How rolezinhos are sparking debates over classism and racism

For as long as many can remember, a rolezinho was slang for a gathering of teenagers in a public place. The teens organize a group and arrange a meeting place, perhaps outdoors, in a park. In São Paulo, it is often at a shopping mall, a favorite weekend hangout across all social classes.

But in recent weeks, rolezinhos growing to as many as 6,000 participants via social-media sites have brought to the forefront Brazil’s deep divide between rich and poor. On Jan. 11 in Itaquera, a massive mall in São Paulo’s up-and-coming east zone, hordes of rowdy teens flooded the halls prompting calls to the police, who shot at the adolescents with rubber bullets and tear gas. More gatherings are being planned around Brazil this weekend, including in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.

São Paulo police say they are investigating some of the teens for criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace, prompting criticism that the teens are being persecuted because they are from Brazil’s lower classes. Those critics note that few robberies took place despite the commotion—only one store in Itaquera reported catching someone leaving with a hat and a pair of shorts that weren’t paid for during a Dec. 7 mob of 6,000 teens, according to mall administrators.

But others, including famous TV anchor Rachel Sheherazade, are publicly calling for punishment of the teens, describing them as criminals and troublemakers, and condemning their disturbances in shopping malls, which are technically private property. “Shopping malls became popular havens in Brazil because they were an alternative…for people seeking security,” Ms. Sheherazade said on her show on SBT, Brazil’s third-largest network by audience. “But now that haven has been violated.”

Brazil’s income disparities are widely acknowledged but rarely manifest themselves in such high-profile clashes. The nation’s wealth gap has actually narrowed over the past decade as the federal government created social-welfare programs bringing millions of poor Brazilians into the middle class—but researchers say ideologically, the classes are more at odds than ever.

“This debate highlights some of the social apartheid in Brazil,” said Rafael Alcadipani, a social-science researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “There is in Brazil a new resurgence of people who are very conservative…the rich, upper-middle class and middle class who think they have been left behind by the government.”

Read more about how the rolezinhos, organized in fun, bring about fresh debates about an old topic in Brazil: class and race-based prejudice. Brazil’s Class Struggle Goes to the Mall

Brazil Tries a Softer Approach to Crime

RIO DE JANEIRO—Sticking her head out of a squad-car window, a young Brazilian police recruit shouts to the passengers of a car in front of her to exit their vehicle.

But she is quickly scolded by her trainer, who tells her to use a megaphone, to speak calmly, address people as “citizens” and to “say please.” “Please,” she tries again, slowly and carefully. “Citizen, exit your vehicle. Please.”

The demonstration was part of an overhaul of Rio de Janeiro’s police academy. The goal: to fix an image many have of a corrupt, violent force that is distrusted by Rio’s own residents, particularly the roughly 1.5 million living in shantytowns, called favelas.

Among the changes implemented: The city’s police academy is no longer taught by officers forced into professorship as punishment for mistakes made on the street; teaching jobs are now well paid and competitive, said Juliana Barroso, a sociologist Mr. Beltrame recruited to rewrite the police-training curriculum. Non-police officers, such as professors and sociologists, bring an outside perspective to police education.

“It’s a long-term investment,” said Rio state’s security chief José Mariano Beltrame. “Society will value it when they recognize a prepared security operator, not only operationally, but with a more humane approach typical of the policing we so desire.”

Read my story on how security officials are grappling with this issue here: Brazil Tries a Softer Approach to Crime