SOS Vila Autódromo: Neighborhood Association and Home of Heloisa Helena Demolished Today

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Early in the morning on Wednesday, February 24, the Vila Autódromo Neighborhood Association building was demolished after a pending legal challenge to the demolition order was dismissed. On the same day, in the evening, the home of Candomblé practitioner Heloisa Helena Costa Berto was also demolished.

For several weeks, residents have been living in fear of Shock Troops arriving in the morning to demolish more buildings, like the illegal demolitions on February 11, or to move the wooden wall marking the community’s border with the Olympic Park, as they did just days ago on February 22. The initial order to demolish the symbolically important Association building was approved on February 4, before Public Defenders acquired a suspension on the order pending a legal challenge.

On Monday, the legal challenge was dismissed and residents and supporters feared the worst. Groups of around 13 and 30 supporters stayed in Vila Autódromo over Monday and Tuesday nights, respectively, in order to support the residents in their resistance early in the mornings.

Late on Tuesday night, a second demolition order was announced, covering the homes of Heloisa Helena and community activist Maria da Penha. The Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics denounced this demolition order, as the decision was announced after 10pm in a “completely irregular procedure.”

Early this morning, around 5:30am, residents and supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the Association building, still uncertain whether demolitions would take place. During the vigil some residents stood in front of the building with their mouths gagged, holding banners calling for a social legacy of the Olympic Games and warning, in English, of the dangers of Zika around the Olympic Park.

Residents and allies protest before the demolition of the Neighborhood Association building. Photo by Meg Healy

Just before 7am, Shock Troops arrived in force. City officials delivered demolition orders to the President of the Neighborhood Association, Altair Antunes Guimarães, and moved to block off the area around the building. With the legality of the action confirmed, residents could do nothing except make their voices heard. As activist and resident Sandra Maria shouted to the crowd, “the Association is more than bricks and mortar,” and will continue to organize the struggle against removals. As the demolition machinery moved in, residents and supporters, many of whom had tears in their eyes, joined hands in a large circle and began chanting:

“Olim…piada, Olim…piada, Olim…piada”

Olimpíada is Portuguese for ‘Olympics,’ and Piada translates as ‘joke’

“Urbaniza já, a Vila vai ficar”

Upgrades now, Vila Autódromo will stay

The building was reduced to rubble in just five minutes. Next, City officials moved the furnishings from the small restaurant next to the Association building, before demolishing that as well.

City begins work on demolition of Neighborhood Association, February 24, 2016.

While the demolition machinery was still knocking down bricks and fences, former resident Jane Nascimento’s impassioned voice rang out over the community. Standing alone on a platform with a microphone, she criticized Brazil’s “shameful” politics behind demolitions like today’s. She reaffirmed her commitment to fighting for Vila Autódromo’s permanence, regardless of today’s demolition or the demolition of her own home last August. “I will continue fighting. My house fell but my fight has not ended.”

Former resident Jane Nascimento addresses the community after Neighborhood Association building is demolished. Photo by Meg Healy

Neighborhood Association president Altair Guimarães echoed the sentiment that the demolition of one building would have little impact on his or the community’s determination to keep resisting removal: “We will continue to fight…we will fight until the last house.” In support of this promise, the words “Associação de Moradores” (Neighborhood Association) were scrawled across the front of Maria da Penha’s home immediately after the formal Association building had been demolished, demonstrating the tenacity of these brave community activists.

New "Residents' Association" sign written on the Penhas' house following the demolition of the formal Neighborhood Association building.

Sandra Maria took the mic to discuss the context of evictions in Vila Autódromo: “We know that everything happening here is not because of the Olympics.” Instead, she spoke about rampant real estate speculation, the influence of money on judges and politicians, and the greed of billionaire developer Carlos Carvalho, who freely admits he wants poor communities removed to make way for luxury accommodation for the “noble” elite. But Sandra argued Vila Autódromo’s history—of mistreatment by the City and of strong community ties—is not so easily removed: “When these [luxury] buildings that Mr. Carlos Carvalho says he will build are constructed here, we will be here. The image of today, all of the images that have been documented here, including beatings of residents, all this, will still exist.”

She also criticized the City’s attempts to hide the community’s reality, and to hide poverty across Rio de Janeiro: “Poverty exists here and everyone knows it. If you don’t want to show poverty to the world, end poverty!”

Shortly after the Association building was demolished and the majority of the Municipal Guard had left, there was a heated discussion involving Municipal Guards and supporters who had blocked the road to Maria da Penha’s home with their cars. Some Municipal Guards were apparently concerned about emergency access—something they didn’t seem too concerned about on Monday when they refused to allow residents to help another resident who was having a heart attack.

Later, while residents and supporters were regrouping at Penha’s home after the morning’s events, an unknown man entered her property and began filming. At least one Vila Autódromo ally said they had seen him arrive and greet Municipal Guards in a friendly manner. Residents, led by Maria da Penha’s husband Luiz, demanded that he leave and a small scuffle broke out in the doorway. The suspected city official or undercover cop was then followed down the road by a crowd of residents and supporters demanding to know who he was. At the community entrance Military Police officers mediated the situation, searching the unknown man’s car and telling him to leave, before driving two residents to the police station to file a report.

One of the Public Defenders explained the legal issues soon after, saying that while they are trying to fight the demolition order by suspending it for review, until it is suspended Maria da Penha and Heloisa Helena’s houses could be legally destroyed at any moment. 

Sure enough, Municipal Guards gathered in numbers around Heloisa Helena’s house shortly after 5pm. Initial reports suggested the City would not be able to demolish the house before 6pm, the supposed deadline for the day, but the Municipal Guards had acquired an extension until 8pm. Heloisa Helena was given time to remove her pets and some of the last of her religious belongings before her home was demolished.

Municipal Guards lining up to demolish Heloisa Helena's home. Photo by Claire Lepercq

The Penhas’ home is a likely target for demolition for first thing tomorrow, Thursday morning. Today Maria da Penha told assembled supporters: “I thank you so much, every one of you. Your support is fundamental for us.” Now, she and other residents of Vila Autódromo are calling for as many supporters as possible to join them in the community for a vigil tonight, and to lend solidarity in what they expect to be an immensely sad day tomorrow.

Stay tuned for updates from Vila Autódromo’s community Facebook page as well as @RioONWire and @RioOnWatchLiveTweet on Twitter as we follow the occupation and the City’s actions from the ground.