Imagine a world with no internet or social media, where people send letters to one another and write their books in stone. Now, within this same society of letters and stone-written books, imagine people with no voice, Arabs with no spring, and governments with no end. This is how social digital interactions and the Internet have changed people’s ability to shake political arrangements in society and deconstruct old paradigms. The city of Recife understands the Internet’s great power.
In 2012, the city of Recife, located in the northeast of Brazil, witnessed the birth of the Facebook page “Urban Rights”, which was created when a consortium of construction companies bought a portion of land on the Cais José Estelita and launched a project called New Recife. New Recife proposed the construction of thirteen luxury towers, both residential and commercial, of approximately forty storeys each. However, Urban Rights was against this proposal, arguing that the construction of the luxury towers was to be in the middle of a well known historical site, and, more importantly, the towers were intended only for a very small amount of the city’s wealthy population. In addition, the decision process of building the towers served the businessmen’s interest rather than the people’s, and depreciated the democratic way the government should run the city.
In 2014, after numerous discussions and meetings, the consortium decided to begin the demolition process of the old buildings located inside the terrain in order to start the construction of the towers. Short after, several activists showed up to the area and began what is nowadays known as “Occupy Estelita”, a branch of the Urban Rights movement inspired by “Occupy Wall Street” that focused on the Estelita’s issue. For years, the group fought and protested against the irregularities of the project presented to the pier, such as the lack of ambiental impact studies and alleged legal irregularities during the auction of the land which were later investigated and confirmed by Brazil’s Federal Police. The irregularities first emerged in former Recife mayor João Paulo’s (Labour’s party) administration, along with other several legal inconsistencies. However, it took more than 3 years for something to be done.
Occupy Estelita has also occupied the streets and marched against the government to lead these legal procedures. As a result, the State responded with an action worthy of a George Orwell book by shooting the protesters mercilessly.
On the other hand, the consortium has fiercely opposed the Occupy movement, alleging that the project was a much better option than leaving the land abandoned. In response, the movement built a cultural centre in the area, with free access for all of Recife’s population. Before it dismantled by the police, one could attend musicians’ performances and art expositions at the centre. Occupy Estelita was determined to present several alternatives for the use of the terrain besides the construction of enormous concrete skyscrapers. However, these alternatives had already been exhaustively proposed in Recife’s city parliament and been rejected every time they went to the floor, mainly by consortium-friendly congressmen.
In Recife, the movement has shown not only relevant valid points to the democratic debate, but has also presented a theme that apparently wasn’t discussed by the major public: the way urbanization and democratization have to work together hand in hand. Occupy Estelita maintains itself as a punctual movement and should not be treated as a local manifestation of democracy. Rather, it is a clear example of what several other societies might do in order to reach a much more democratic political system. In that sense, the Urban Rights movement is, above all, a political movement, apolitically attached to any party struggling against the misuse of the State’s power and the non-democratic use of public space, bringing not only a relevant point to the public debate, but also a lesson to each and every city in the world: there is an alternative to a city made of skyscrapers. Occupy Estelita impersonates the democracy model that citizens all around the globe should imitate, proving once again that a true government is made by true democracy, and true democracy is made by the truthful voices and action of the people.