Peace is the truth of the Brazilian protests

  • December 3, 2013

People & Protest

To many Brazilians, especially the black and poor, the country’s protests are a chance to fight against state brutality and for a non-pacified peace.

On the night of June 24 this year, the state’s military police invaded the Maré complex of favelas with its full war apparatus: armored cars, choppers and rifles. The police occupied the territory inhabited by around 150.000 people and unleashed a night of terror. Apart from the siege, where “no one goes out, no one comes in”, electric and phone lines were cut off, hundreds of homes invaded with no warrants and, depending on who you talk to, between 9 and 14 residents were summarily executed by the police. Since shooting was simply “too little”, the elite squad chose to behead some of the victims. This reality is common in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, a city in which the official numbers point to around 500 killed annually by the forces of the state — as well as the same amount of “disappeared” people — with the great majority being young, black and poor.

What made this slaughter different was its context. Days after one million marched in the center of the city, Maré’s “Massacre of Saint Bartholomew” took place in retaliation of a protest by favelados in the main avenue beside the favela. At the end of the protest on the 24th, under the pretext that there had been thefts occurring in the avenue, the police intervention led to the death of a resident and an officer from BOPE (the special police battalion). This triggered a typical revenge action from the police where each dead officer must be avenged by a much greater number of residents. The “message” was clear: “the favelados shouldn’t join the uprising, or else they will be killed”.

While Maré was being assaulted by a bellicose attack that can only be described as a targeted extermination, the corporate press of the city limited itself to talk about “another confrontation between police officers and drug dealers”. The focus consisted in highlighting the death of the police officer, implying that the action was an expected and legitimate response to narcotraffic. The government followed the same narrative: blame it on the “traffic”. What happened next could also have been buried by the press, but it had another outcome. The following day, 3.000 protesters descended from the hills of Rocinha’s and Vidigal’s favelas and marched to the governor’s house in the luxurious neighborhood of Leblon to demand better living conditions, including sanitation, education, health and the end of the military police.

On July 4, 5.000 people had the courage to protest in Maré again, on the same avenue of the June 24 protests, uniting social movements, NGOs and collectives, and displaying signs such as “A state that kills, never again!”. A new line of questioning was cast on the tide of terror against the black youth. On July 14, a resident of Rocinha’s favela was taken by the police and, right after he “conveniently disappeared”, the campaign “Where is Amarildo?” emerged. The campaign reached a national and international audience and Amarildo became the symbol of a resistance whose first challenge was to make visible the thousands of anonymously killed and missing people in Brazil’s big cities.

Amarildo, a 47 year-old black construction worker, father of six, was last seen being taken for “further inquiry” by the police. This case is particularly symbolic, considering that the officers who took him were from the Police Pacifier Unit (UPP), a military headquarters embedded in the favelas to implement a territorial “pacifying” policy. Public pressure was the decisive factor in pursuing an investigation, which proved that Amarildo had been tortured with electric shocks and choking, until he was killed and his body “disappeared”. It was not a coincidence that the chief police officer who conducted the investigation with fairness was “awarded” by the government and transferred to a police headquarters far away.

Since the beginning of the Brazilian cycle of protests in June, part of the left inside the federal government, particularly the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), has accused the protests of mainly consisting of white middle-class citizens with a right-wing agenda, the so-called coxinhas (a Brazilian snack). What can be seen, however — other than the strengthening of the favelas’ struggle — is a growing number of poor black young participants. These people come from favelas, ghettos, and from a social composition of workers put in precarious positions from the improperly called “new middle class”, which was formed throughout ten years of mass social policies during Lula’s (2003-10) and Dilma’s (2011- ) governments.

What can also be explained is the prohibition of masks during protests, instituted in Rio on September 11 by a law approved by the state’s legislative power, which also allowed for the use of force when there is “grounded suspicion”. This is an elastic concept which gives a broad margin for police decision – maybe a better word for it would be arbitrariness. Justified to allow the identification of “vandals” that were supposedly among the protesters, it in fact tries to impede the mixture of groups that are much more threatening to the people in power (that is: an alliance between black people and favelados with the traditional movements and left collectives). The mask creates the possibility of these social forces coming together anonymously.

The Brazilian penal code, after all, recognizes its own state of institutionalized racism. The real distinction was never intended to be between “political prisoners” and “regular prisoners”, but between black and white. While the white tend to have their rights relatively recognized, the black are treated in a much more cruel form, disrespected from the moment of arrest until they arrive at the police headquarters, where they are usually placed with their faces to the wall and thereby humiliated like runaway slaves.

