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URBAN VIOLENCE, SOCIAL CRISIS AND CIVIC ACTION

The Experience of “Viva Rio”

By Rubens C. Fernandes*


OUR CITY IS THREATENED

The first meeting was in September, 1993, following two traumatizing incidents : the assassination of eight street children near the Candelaria Church in downtown Rio in July; and the assassination of 22 inhabitants of the Vigário Geral shanty-town in the northern area of the city in August. Both killings were carried out at dawn by policemen (Ventura, 1994). 
These events dramatized, through their insanity, a climate tainted by various forms of insecurity: political (tensions between the State and Federal governments, as well as between the State Governor and the local elites), economical (losses during the decade of the eighties, in an inflationary context, aggravated by the prolonged negative effects of the transfer of the country's capital to Brasilia), social (a deterioration of public services), an identity crisis (the "marvelous city" had now become a "divided city"). Urban violence, which increased during the eighties with the expansion of the drug trade, came to symbolize a generalized feeling of insecurity.
The first meeting brought together roughly thirty people who asked themselves what can be done? How can we react ? Chosen because they were opinion makers, the comprised a sui generis group: none of them held a government post and they came from the most diverse segments of society.
These events dramatized, through their insanity, a climate tainted by various forms of insecurity: political (tensions between the State and Federal governments, as well as between the State Governor and the local elites), economical (losses during the decade of the eighties, in an inflationary context, aggravated by the prolonged negative effects of the transfer of the country's capital to Brasilia), social (a deterioration of public services), an identity crisis (the "marvelous city" had now become a "divided city"). Urban violence, which increased during the eighties with the expansion of the drug trade, came to symbolize a generalized feeling of insecurity.

The seminar functioned as an investigative effort: a Citizen's Committee met during two weeks interviewing specialists. About forty people representative of the city (industrialists, trade unionists, community leaders, intellectuals, sports figures, cultural figures, the media, victims of violence), unfamiliar with questions of public security, listened to and questioned experts, assisted by a team systematically recording the discussions. Two questions guided the interviews: What can be done in the short term to reduce the rate of violence ? and How can we, who are not a part of the government, help out ? Discussions about the overall causes of violence or on global solutions were avoided. We we seeking specific and practical suggestions. From this seminar emerged the working agenda which guided Viva Rio in its first steps.

BUILDING IN COMMOM A FUTURE FOR OUR CITY

A public rally was scheduled for noon, on Friday, December 17th, with the slogan: Make Time for Rio - Stop to Begin Again . People were asked to dress in white, to hang white banners from their windows and cars, and to stop for two minutes, wherever they may find themselves at that specific time, whether at home, in the street, or at work. The goal was to silence the city, right in the middle of the day, so that it could reflect upon itself. The appeal was met with emotion, the rally was a surprising success, and a strong identity with a peace-making intent, was created. Dressing in white during civic events came to symbolize a committment to a common future for the city.
The prayers took place on the following day, Saturday the 18th, in several traditional public squares in central Rio de Janeiro. It was not an ecumenical ritual. On the contrary, the plurality of faiths was highlighted, with each tradition taking part and commemorating in its own manner. Twenty four religious faiths were present, demonstrating the cosmopolitan nature of an urban center such as Rio. Despite and beyond their differences, they evoked the unity of the city, obtained through the diffuse sum of its various components.
In summary, the first steps of Viva Rio defined its profile: an eclectic movement combining pragmatic rationalism within a symbolic framework for an intense appeal to the desire for peace in the city.

