Taking shelter

The cities of Brazil have long been segregated by gross inequality. Now slum-dwellers are saying the

I visited São Paulo for the first time two years ago, and I still remember that first drive from the airport to the city centre. Even now, the average visitor could be forgiven for thinking about asking the taxi driver to turn back. In the car window, a bleak landscape flashes by of boarded-up factories, dirty industrial zones and, most shockingly, huge expanses of shanty towns or favelas.

Running right up to the roadside, these slums are not confined to the urban periphery; they are present in the very heart of a city that is segregated by sickening inequality. While some buy apartments at London prices and enjoy a swimming pool on each floor, thousands sleep under bridges, outside shops and in makeshift shelters of wood, card and corrugated metal.

This brutal social division motivates the activists of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (MTST), or Homeless Workers' Movement. Thousands from different backgrounds join together to campaign for the right to dignified housing for all. Through occupations, roadblocks and camp-outs in front of the mayor's office, the group is forcing the housing issue on to the agenda from São Paulo to Recife.

For many, the decision to join this burgeoning movement flows naturally from the experience of growing up in the favelas. Helena Silvestre, a national co-ordinator for the movement at just 23 years old, grew up in poverty in Greater São Paulo and, aged 11, became involved in local political groups as a "response to the daily problems I was living and witnessing".

The key moment for Silvestre came in 2003 when, unemployed and living alone, she decided to join an MTST occupation in São Bernardo, an industrial area of Greater São Paulo.

"My motivations?" she asks rhetorically. "My parents are very poor, and I have five younger siblings - one sister works at a supermarket for R$450 [about £130] a month. I've always seen my parents work hard but get nowhere - and it seems so irrational to live in a world that produces so much, but where so many people lack so much."

The MTST grew out of the widely popular Landless Workers' Movement in the 1990s and quickly gained autonomy from its rural-based counterpart. Since then, it has grown in numbers and prominence, drawing in many middle-class activists. One such is Lizandra Guedes, a specialist in child education who has put her skills to use for the movement's occupations.

Guedes explains that she was initially attracted to the movement by its principles and methods of organisation, which, she believes, relate to important inner-city problems such as unemployment and drug trafficking. But the homeless workers quickly assumed a deeply personal sig nificance for her.

Describing an initially intense and difficult process as she "broke with the values of her class", Guedes tells me how she realised that the privileges of her middle-class background - such as the education to which she had access - could contribute to class conflict. "The movement has made it possible for me to remake my identity, redefine my life objectives - and, of course, has produced a hope for an end to social domination and oppression," she says.

The MTST focuses primarily on carrying out urban occupations. Since 2005 it has held two major camps in Greater São Paulo. The locations chosen for these protest camps are plots of vacant land, often owned by speculators simply waiting for the right time to make a profit on their investment. The names of the camps reflect Brazil's historic social struggle: for example, there has been "João Cândido", after an African-Brazilian slave descendant who led a sailors' revolt in 1910, and "Chico Mendes", after the rubber tapper and trade unionist murdered in 1988.

Each camp generates further actions, typically demonstrations targeting seats of executive or legislative power. Last year, 5,000 people marched 18km to the state governor's house. Sometimes there is a crescendo of direct action, such as last year again when, in so-called "Red April", a traditional season for leftist action, homeless acti vists blocked three main roads in São Paulo. In October, a similar protest created gridlock in the north-eastern city of Recife.

The camps that spring up during the occupations are not only a visible expression of outrage at unjust land ownership. In their very structure and activities, they embody a much broader political and social vision. The camps are built around communal kitchens where those who have no money to buy food are able to get a meal. There is a unity of both resources and vision.

"Everyone thinks of a better life! No one wants their children to pass through the same difficulties they have had - and I don't have different dreams from others," says Silves tre, whose association with the group started when she worked in one of the camp kitchens. "For me, the movement is important because it is where I am able to realise this dream, alongside and sharing with others doing the same thing."

The results of the occupations vary. The first such action in Campinas eventually prepared the way for a housing project for more than 5,000 families. Yet there is always the risk that the authorities will refuse to negotiate, and that the military police will use violence to break up a camp before there have been any concrete gains. In some cases, the police have cut off supplies to camps, including food and water.

Living in hope

Brazil's government is often described as being part of the general move leftwards of governments in South America, but police brutality against such movements has, on occasion, been authorised by local officials of President Lula da Silva's own Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party). MTST activists can barely conceal their disdain at the way in which, in the words of the São Paulo State co-ordinator Marco Fernandes, Lula's party forsook its once-impressive grass-roots support and turned into an "election-winning machine".

Silvestre echoes her comrade's disappointment, lamenting that the homeless activists have few supporters in government and must rely instead on smaller, radical leftist groupings. But perhaps the absence of friends in high places is not such a bad thing. Across South America, grass-roots movements have taken the lead in challenging neoliberal orthodoxies, sometimes as part of an electoral strategy (for example, propelling Evo Morales to victory in Bolivia) and other times by creating "pockets of resistance" (similarly to the Zapatistas in Mexico).

Guedes affirms her belief that forming groups such as the Homeless Workers' Movement is the most effective way of organising people to work for "radical social transformation". There is a long way to go, even in Brazil. However, the campaign for proper housing for all is, in its bold vision, kindling hope across the nation and keeping the spotlight on one of the country's most pressing problems. The plan is to continue the occupations and direct pro tests throughout 2008, with the simple message of affordable and dignified housing for the rapidly increasing numbers of urban poor.

"You live in what capitalism has constructed, but you don't stay still, looking on," says Silvestre. "You live it, because you are obliged to. But from the inside, you plant the seeds of another place."

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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