body of the police force. “Cleaning” and “pacifying” the slum, police performances of power give shape to the state, capturing its ethereality in boots on the ground, armored tanks, and through the sonic spectacle of police helicopters patrolling the sky.
Spectacular Violence in the Marvelous City
Long before millions of proud cariocas came out to celebrate Brazil’s successful Olympic bid on the shores of Copacabana beach, the state presence in the city’s 1000+ favelas was characterized by the use of performative violence. Indeed, state terror has been the cornerstone of a markedly unsuccessful and enduring campaign to wrest the control of these poor communities from armed factions of narcotraffickers who have been operating in Rio since the late 1980s.
Favelas have long been subject to periodic large-scale police “invasions” (as they are locally referred to), with hundreds of officers storming the slum, killing traffickers, and confiscating drugs and weapons. Spectacular performances of police efficacy hold a constant place on the front page, as local media endlessly reproduce the “violent favela” and the “war against the traffic” as master tropes that sell papers and increase ratings. Yet behind the scenes, legions of corrupt cops and politicians broker arms to traffickers, move drugs, and buy votes, thriving as a result of their symbiotic relationship with favela criminality. For their part, favela traffickers also employ spectacle through the enactment of visible and public performances of violence and power, ranging from the gruesome punishment of those who violate their laws, to the ritualized flaunting of economic vitality through flamboyant displays of gold, designer clothing, and cash.
Performances of Pacification and Counter-Spectacle
Clearly, the presence of slums run by drug traffickers armed with high-powered weapons and operating with impunity in the heart of the city are unacceptable features of an Olympic host city. In the past several years, a new government program called pacification has marked policy towards favelas. Based loosely on the community policing models developed under Giuliani in 1990s New York City, the program has been widely celebrated as an innovative and effective response to the challenges associated with maintaining state order in Rio’s favelas. Despite an intense propaganda campaign to the contrary, recent reform efforts undertaken in the lead-up to the upcoming mega-sporting events do not break with the tradition of violent spectacle as the modus operandi of favela governance. Rather, recent spectacle continues and extends extant practice.
In truth, “pacification” involves far more than a simple shift in security; it represents a larger project to remake the supposedly dangerous, illicit, and illegal space of select slums. Targeted favelas are part of a strategic pacification plan based on their proximity to planned World Cup or Olympic events, their size, and the potential economic importance of the integration of their populations into the formal economy. The complications associated with the November 2011 pacification of the favela of Rocinha, among the largest and most symbolically important in Rio, are particularly emblematic of the overall challenges stemming from the state strategy and illustrative of the continued use of spectacular violence on both the part of police and traffickers.
When government forces entered the favela on the morning of November 13, 2011, they overtook the slum without firing a single shot. In one of the most spectacular performances of police and state power the city had ever seen, dozens of armored marine tanks ascended the slum’s one central thoroughfare, with BOPE, the infamous and deadly Elite Special Forces unit, close behind. Thousands of leaflets announcing the pacification were dropped from endlessly circling police helicopters. Police success was largely attributed to the fact that prior to pacification, Rocinha, like many other key favelas in the region, received a number of federally-funded projects as part of a larger development program called PAC (or the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento/Plan for Accelerated Growth). The construction of an urgent care facility, several new roads, and state of the art sport complex were credited with having won over the ‘hearts and minds’ of residents prior to more concerted police action.
The spectacle on the ground was inseparable from its immense media circulation. From my living room in the United States, I watched live footage of the tanks entering the favela of the webpages of no less than three different news outlets, and I followed along on dozens of blogs which chronicled the event in blow by blow fashion, written by aspiring authors both in and outside of the favela. Reports about the capture of the favela’s kingpin several days prior to pacification had also made international headlines. With a successful Cup and Games hanging in the balance, Rio was finally getting tough on crime.
BOPE quickly secured, or, in the words of one officer, “cleaned” the favela. The Elite Forces, along with several other police units, were to maintain a presence until the new group of rookie “pacifying police,” not yet graduated from the academy, could take over. Within several hours, with their characteristic pageantry, BOPE led a flag ceremony in the favela, raising the Brazilian flag alongside the squad’s signature black banner, emblazoned with a skull and dagger. This symbolic act communicated to favela residents, in intimidating fashion, precisely which face of the state was to be manifest in the community. Yet ironically, the spectacle simultaneously affirmed and legitimated the long-standing reign of the favela’s narco-regime, as the act of raising the flag signaled that prior to pacification, the favela had been quite another kind of a beast all together—one outside of the purview of state control. Or in an alternate reading, the act sought to separate out the narco-regime from the state, despite the widespread belief within the favela that they are interconnected and inextricable due to corruption and collaboration between them.
At first, the remaining traffickers continued their established strategy of waiting for the police to leave to return to business as usual. They continued to quietly deal drugs and put down large weapons in favor of concealed ones. But they grew bolder over time, eventually deploying their own version of the spectacle of pacification. Daniel Goldstein writes that spectacle is “undertaken by specifically positioned social groups and actors attempting to stamp society with their own agenda (2004, 18).” Indeed, in one of the more flamboyant displays of counter-spectacle, one evening a few weeks after pacification, traffickers put on a lengthy fireworks show for residents. The boom and sparkle across the night sky was as if to declare: “We are still here!”
By diverting attention elsewhere, the spectacle can also hide or mask. Once allegedly pacified in the more militarized sense, Rocinha was subject to another kind of reordering, whereby all traces of the informal slum economy were extinguished and replaced by formal, legal options. As the performance of policing remained in the spotlight, and the well-being of residents was featured in the rhetoric of politicians as the motivation for pacification, processes of economic speculation were rendered largely invisible. Cable companies, internet providers, chain stores, and even multinational retailers rapidly entered the previously untapped favela market, reaching a new group of consumers flush with more expendable income as a result of Brazil’s recent economic success. Consequently, the economic changes wrought by pacification are having a profound impact on the everyday lives of residents, many of whom are struggling to come to terms with the new cost of services in the pacified slum.
The collateral financial effects of Rocinha’s pacification on the fortunes of local elites have also been largely omitted from the narrative. Real estate prices in the wealthy neighborhoods adjacent to the slum have skyrocketed. The appraised value of real estate in nearby São Conrado tripled overnight. One favela resident, a woman in her eighties who had lived all of her life in the favela, expressed with astute clarity a reading of the spectacle of pacification and Olympics that captured its nuance: “Poor Rocinha,” she sighed, “Everyone just wants to make money off our favela.”
The various forms of spectacle at work in pre-Olympic Rio have not been received by mesmerized viewers in uniform fashion. What has largely been characterized by outside observers as the triumph of government forces over organized crime is interpreted within the favela as one more negotiation between criminals and cops. Growing evidence suggests that Rocinha is at the center of a protracted gang war. Dead bodies are appearing around the favela with alarming frequency. The police are rumored to be taking enormous payoffs to support one side against the other in the continued struggle to control the slum’s highly profitable drug market. While the final outcome of pacification in Rio remains to be seen, the spectacle, in all its complexity, will likely remain central to the ongoing competition for power and profit in the favela. Increased commercialization and police visibility coalesce in spectacular fashion as Brazil prepares to market itself to the world. While we await the outcome of its transformation, favela life and politics remind us that there are limits to these shifts—limits located in the intertwined forces of the formal and the illicit and in the enmeshment of the criminal with the state.
Erika Robb Larkins is Wick Cary Assistant Professor of Brazilian Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
All photos were taken by favela resident and self-trained photographer Levi Ricardo.