The press and the government continue to accuse the protests of being violent. They lost their cause by a bunch of masked people who, disrespecting the rules of civility, crossed the line to practice “acts of vandalism”, breaking windows, writing graffiti on the walls, burning empty buses and defending themselves from the police. This narrative, again, serves as justification for state brutality, when every protester on the street is seen as a potential “vandal”, in the same way that, in a favela, any young black person is seen as a potential “drug dealer”. The only change is the ammunition. There was never a “confrontation” between protesters and police. What is actually happening is a squashing of the protests by a heavily armed and violent state, which doesn’t hesitate to beat, throw gas, humiliate, torture and arbitrarily arrest whoever is in its way.

In a reality of daily brutality, including the pacification policies, with mass-produced Amarildos and Amarildas, it sounds terribly phony to attribute the problem of urban violence to “vandalism” in the protests. To many people, especially to the black and poor, the protests mean a chance to fight for peace. For them, fear is a thing of the past, and violence – the summary executions, the “convenient disappearances” and the armed terror – exists as a normal part of their lives. The struggle, which the punitive power always reduces to “vandalism”, is to many a chance to build a peace that is not pacified.

It is ironic how the country is led to another level of democracy not by the institutional left, but by riots that unite, against fear, the many struggles of the metropolis. Instead of filling themselves with the agendas incarnated in the barricades, the government led by a former guerrilla fighter prefers to place itself on the opposite side: the one of a dictatorship disguised as economic growth and jingoistic events, like the World Cup and the Olympic games.

Cornered by the realization that the protests put to the test its alliance system and governability, Dilma’s government chose the path of repression. They uncritically endorsed the repressive actions of the state governments — for instance, among others, the indiscriminate arrests of around 200 protesters who peacefully sat on the stairs of Rio’s municipal legislative house at the end of the protest on July 15, where 50.000 people were present. They were charged for the first time, according to a new law sanctioned by Dilma in September, as a “criminal organization”, and 64 ended up incarcerated in medieval conditions in a prison in Bangu. Three other protesters had already been arrested in September for “forming an armed gang”, only because they administrated the “Black Bloc RJ” Facebook page.

Most of the detained were released with the help of popular lawyers or by the Public Defender’s office. However, two people remain in custody: a homeless man arrested in June, and a militant of the homeless movement arrested in October. The first one was accused of possessing explosives: a broom and a bottle of chlorine, which he used to clean his resting place – the streets of downtown Rio. The second prisoner is a young black man who lived in an urban occupation and was part of the movements in Rio. He is accused of being part of an armed criminal association.

Meanwhile in São Paulo, on the 25th, a young man was arrested and accused of “first degree murder” after attacking a Military Police Colonel who had entered a city’s protest alone and in uniform, while 92 others were arrested. In an interview, he lamented: “It was my turn”. On Sunday the 27th, it was Douglas Rodrigues’ turn, a 17 year-old boy from the periphery of São Paulo, whose last words were: “Why did you shoot me, sir?”. The riot that came after the murder, with the burning of buses and trucks on a nearby road, was brutally repressed, resulting in another 90 arrests by the military police. Contrary to the protester who attacked the Colonel, the officer who shot the unarmed teenager was accused of “second degree murder”, without the intention to kill.

On top of this, Gleise Nana, an actress and young activist who had taken part in the protests and who had been reporting on a police officer’s online threats, died on November 25, after struggling for 45 days in a coma induced by severe burns caused by a mysterious unsolved fire in her house on October 19. Under the pretext of “combating vandalism”, the Justice Minister of Dilma’s government finally announced on October 31 the federalization of the protests’ repression in the two main cities, Rio and São Paulo, putting at their disposals the Federal Police and the Intelligence System. PT and its government, represented by the Justice Minister transformed into the Police Minister, have cast away their entire history of struggles, even the one against the dictatorship. The only door they open to the movement… is the one to prison.

Dilma and Cardozo are only concerned with the order of this power. Five months of daily democratic mobilizations in Rio suggest one thing: if it is up to those in power, the military police – despite its usual violence and the episodes of firearm usage by isolated police officers – didn’t kill anyone on the avenue. This shows the world two things: the first is that the execution of young, poor, black people from the favelas is not an isolated non-commanded event, but a clear and sustained state policy, a rational policy with a purpose and a goal. The second is that the Brazilian movements were (and still are) the very powerful invention of peace — precisely because they are radically democratic. This is not a “pacification” of the senzala (slave quarters) to maintain a different form of slavery, but the freeing of the poor for a truly meaningful peace.

Eduardo Baker

Eduardo Baker, Master in Criminal Law, is a lawyer and activist with Justiça Global.

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Bruno Cava

Bruno Cava, Master in Philosophy of Law, is active in the Direito do Comum collective.

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Giuseppe Cocco

Giuseppe Cocco is Head Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

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