For women around the world, International Women’s Day is a day for celebration. This year, Vila Autódromo‘s Maria da Penha, recognized in the morning here on RioOnWatch, had planned to spend the day celebrating. Dona Penha was scheduled to speak on a 2pm panel on “Women in the City” as part of the latest If The City Were Ours conference, to be followed by a 6pm award ceremony at Rio’s State Assembly, ALERJ, where she would win the Woman Citizen award “Diploma Mulher Cidadã Leolinda de Figueiredo Daltro,” for her courageous efforts fighting for housing rights in Vila Autódromo and across the city.
Instead, at 6am Dona Penha awoke to Shock Troops surrounding her home, poised to demolish it. She spent the morning removing her remaining possessions, and was forced to cancel the 2pm speaking engagement. Then, shortly after the demolition, the community got word that Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes scheduled a press conference at the Mayor’s Palace, the Palácio da Cidade, for 5pm, concurrently with the ALERJ award, to announce his plan to upgrade Vila Autódromo. Likely in response to the growing global pressure of the #UrbanizaJá viral video campaign, his announcement of upgrades had not been at any point presented to the community itself.
Vila Autódromo residents thus planned their own press conference outside the gates of the Palace for 4pm. This way they could share their views with journalists arriving on site, then attend the Mayor’s press conference to learn of his plans for the community. But such a democratic exchange was not in the cards. Upon hearing of the community’s press conference, Mayor Paes changed the location of his press conference last minute. Vila Autódromo residents were therefore shut out of the event where their fate would be unveiled. They, along with supporters, held their press conference then headed to ALERJ to witness Maria da Penha receive her award. The day ended with a celebration of Penha’s strength and fortitude in the struggle to stay in Vila Autódromo.
Over recent months, the city has ramped up its pressure on Vila Autódromo, located adjacent to the Olympic Park. In December, those who had refused to leave were threatened, with Sub-Mayor Alex Costa declaring, “if you don’t leave out of love you will leave out of pain.” With the Olympics approximately five months away, the past couple of weeks have seen an increase in symbolic demolitions. The home of Neighborhood Association President Altair Guimarães was illegally demolished, along with the the Neighborhood Association building itself and threats of demolition to Maria da Penha’s home. Worried by these threats, hundreds of supporters have stayed watch, maintaining a constant presence in the community, standing guard over this prominent community leader’s long fought for home. Tuesday morning, however, at 6am, the City came with some 100 Municipal Guards. Instead of entering through one of the community’s main entrances, they entered through the Olympic Park, disassembling an existing fence to gain access to Dona Penha’s home.
After surrounding Dona Penha’s home, they awaited the removal of the remainder of her belongings, before moving residents and supporters behind the cordon in preparation for the demolition. The demolition began with no engineer oversight and no water sprayed on the rubble–this reduces dust, crucial when considering the presence of a one month old baby in the nearby home of Márcio and Rafaela. Maria da Penha’s daughter Nathalia condemned the demolition taking place on International Women’s Day. Supporters and residents chanted “Urbaniza Já, a Vila Vai Ficar!” (Upgrades Now, Vila Autodromo will Remain!) and some pointed out the stark contrast between the City’s actions and the Brazilian national motto of “Order and Progress.”
After the demolition, the Municipal Guards dispersed, heading back into the Olympic Park through the gap they had made in the fence. Soon after, however, they returned, surrounding the home of Márcio, Rafaela and their four children, including one month old Sofia. With the children poking their heads out from the door in terrified confusion, residents and supporters rushed to the house, fearing an illegal demolition. Some were able to get inside the Municipal Guard cordon, but when Penha’s husband Luiz tried to get through to join them, he was pushed back with riot shields. After a few tense moments, Márcio and Public Defenders told the Municipal Guard they could not legally be there, and they left, disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. Resident Sandra Maria alleged that the Guards were attempting to move the wall dividing the community and the Rio 2016 construction site, isolating Márcio’s home. A similar tactic of isolation and intimidation had been used against Heloisa Helena, whose home and religious site were demolished two weeks ago.
Maria da Penha told a crowd of journalists assembled in the community to witness the demolition that “today, International Women’s Day, they destroyed my home, a life story, but they didn’t destroy me… This is how things work in this country. For mega-events, they take your house and you’re in the street.” She reaffirmed her desire to stay, saying that “the fight is now for me to stay in Vila Autódromo… the fight goes on.” As Dona Penha and Luiz Claudio spoke to the assembled media, supporters helped move their belongings to the community’s Catholic Church, where they will now stay.
