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In Event: Panel Cluster on Social Movements, Unions, and Youth Resistance: Youth Political Identities and Activism in Latin America’s Shifting Political Landscape
Scene 1: “One!” “Two!” “Three!” A group of young men assemble in the middle of an avenue during the school day. By the third pushup, all three car lanes have been occupied. Rush hour traffic comes to a halt. On their palms and feet, they chant loudly until 10. Cars and buses wait, in silence. Spontaneously assembled during mid rush-hour, they enter full synchrony. I would later talk with Gustavo, who was counting at the top of his lungs, “four, five, six!” The young men are aged between 16 and 19 years of age. They study at Elite, a test-prep school known for making its students study extreme schedules to pass tests. The nickname for Sundays is “dia do lixo” (garbage day). They sought to flex their muscles (quite literally) and break the rules in a timed, orderly way to promptly fall back in line with added fervor, thus demonstrating renegade qualities that are subsumed by discipline.
Scene 2: Watching this push-up rally, I couldn’t help but be reminded a “trancasso” - a flash mob road block protest carried out a couple of days before - that occurred down the road by the students of Ocupa Compositor – one of the estimated 1,550 public school occupations that took place across Brazil in 2015 and 2016. “Vamos fechar a rua!” (Lets block the street). It was as much a question as a rally cry. Matheus looked ready and able as he and a group of 25 high school students yelled chants and beat drums on the side of a primary city avenue during rush hour, deliberating collectively about weather to bring traffic to a halt with at trancasso. He waved a large black flag with the words written in yellow, “Ocupa Compositor,” while others thundered carioca funk beats on the refashioned school marching band instruments, discovered after overthrowing the principal and declaring their school occupied.
These scenes illustrate two radically distinct ways in Brazilian youth enact new forms of political practice in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone. Both Gustavo and Matheus were from lower-middle class, or Classe C families of the North Zone. Both were willing to transgress the norm, occupying a primary city avenue to create identity and garner visibility. Both dedicated themselves to their causes nearly full-time: one studying for an entrance exam, the other involved in a protest movement involving live-in encampments. Both were engaged in a project of transforming their lives and, in some way, transforming Brazil.
This paper presentation is preceded by the brief screening of these two scenes. One filmed from the third story Elite with students rallying for their impending standardized test, the other filmed alongside Ocupa Compositor public high school students at the acme of their political movement demanding improvements to public education infrastructure.
The paper draws from ethnography in order to contrast the political practices of students from Elite with those of the protest occupation, Ocupa Compositor (and its wider network of public schools), attempting to reconcile the radically opposed outcomes of such practices within the lives of similar young demographics. It analyzes how the political subjectivity of North Zone youths aspiring for upward mobility gets directed in radically opposing directions due to crucial differences in their relationships to the passage of time. After witnessing these two incidents, I realized how different relationships to time bring about radically different outcomes in young lives while establishing the boundaries of political action.