THE COORDINATING COUNCIL: PRIVATE ORGANISATIONS FOR PUBLIC INTEREST

Viva Rio is directed by a Coordinating Council comprised of nineteen members which meets regularly, roughly on a monthly basis, to guide its actions. The group, as was already mentioned, is of a singular nature.
It includes business and trade union leaders, the cultural elite and those from the shanty-towns, rival newspapers, Catholics and Evangelicals, of diverging political and partisan sympathies (1). How can such an eclectic group sustain itself in the long run? I can find six reasons : the personal and voluntary nature of participation, its non-governmental and non-partisan characteristic, the local focus of its mandate, a common basic agenda, the impact of its actions on public life, and a pro-active attitude.
Voluntary - It is individuals who are participating, not institutions.
They are there because they want to be there, not because they are complying with a professional obligation. They were selected, at the onset, through a spontaneous process of personal involvement, and later through a non-transferable invitation. The Council characterizes itself by its informal atmosphere which keeps it away from the constraints of institutional representation. The decisions which are taken there do not necessarily compromise other organizations its members are associated with. The are free, therefore, to decide on behalf of themselves. On the other hand, they are there precisely because each one brings with him or her, in their own way, a symbolic heritage, which when mobilized, makes a difference in public life.
From different and unequal social backgrounds, the councilors however, are all the same when it comes to the influence they have over an important segment of the city, and for this reason they are mutually respected. They are not representatives, however, nor is Viva Rio. It is a valid institution because of what it does, as the free expression of a group of people who get together to decide to do something.

Non-governmental - No councilor holds a government post. If someone from the group decides to undertake a political career, they should request their dismissal, as has occurred. Viva Rio brings together people who take part in public life through non-governmental frameworks. Working together, they give visibility to the concept of participative civil society (or the third sector). Although they maintain affinities with different partisan tendencies, they understand that these must be set aside within the context of Viva Rio. That they are capable of setting aside these preferences, even during heated public debates in electoral periods, is proof that for them, being able to build together their own framework of civic albeit non-partisan participation, is an important part of their convictions.I would even say that Viva Rio has for them, as it has for public opinion in general, the merit of being an experience. Heirs of a tradition which directly linked public life to political loyalty, in Viva Rio they are demonstrating that there exists another possibility, where one distinguishes levels and frameworks for participation. Moreover, they are committed to the belief that Viva Rio cannot develop into a political movement in the strict sense of the word. The symbolic heritage it has acquired should be rigorously reinvested to strengthen non-partisan frameworks for participation. This non-governmental characteristic does not imply an anti-government posture. On the contrary, the group believes in theory and has proven in practice, that civilian initiatives in the long run, depend upon the smooth functioning of State institutions.
Of the City - The local focus is fundamental to its identity. Its goal is Rio de Janeiro, and within the city, its sub-regions, neighbourhoods and communities. This being a city of wide visibility, Viva Rio became known nationally, maintains frequent dialogue with other states, and has begun to evolve in international forums, but its reference and its area of action is the city of Rio or other cities within the State of Rio de Janeiro. In 1998, Viva Rio worked with 34 cities within the state. To become involved with the local drama and to mobilise the inhabitants on behalf of their neighbourhood and their city represents a cultural innovation as opposed to a traditional approach focusing on the drama of the nation. Viva Rio and the Strategic Plan for the City of Rio de Janeiro have demonstrated in these past four years, that the local level is a privileged field for the exercise of citizenship. There is nothing to prevent the creation of a Viva Brazil, but having the city as a horizon for action facilitates and makes concrete the notion of sharing, beyond differences, a common arena of problems and solutions to be implemented.
Basic Agenda - The eclectic nature of the group implies several restrictions as to what can be said and done in its name. One is not there amongst equals. The prejudices and affinities are not equally distributed. Despite the informality, there is still a certainly ceremonial aspect to the group. There are also several issues of importance to the city which end up being avoided during the Council's deliberations. Investments in nuclear energy (Angra I and II) for example, is an issue which does not get much play in its meetings. Neither does the issue of selling to the private sector state-owned firms. The topics which divide the group are simply avoided. If an issue generates controversy, it is not there, at the Viva Rio Council, that it will be thrashed out. The Council works by consensus and it is not expected to make a statement or act upon every issue of importance. It does not have a systematic framework. It functions amongst ambiguity and multiple interpretations. What it does seek out is to firmly establish principles and goals, which although basic, are fundamental to the city as a whole and for this very reason, are worthy of generalized acceptance. The strategy of consensus produces a dynamic experience, full of difficult moments, sometimes acute tensions, with variations on what is and what is not considered to be consensual. This does manifest itself through a charter of principles, but rather by a process of mutual consultations, through which a common sense is modified, evolves, and imposes itself. The Council exercises, therefore, the art of creating positive relationships between the various segments and opinions which comprise the city. Obviously, these segments which comprise the city are not all there; but starting from this group a step towards bringing people together can be taken in practically all directions.

