Repression as big business in pre-Olympic Rio de Janeiro

  • January 10, 2015

Cities & Communities

Big bucks are to be made in hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro — not least by repressing all voices of dissent.

For four years, Canadian documentary filmmaker Jason O’Hara has been working with communities in Brazil to document human rights abuses in advance of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, focusing specifically on the illegal forced evictions that have been taking place in Rio.

Now, with over 300 hours of unique footage documenting the evictions, protests and police brutality that have come to define the preparations in Rio, O’Hara has launched a crowdfunding campaign to realize a feature-length documentary, State of Exception, telling the essential and inspiring stories of community resistance at this critical moment in Brazil’s history.

The circus has left town in Rio de Janeiro, which this past summer hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals as one of twelve host cities for the tournament in Brazil. Next year, Rio will also host the 2016 Olympic Games, making it the first city in history to host the two mega-spectacles back-to-back.

As international tourists descended on Rio’s iconic Maracanã Stadium to watch the final World Cup match in July, most Brazilians watched from television screens outside, while others took to the streets to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest. It was not mere opportunism that was bringing people to the streets, seeking to capitalize on all the attention garnered by the Cup — their grievances were very much tied to the international spectacle and the social legacy it will leave in their country.

When the circus leaves town, it is Brazilians who will be shoveling the shit for years afterward. It is very true that these events bring extraordinary benefits, but to whom are these benefits accrued? The benefits are privatized and profit an international elite — FIFA and the event sponsors — while the costs are socialized.

FIFA paid no taxes in Brazil, thus depriving the Brazilian citizenry of much-needed financial resources in order to fatten the purses of high-ranking officials and the international football mafia. “These projects, massive in their scope and scale, cost many billions of public dollars and leave behind ambiguous legacies. Nearly every global mega-event has resulted in financial losses for the host, temporary cessation of the democratic process, the production of militarized and exclusionary spaces, residential displacement, and environmental degradation,” says event critic Helen Lenskyj.

Where is Amarildo?!

The grievances being expressed in the streets are manifold: thousands of families forcefully evicted from their homes (often brutally, by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets); gross overspending on the stadium and other event-related infrastructure, while basic public services such as health care, education and basic sanitation are left unaddressed; and the militarization of the favelas in Rio, through the so-called favela ‘pacification’ program.

Initially, pacification brought much hope to communities that had long been suffering from the violence associated with criminal gangs and militias. However, these hopes were dashed through egregious abuses by a new gun-toting gang perpetrating summary executions and disappearances, only this time the violence was officially sanctioned by the state.

One of the most notable examples of this new form of brutality is that of Amarildo Dias de Souza last year in the favela of Rocinha, whose case was only investigated after the international outcry following his disappearance. There was nothing particularly special about Amarildo’s case — there have been thousands of Amarildos we will never hear about — but the timing of the incident coincided with one of the largest civil uprisings in Brazilian history (of June 2013), and the Brazilian people were fed up.

Another international media storm erupted in Rio in July, this time a gringo documentary filmmaker from Canada (me) was beaten up by a handful of police officers at a protest near Maracanã Stadium during the FIFA World Cup final. While the police have been beating, torturing, and disappearing poor favelados for a long time, on this occasion they had overstepped their duty and swung their batons at one of the international visitors they were tasked to protect.

The fact that this relatively minor incident garnered so much international media attention is emblematic of precisely the inequalities Brazilians were protesting against in the streets — the transformation of the urban landscape in Rio and throughout Brazil to serve people like me, international tourists and international capital, at the expense of the people who actually live there.

While the police repression we have been seeing in the streets of Rio during protests is shocking, it’s a relative picnic when one considers the much worse lethal violence perpetrated by Brazilian police who kill on average five citizens every day. The vast majority of cases are not so much as investigated, let alone prosecuted, the culture of impunity runs deep among Brazilian policing institutions. The victims are almost always poor black favela dwellers. When a privileged white foreigner receives a mild beating at the hands of Brazilian police, it makes international headlines, whereas the same police carry out summary executions every day in the favelas with complete impunity.

Whatever the rhetoric about equality before the law, the value of a human life in Brazil is not universal.

The dictatorship’s legacy

While it’s easy to dismiss my beating as an unfortunate incident perpetrated by a handful of ‘bad apples’, I think it is wise to take pause and consider the systemic context whereby the police are themselves victims of Brazil’s oppressive political system under global capitalism.

