Sao Paulo, Brazil
By Nacho Doce
It was close to midnight on Sunday night, the hour at which 1,200 families planned to occupy 11 vacant buildings in downtown Sao Paulo. Their mission was to improve their own living conditions by occupying and squatting in the buildings long enough to make their eviction a long, drawn-out legal process, and in the meantime, go on with their daily lives.
When I arrived at the meeting place for one of the building occupations, there were around 150 families sitting along a wall with their suitcases. The leaders were registering the names of all present, to keep control over who would enter the empty building. Elsewhere around the city, there were ten more groups like this one, ready to act.
These are members of a well-organized group known as the Movimento dos Sem-Teto, or Roofless Movement. The movement’s members are people who live in precarious housing in high risk areas, mostly in slums known as favelas. Contrary to what the group’s name implies, most of the family heads have jobs. They are largely not homeless but rather in need of stable, dignified housing that allow them to carry on with their lives. Their organized occupations of buildings are almost always in the city center where many of them work, and where they can’t afford to live in decent housing. The lack of a more extensive subway system in a city with more than seven million private cars circulating also makes it difficult to live on the outskirts and commute to work in the center.
With an hour to go before it started, a woman appeared with a serious look. She was Netti, the organizer of the Roofless occupations, and began talking to different people. She told me to stick to Manuelzinho, the leader of the Front Line team – those who carry the sledgehammers and crowbars to break down the front doors of vacant buildings. Among them are also other men whose job is to fend off any police who might arrive before they are all inside the building.
With just 30 minutes to go, the leader of the Front Line briefed the group on how to proceed. I heard the call, “Onward to battle,” and they all marched off in a line. I knew I had to stay in the middle of the group so I wouldn’t miss a step. As we marched to the waiting van, we passed the families who all stared at us. Some had done this before, but others were beginners. Among the crowd I noticed a boy resting his hand on the shoulder of his sleeping sister. The image gave a strong sensation of protection.