Wide Visibility - Without a doubt, participating in Viva Rio has been stimulating because of its impact. Each year so far, in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997, there were thousands of articles about its work in the Brazilian print media; on an average, more than three articles per day. The presence of Viva Rio in radio programs, on television and on the internet is also intense. Viva Rio would be unthinkable without the media. The participation of the Directors of four newspapers (Gazeta Mercantil, Jornal do Brasil, O Dia, O Globo) in the Coordinating Council makes a difference, but there are other reasons which explain this as well. A monthly lunch with the editors and columnists of various national and foreign press bodies working in Rio de Janeiro (roughly 25 people) created the habit of discussing the background to the articles which are news items in the city. With this lunch, offered by the owner of a restaurant, who is a member of the Council, we bring together important personalities in direct contact with the corps of the media intermediaries, those who write the news daily. Thus there is created, through a process of repetition, a qualified circuit for dialogue which in the final analysis, establishes a certain interpretive familiarity with the news desks. More importantly, however, Viva Rio works in a style which expresses itself in events of journalistic interest. Viva Rio produces events. Amongst the first three people hired as staff in 1994, the first was a press attaché and the second was a producer of events. Advertising agents have attended meetings of the Coordinating Council since the beginning and regularly contribute, in a voluntary manner, to campaigns launched by Viva Rio. The word campaign is associated with communication which takes place in the political field as well as through advertising campaigns. Advertising agents deal with marketing through their campaigns and are called upon to bring their communication know how acquired in the market to the political sphere. Thus evolves a form of public marketing and Viva Rio participates through campaigns broadcast free of charge by the media. This level of exposure requires constant attention, given that the brand name Viva Rio is only valid as long as it is considered to be credible.

Pro-Active - The initial questions (What can be done in the short term? and How can we help ? ) remain the central guiding points of the movement. The problems are identified, the protests taken into account, the social drama is highlighted, but rather than expressing this through the form of accusations and denunciations, as was habitual in the speeches of social movements during the Cold War era, the focus here is on finding and elaborating positive proposals. Viva Rio, by the very nature of its name, has the obligation to think positively. This is a limitation, certainly, given that drama and emotion thrive on thinking negatively. In a critical context, however, overloaded with negative images, as was the case of Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the nineties, the opening up of a positive horizon gained general recognition. On the other hand, worn out generic speeches gave way to an impatient demand for specific solutions. In the current context, public statements are not valid if they cannot point towards their implications in the form of results. Positive proposals tend to bring together public opinion, albeit in a different way, while negative ones tend to divide public opinion.
Insisting on this positive aspect, the Council of Viva Rio stands fewer chances of being at odds with those who divide public opinion.
The reasons for the consensus, mentioned above, do not exclude, obviously, competition and conflict. The competition between the newspapers is on a daily basis, as is the case between Catholics and Evangelicals, and the trade unions continue to strike in Rio de Janeiro. Strikes in the shipping industry involved difficult negotiations between individuals who continue to meet cordially in the Viva Rio Council meetings. Heated episodes occurred threatening internal personal relationships. The existence of a consensual forum, however, has appeared to be sufficiently valid for all those to assure, to a certain extent, that it does not disappear.

   
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