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Bar talk

February 12, 2009

Back at the bar last night I got talking with the regulars – in the limited way I can manage to in Portuguese – about all sorts of things particularly the upcoming carnival – I’m invited – and the football: Brazil beat Italy yesterday in a friendly match. But it was how these ordinary guys – one is a factory worker, one works in an office, and another runs his own one-man business that seems to do anything and everything to do with IT – talked about fear and danger, security and safety, in the city that really interested me. We got talking about where they lived, and the centre of Sao Paulo and how they felt in each place. I told them what I had been advised about not going out at night here, and despite the fact that we were all out at night, Milton, the IT guy, a chunky black man in his 40s, agreed that this wasn’t bad advice for the centre. The area, he said, was full of thieves and drug-addicts, and whilst anyone would be safe amongst friends (and here he gestured expansively to include me and practically everyone else at the bar), even he wouldn’t want to spend much time alone. Milton is from out east – he’s a Corinthians fan; the centre-west is Palmeiras territory, and the red Metro line goes from one to the other – and in his own neighbourhood he says he doesn’t have much to worry about, although of course he has security. Everyone has security. You have to. Joao, the fat, slightly lugubrious office worker, nods in silent agreement.

I tell them I’d quite like to talk to some women. This prompts laughter and a lot of nudging and punching of arms: of course you do, don’t we all? No, no, I mean I’m interested in what women think about all this – what about her? I ask, gesturing to a handsome black women probably about the same age as Milton. Carla? No, you don’t want to talk to her. Not without paying. Open your eyes! (he makes an eye-opening signal with his right hand). Of course I could see that Carla wasn’t just here for fun. And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to her. She agreed with the guys about the danger, but added that it was much worse for her, not because she was working nights, but because she was black. Being a black woman in Brazil is not good. Everyone, she said, pinching the skin of her forearm, just sees the colour of your skin. especially if you are on your own. With her white friend, people don’t care. I told her that some people think that Brazil isn’t racist or dangerous for black people. She laughed and not in a happy way. Those people didn’t know her life. I asked her if Lula had changed things – it is something I try to ask everyone at some point – in particular with the Programa Bolsa Familia since Carla had told me she has three kids, one grown up and two still at home. She shook her head. No. Nothing. Nothing has changed. It may be pessimistic or cynical but it’s what everyone seems to be thinking apart from the government and the World Bank.

All this bar talk might be casual and fueled by beer (and it is often difficult to understand exactly what people are saying) but it is a useful corrective to the formal interviews and other research I am doing here. It also tends to add to my growing certainty that Brazil can’t really be called a surveillance society at all in terms of how people experience their lives and relationships with the state. Talk of surveillance is just science fiction. It doesn’t mean anything to the people at the bar. The reality is all about danger (not risk in the bland sociological terminology, but actual danger) and security.

(All the names in this piece have been changed…)

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