In the first of a two-part series, World Policy Senior Fellow Todd Lanier Lester details two separate incidents of theft-at-gunpoint in São Paulo. He illustrates the role urban development plays in creating a culture of criminal activity.
By Todd Lanier Lester
Perhaps the title to this piece will send a shiver of alarm down the spines of our readers, but a silver lining here is that in two different mugging incidents in São Paulo that I will shortly describe, I was not harmed despite both involving handguns and the potential for violence.
The first one happened a year ago. I was walking down the street with my lawyer in the early afternoon. We were speaking in English and moving at a pace that might be called ‘strolling.’ When a short, stout man in sunglasses stopped us and revealed a pistol aimed at our mid-sections, my immediate reaction was to hope he was an undercover cop making sure that we were doing okay. Alas, that part of the nervous system that sends a shiver through the body and my erstwhile street-savviness identified the imminent danger even when my poor Portuguese was not deciphering his demands as quickly.
My colleague, Igor, had already handed over his smartphone, so my phone and watch were going to be next. Given how fast these things happen, the incident was over by the time we actually became fully aware of what had just happened. Part of that awareness, other than the adrenaline coursing through our bodies, was joy: the joy of being alive, and the joy of not having lost my passport and a few other valuables that the thief didn’t abscond with. Yet the point I want to make about this mugging pertains to where it happened.
The incident occured in the neighborhood of Jardims, one of the most affluent areas of the city, just down the hill from the banking corridor, Avenida Paulista. This avenue is known for hosting many protests against bus fare hikes, the World Cup, and related police violence in the past few years—known as the Vinegar Revolts—as well as more recent ones urging the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. In São Paulo, fear is business. While the booming security industry—which includes bulletproofing, armed guards, security systems, helicopter dealerships, and insurance plans—testifies to the level of violence in the city, it also generates even greater fear that helps market new, costly solutions.
In a city (and country) where a relatively new credit market ‘messages’ to the middle classes the ‘need’ for second and third cars, the security market cannot be divorced from modes of consumption. In neighborhoods such as Jardims, security is primarily private. Concession walls are high with sophisticated barbed wire on top, which is sometimes electrified, and all manner of electronic gates and doors fortress each house from outside dangers.
Looking back on this first mugging, I’ve come to two realizations. First, a wealthy neighborhood is an automatic draw for thieves, and secondly, in urban spaces for which security is primarily privatized, pedestrians in public spaces will not necessarily benefit from ample private resources.
The second mugging happened this year during Carnival. My two friends Juanita and Tanya were visiting me from the U.S., and we were headed to a ‘bloco’ (or parade) near the old train station at Praça da Luz. We arrived early at the location. While the parade hadn’t started yet, we could see the trucks that are equivalent to parade floats parked a few blocks away.
We walked in the direction of Sala São Paulo in order to find out the start time of the bloco. We learned that we had a few hours left, and we decided to have a drink in a neighboring area. We walked down a side road in that direction, never leaving sight of the major streets it connected. We were relatively close to what is known as Cracolândia, but we were walking away from this area towards República.
A man passed us walking from behind and abruptly stopped. Before he even turned around I could see—almost like a caricature of the physical act—him reaching toward his waistline. A millisecond before he turned to reveal a large handgun, I realized we were going to be robbed. We all instinctively stopped and attempted to turn back, but his partner had come up behind us to cut us off.
The next thing I knew, the gun-wielding thief had grabbed Juanita’s hand to control her movement. We kept moving slowly—almost like a dance—yet I was preparing to empty my pockets of my phone and money. A shrill bellow then pierced the air and I turned to see Juanita with the hand that had been clutched flung high in the air in what I can only call a ‘fighting stance’. Juanita had already compared parts of São Paulo to her native Freetown, Sierra Leone, and in retrospect, I realize that the robbers may have believed that she was our host and protecting her guests. This state of confusion allowed us to ‘dance’ away.
Tanya had been in São Paulo only for four hours when the confrontation transpired, so I quickly took it upon myself to find another bloco lest our trauma spiral in the wrong direction. We needed a drink (for sure), but also to dance and celebrate the life that is often so fleeting, especially in places for which violence is the norm.
Location is again important in understanding our happenstance. Cracolândia — sort of like Hamsterdam in the third season of the popular HBO series, The Wire — is a controlled location in which people can consume crack cocaine. Obviously, the sale of drugs, while not condoned in the space, was happening close by.
What I’ve learned from the difference between these two muggings is that the two locations exist on a continuum of public space that, while fluid and in constant flux, suggests a middle ground of safety. An exclusive, high-class neighborhood that fortifies itself with private security and the lawless, shifting territory of organized crime can both produce the same problem: relative isolation.
After the first incident, I changed the way I move through the city (read: no more strolling). While I was mugged again, Carnivale is a very particular context for crime in which tourists are often targeted. Again, I really hope this doesn’t read as alarmist. In fact, I think about how guests from other countries have told me that they didn’t feel entirely safe in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City a place where I’ve never had a problem.
From this, I realize that there is a very subtle knowing of how to move through a city, and that it is rather difficult to transfer this knowledge to a visitor or a new resident in their first few days in a new locale. While many regular travelers are resistant to safety advice, I’ve let go of all stubbornness in this regard — if a Paulistano tells me where not to go or advises me to pick up my place, you better believe they have my full attention.
Stay tuned for the second part of this essay, which will consider the topic of ‘global speculation,’ something that I’ll both define and relate to the aforementioned ‘continuum of public space’ in São Paulo.
Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He is the founder of freeDimensional and more recently Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo, where he currently lives.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]