As the dust settled upon the rubble of Penha’s home, Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has repeatedly promised that those who want to stay in Vila Autódromo can stay, announced a press conference at the Mayor’s Palace in Botafogo at 5pm, where he would unveil his plans for upgrades to Vila Autódromo. Over the past week hundreds of people across Rio, Brazil, and increasingly internationally have galvanized behind a growing viral campaign for the Mayor to keep his promise and Upgrade Now (#UrbanizaJá).
Residents and supporters quickly planned their own event outside the Palace at 4pm to tell the media their side of the story and renew their calls for the award-winning People’s Plan, a plan that has been developed by the community, iteratively, with the help of urban planners from both of Rio’s federal universities, to respond to every change made to the Olympic Plan next door, since 2012. They then planned to attend the Mayor’s press conference to discover what he would present as the plan for their community, a plan which he had not yet presented to community members.
At 4pm, residents spoke to media outside the gates of the Mayor’s Palace while supporters displayed banners to passing traffic. Major Brazilian outlets attended the conference, including Globo, Record and SBT. Maria da Penha told the media that “the prize I will receive tonight from ALERJ will serve to strengthen me in the struggle… the fight goes on as life goes on.” Residents and supporters called for upgrades with chants of “Urbaniza Já, a Vila Vai Ficar!” before explaining and passing out information about the award-winning People’s Plan. International media have also widely covered the demolition of Penha’s home and the events of Tuesday.
It was during this discussion with the press in front of the City’s press conference’s scheduled venue that residents discovered the Mayor’s office had suddenly changed the time and place of their event. Paes would now speak at the Center of Operations, in Cidade Nova, at 4:30pm. A half hour journey at the best of times, let alone rush hour, this change made it impossible for residents to hear the Mayor unveil his intended plan. A RioOnWatch team was able to get to the Center of Operations in Cidade Nova in time for the event, but were refused entry, told only journalists on a private list could attend.
Professor of Urban Planning, Carlos Vainer, who coordinated the Vila Autódromo People’s Plan for the Federal University of Rio do Janeiro (UFRJ), dismissed the Mayor’s plan as “ridiculous.” It contained 30 houses, as opposed to the 50 required to house remaining families and included in the People’s Plan, and the houses would be significantly smaller than those of current residents. They would all be positioned around a communal space, which Vainer condemned as a design that simply gives the appearance of community, rather than actually fostering it. In fact, the full reworking of the community per the Mayor’s plan is characteristic of urban renewal, and not upgrading, as the Mayor promised. A Globo article from the Mayor’s press conference reports the city has been in constant dialogue with Vila Autódromo, insisting that “residents want to receive higher compensation for their houses.” Remaining residents, however, are those who have not negotiated with the City at any point–those recognized internationally for their message that not everyone has a price.
After residents and supporters gathered at the Mayor’s Palace learned of the change of plans made with regard to the Mayor’s press conference, they hastily made their way to ALERJ, where Maria da Penha was due to receive the award as part of International Women’s Day. As they arrived, a rally advocating women’s reproductive, economic and cultural rights as well as awareness of violence against women was already underway. Inside, Penha took to the microphone to address the assembled crowd, of over 500 people. Many of the activists there already knew about the turmoil that Penha had been through that day, and her words were matched with chants of “We are all Dona Penha. We are all companions. We are all Vila Autódromo.”
Penha’s struggle was equally recognized within the halls of the State Assembly. As Deputy Enfermeira Rejane opened the event, she singled out Penha among the ten women being honored while also calling out the Paes administration for its actions: “It’s not just about a house; it’s about a lack of dialogue.”
Since 2004, the Commission for the Defense of Women’s Rights of the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly has honored women from the State who fight for the advancement of human and women’s rights with the Leolinda Daltro Women Citizen Certificate. With her family and dozens of supporters present, Maria da Penha and her struggle for community and housing rights in the face of the Olympics was a favorite with the crowd, which jeered when Deputy Rejane thanked Mayor Paes for his role in the ceremony. Upon receiving her award, Penha dedicated it to her supporters and the residents of Vila Autódromo who give her the strength and love she needs to continue in the fight for Vila Autódromo.