Like New York in 1980s and Berlin in the 90s, the occupation movement in São Paulo has exploded into one of the most dynamic forces in Brazil
On the wall of an abandoned and occupied hotel in central São Paulo is a mural of a fiercely feral creature – part cat, part rat, part alien – that bears a red revolutionary banner with a single word: Resistência!
The surrounding courtyard is daubed with slogans of defiance – “10 years of struggle!”, “Whoever doesn’t struggle is dead” – and the initials MMLJ (the Movement of Residents Fighting for Justice).
Young boys kick a ball against a wall decorated with a giant photograph of masked, armed protesters. A mother nurses her baby beside a doorway punched through a brick wall scrawled with the most ubiquitous graffiti in modern Brazil: Fora Temer (President Michel Temer Out!)
São Paulo’s centre is an increasingly contested space not just for housing, but for ideas that have implications far beyond the city’s borders, according to Guilherme Boulos of the National Coordination of the Movement of Homeless Workers. He believes the occupations are a sign that public policy is failing the homeless and the marginalised.
“At this moment it is important to understand that in Brazil there is a process of resistance expressed in the occupations, which is increasing daily in the country,” he said. “In the centre, specifically, it is a very important symbolic dispute, because it is a campaign for the poor’s right to live in the most valued regions, where there are more services, more structure.”
Chucre, the housing secretary, says he agrees with the sentiment – but not with the solutions proposed by the left. Instead of grand-megaprojects that aim to transform the downtown area, he want to focus on smaller developments that can be realised in the timeframe of a single administration and within budget restraints. “We have a planning department with literally hundreds of projects. But they have all failed due a lack of time or money. I don’t believe in a big project to save the city centre. I prefer small interventions that can encourage private investment.”
At Occupation Mauá, the residents are enjoying the benefits of this pragmatism, though few expect the housing secretary’s relatively benign housing policy to last given the track record of past administration.
“We must be cautious. The public-private partnership is not for the poor. There is still a risk that we will be expelled in the future. If the government continues with the idea of clearing out the city centre and pushing ahead with gentrification, then there will be more pressure on us to leave,” said Araújo. “We must continue our struggle and find new ways to resist.”