They are pawns in the business of repression, most police are themselves favela dwellers who are poorly paid, poorly trained, and are (in most cases) pursuing a career in policing for lack of other opportunities — much like African-Americans in the United States, who are represented twice as much in the military as they are in the US population. This is not to dismiss the scandalous violence perpetrated by a handful of the police, but amongst any mass harvest (the ‘thousands of new jobs created by the World Cup’), there are bound to be more than a few bad apples.

For the World Cup Finals, Rio saw one of the largest mobilizations of military and police forces in Brazilian history since the dictatorship, and it was not Brazilian citizens they were there to protect — rather, they were protecting FIFA and the associated interests of global capital. The police were sent to the streets to brutally repress and censor any dissidents who might spoil the party.

Theoretically, policing should be about citizen security. Unfortunately, in Brazil, policing institutions are a legacy of the dictatorship, at which time police were not tasked to protect the citizenry. On the contrary, their role was to protect the state from its citizens, the so-called ‘internal enemy’ — the political dissident.

And so, in the modern context, in the shadow of the dictatorship, the brutality we are seeing in the streets is a logical manifestation of this philosophy, without contradiction. The fastest growing category of international arms sales are not for fighting foreign enemies, but are used to repress and silence political dissent in many modern day ‘democracies’ like Brazil. It’s difficult to raise one’s voice when you are choking on tear gas.

Repression is big business

One of the biggest players in this industry (Riot Control and Public Order Weaponry) is the Rio-based company Condor, which recently secured itself an exclusive $22 million contract as part of the security budget for the World Cup and has expanded its business by 30% in the past 5 years.

Condor provides Brazilian security forces with 27 different categories of ‘non-lethal’ weapons of repression including rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers, light and sound grenades. Condor also supplied many of the weapons deployed in uprisings in Egypt, Turkey and Bahrain, where their products were repeatedly used against protocol and to systematically torture people.

The company has an exclusive deal with Brazilian Defense and Security Industries Association. “That means all public defense and security public institutions, such as the Brazilian police, may purchase without a government procurement process,” says investigative reporter Bruno Fonseca.

Condor categorizes its products as ‘non-lethal’ despite a growing number of deaths of both protesters and bystanders as reported by the UN. The self-described categorization is important because it allows them to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention restricting the uses of toxic gases. Often classified as policing equipment, these weapons fall outside of arms sales restrictions and are thus mostly unregulated with hundreds of thousands of such weapons being funneled directly to Brazilian security forces without oversight. It appears that repression is good business in Brazil.

Exploit the many to comfort the few

As most people watch the World Cup and Olympics from the comfort of their homes, in bars and restaurants in cities and towns across the globe, we should not forget the real cost of creating this spectacle — both the financial and social costs paid by Brazilians, who will be coping with the legacy of these events for years to come. The police sent to the streets for the World Cup were not serving Brazilians; they were serving FIFA, serving you, and protecting the status quo from the inevitable resentment that is going to boil up in host countries when the circus comes to town and doesn’t consult or invite the people hosting the party.

The problem runs much deeper than the actions of a few bad apples. It is systemic and arises from the inherent dynamics of global capitalism. Events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics exemplify these dynamics. When FIFA and IOC come to town, a ‘state of exception‘ is imposed, justified by the accelerated expediency required to prepare for such events. It is an exemplary legal framework that temporarily suspends the rule of law and strangles civil liberties such as the right to free movement and protest, among many others (such as housing rights in the case of the forced community evictions).

It might assuage our collective conscience to tell ourselves that our relative comfort is hard-earned through our own efforts, but such reductionist thinking dismisses the fact that much of our privilege rests on the backs of the global majority who constitute the oppressed classes of the world. From the shirts on our backs to the fantastic sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games, all are served to us through a global economic system that disenfranchises the majority to the benefit of the few. As consumers of these global spectacles, we are all implicated in this story.

Find out more about Jason O’Hara’s upcoming documentary, State of Exception, and support the project by visiting the campaign page here.


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Jason O'Hara

Jason O’Hara is the founder of Seven Generations, a Toronto-based documentary production company committed to telling stories that inform and inspire, with a focus on themes of social and environmental justice.

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