Day-to-day Protests: the Ethnography of Mobilizations in the Port District of Rio de Janeiro  

Rio de Janeiro’s port district has a unique history. Dubbed “Little Africa” until the 1920s, following the arrival of slaves in the early nineteenth century, it was one of the birthplaces of the samba and at the very end of the 19th century, witnessed the appearance of Rio de Janeiro’s first favela (the “morro da Providência”). In the past ten years, the port district has become a priority target for urban renovation operations, notably with the “Porto maravilha” (Port Marvel) project, realized by mayor Eduardo Paes in view of the big sports events (World Cup 2014, Olympic Games 2016). New infrastructures (tramway, cable car, cultural and commercial installations (museums, aquarium, hotels, offices) as well as the reconversion of a number of buildings had dramatic effects on the area and were also the source of new urban tensions: first of all, due to the “remoções” policy (displacements, expulsions) implemented by the city hall in view of the demolition of part of the favela de Providência and the emptying of several squats and occupied buildings in the neighborhood. The partial failure of the project of police “pacification” of the favela also led to an increase of violent episodes on its edges. The port district has thus become an area where renovated zones coexist with more or less abandoned spaces, an example of urban centrality and marginality living side-by-side.


In that context, my inquiry focuses on the various ways inhabitants react to these tensions and how protest actions both come into being and come apart. The aim is to understand how such actions fit into the area’s network of alliances and urban ecology, but also to study the actors of these protests, including on a sensitive and emotional level. Such a study requires an in-depth ethnography with participation in these actions, prolonged presence in the district and the collection of testimonies and opinions on the recent history of protest activities.

It also requires a favorable viewing angle on at least three recent large-scale mobilization cycles:


  • the opposition movement to expulsions and demolitions carried out between 201 – 2016 for the hosting of big sporting events in several districts of Rio de Janeiro in view of urban renovations. The port district was thus home to the protest movement of favela residents opposed to being rehoused and to movements of squatters and ill-housed persons;
  • the organization of a network for mobilization against acts of police violence in the favelas after the installation of the Pacifying Police Units. That movement was based on an innovative series of actions: media-activism (video capture and diffusion by social networks), the creation of an application for the denunciation of acts of police violence;
  • the lycée students movement in the Fall of 2016, bringing about the occupation of almost 80 public lycées in the state of Rio de Janeiro to denounce the degradation of study conditions. Movements of such amplitude and means of action are quasi unheard of in Rio de Janeiro. The movement corresponded to a soaring of protest discourse and activities among part of the youth, in particular those from the city’s peripheral areas and favelas, who made up the major part of those occupying the lycées. Participation in the occupation of lycée CAIC-Reverendo at the foot of the Providência favela for a period of two and a half months enabled me to closely observe the mobilization.