My two muggings

Part 1 of 2 urban vignettes from São Paulo

Perhaps the title sends a shiver of alarm, but a positive side of the story is that in two different mugging incidents in São Paulo, I was not harmed despite both involving handguns and potential violence.

The first one happened a year ago. I was walking down the street with my lawyer (for the project) in the early afternoon. We were talking in English and moving at a pace that might be called ‘strolling’. My immediate reaction to the short, stout man in sunglasses stopping us and revealing a pistol aimed at our mid-sections was to hope he was an undercover cop making sure that we were doing ok. Alas, that part of the nervous system that sends a shiver through the body and my erstwhile street-savviness identified the danger simultaneously even when my poor Portuguese was not deciphering his demand as quickly. My colleague, Igor had already handed over his smartphone and my phone and watch were next. Given how fast these things happen, the incident was over by the time our full awareness activated. Part of that awareness, other than the adrenaline coursing through our bodies, was joy: the joy of being alive, and the joy of not having lost my passport and a few other valuables that the thief didn’t abscond with. The point I want to make about this mugging pertains to where it happened.

It happened in the neighborhood of Jardims, one of the most affluent areas of the city, just down the hill from the banking corridor, Avenida Paulista, which is also well known for hosting many recent protests. São Paulo is a city in which fear is business. The security industry—which includes bulletproofing, armed guards, security systems, helicopter dealerships, and insurance plans—both responds to the reality of violence in the city but also depends on fear in order to market new, costly solutions. In a city (and country) with a relatively new credit market that ‘messages’ to the middle classes the ‘need’ for second and third cars, the security market cannot be divorced from modes of consumption. In neighborhoods such as Jardims, security is primarily private. Concession walls are high, with sophisticated barbed wire, which is sometimes electrified, and all manner of electronic gates and doors (usually forming a holding bay in which a person or vehicle enters and is closed in before the internal doors open and admit them into the fortified space). Looking back on my mugging, I realize that (i) a wealthy neighborhood is an automatic draw for thieves and (ii) in urban spaces for which security is primarily privatized, pedestrians in public spaces will not necessarily receive the benefit of private resources.

The second mugging happened this year during Carnival. My two friends Juanita and Tanya were visiting me from the US and we were headed to a ‘bloco’ (or parade) near the old train station at Praça da Luz. We were early to the location and while the parade hadn’t started yet, we could see the trucks (equivalent to parade floats) parked a few blocks away. We walked in the direction of Sala São Paulo in order to find out the start time of the bloco. We learned that we had a few hours yet, and we decided to have a drink in a neighboring area. We walked down a side road in that direction, never leaving view of the major streets it connected. We were relatively close to what is known as Cracolândia, but we were walking away from this area towards República. A man passed us walking from behind and abruptly stopped. Before he turned around I could see—almost like a caricature of the physical act—him reaching into to the wasteline of his pants; a millisecond before he turned to reveal a large handgun, I realized we were going to be robbed. When this happened we all instinctively stopped and attempted to turn back. His partner had come up behind us to cut us off however. The next thing I knew, the gun-wielding guy had grabbed Juanita’s hand to control her movement. We kept moving slowly—almost like a dance—yet I was preparing to empty my pockets of my phone and money. The next thing I know, a shrill bellow pierced the air and I turned to see Juanita with the hand that had been clutched flung high in the air in what I can only call a ‘fighting stance’. Juanita had already compared parts of São Paulo to her native Freetown (Sierra Leone), and in retrospect, I realize that the robbers may have believed that she was our host and protecting her guests. Regardless of whether this was their belief, they were startled at her reaction. This state of confusion allowed us to ‘dance’ away. That is still what I remember it feeling like … fast-slow motion that eventually emptied us on a main street from which we made our getaway. Tanya had only been in São Paulo for four hours when the confrontation transpired, so I took it upon myself to find another bloco (and quick) lest our trauma spiral in the wrong direction. We needed a drink (for sure) but also to dance and celebrate the life that is often so fleeting in places for which violence is normalcy.

Location is again important in understanding our happenstance. Cracolândia—sort of like Hamsterdam in the third season of the popular HBO series, The Wire—is a controlled location in which people can consume crack cocaine. Obviously the sale of drugs, while not condoned in the space, is happening close by. What I learn from my muggings is that the two locations exist on a continuum of public space that—while fluid and in constant flux—suggest a middle ground of safety. What I mean is that an exclusive, high-class neighborhood dependent on private security and the lawless, shifting territory of organized crime can both produce the same problem: relative isolation. Again, I really hope this doesn’t read as alarmist. After the first incident, I changed the way I move through the city (read: no more strolling), and while I was again mugged, Carnival is a very particular context in which tourists are often targeted. I also think about how guests from other countries have told me that they didn’t feel entirely safe in my neighborhood in Brooklyn … a place where I’ve never had a problem. From this I realize that there is a very subtle knowing of how to move through a city. And, it is rather hard to transfer this knowing to a guest in their early days in a new place. In fact, some of us regular travelers are resistant to safety advice. Well, I’ve let go of all stubbornness in this regard … if a Paulistano tells me where not to go or advises me to pick up my pace, you better believe they have my full attention.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will consider the topic of ‘global speculation’ something that I’ll both define and relate to the aforementioned ‘continuum of public space’ in São Paulo. Stay safe!

April 2, 2015
Todd Lester