The favelados uprising: The truth about Brazilian protests

The Brazilian government has persistently chosen violence to deal with the poor and now, with the protesters.

Police brutality in Rio de Janeiro's favelas has prompted residents to take to the streets [AFP/Getty Images]

On the night of June 24, the state military police invaded the Mare’s favela complex with its war apparatus: armoured cars, choppers and rifles. The police occupied the territory inhabited by around 150,000 people and so started a night of terror. Besides the siege where “no one goes out, no one comes in”, electrical and phone lines were interrupted, hundreds of homes were invaded with no warrants and, depending on who you talk to, between 9 and 14 residents were summarily executed by the police. Because simply shooting is “too little”, the elite troops chose to behead some of the victims.

This reality is common in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, a city Fin which official numbers point to around 500 killed annually [Pt] by the forces of the state, while around the same number have been reported “missing”. The great majority of the victims are young people, black and poor.

The difference in this slaughter was the context. Days after one million people marched in the centre of the city, the Mare’s “Massacre of Saint Bartholomew” happened in retaliation for a protest of favelados. At the end of the protest, on June 24, under the pretext that there had been thefts occurring in the streets, the police intervened, which led to the death of a resident and an officer from Rio’s elite squad. This triggered a typical revenge reaction from the police, where each police officer dead must be avenged by the death of a much greater number of residents. They sent a clear “message”: The favelados shouldn’t join the uprising, or they would be killed.

[T]he movement from June to October has effectively stood up to the right-wing narrative of violence and has countered it with a ‘new idea of peace’, which is not pacification.

Rise of the favelados

While Mare’s favela was being assaulted with an aggressive attack, the corporate media limited itself to talking [Pt] about “another confrontation between police officers and drug dealers”. The focus was on highlighting the death of the police officer, implying that the action was an expected and legitimate response to drug dealing. The government followed the same narrative, blaming the drug traffickers. What should have ended, buried again by the news, had another outcome. The following day, 3,000 protesters descended from the hills of Rocinha and Vidigal favelas and went to the governor’s house in the luxurious neighbourhood of Leblon, demanding better living conditions in the favelas, including sanitation, education, health and an end to the military police.

On July 4, 5,000 people had the courage to protest again in Mare, in the same place as the protests on June 24, uniting social movements, NGOs and collectives, all with the sign saying “State that kills, never again!” When, on July 14, a resident of Rocinha favela was taken by the police and conveniently “disappeared”, the campaign “Where is Amarildo?” [Pt] emerged. The campaign reached national and international proportions and Amarildo became the symbol of a resistance whose first challenge was to make visible, the thousands of anonymous killed and missing daily in Brazil’s big cities.

Through this campaign, we found out who Amarildo was: A 47-year-old construction worker’s helper and a father of six who was last seen being taken for “further inquiry” by the police. The case is particularly symbolic, taking into account that the officers who took him were from the Police Pacifier Unit (UPP), a military unit embedded in the favelas to implement the territorial “pacifying” policy. Public pressure guaranteed the effectiveness of the investigation, which showed that Amarildo was dragged to a session of torture, featuring electric shock and choking, until he died. His body “disappeared”. Predictably, the chief police officer who conducted the investigation with fairness was “awarded” by the government and transferred to a police headquarters far away.

Repression and arrests

It’s ironic how a country is led to another level of democracy not by the political left institutionalised in the government, but by riots that unite against fear, and the many struggles of the metropolis. The government, led by a former guerrilla fighter, instead of pursuing the agenda incarnated in the barricades, prefers to place itself on the opposite side. It has joined a dictatorship disguised by optimism over the economic growth and mega events, the World Cup and the Olympic games.

protesters and Cardozo are only concerned with the security of their power.

Cornered by the realisation that the protests put to the test its alliance system, Dilma Rousseff’s government chose the path of repression. It endorsed, uncritically, the repressive state’s actions. For instance, the indiscriminate arrest of around 200 protestors [Pt] who sat peacefully on the stairs of Rio’s municipal legislative house at the end of a protest by 50,000 people, on October 15. They were charged under a new law sanctioned by Rousseff in September, as a “criminal organisation”, and 64 ended up incarcerated in a prison in Bangu, in medieval conditions.

Three other protestors had already been arrested in September [Pt] 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 a pro bono lawyer and the Public Defender’s office. Two people, however, remain in custody.

There are the cases of 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 place of rest – the streets of downtown Rio. The second prisoner is a young, black man who lives in urban ocupacoes (squats) and was part of the movements in Rio. He is accused of being part of an armed criminal association.

Jose Cardozo, the justice minister, finally announced on October 31, under the pretext of “combating vandalism”, that the federal government would get involved in putting down protests in the two main cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, putting at their disposal the Federal Police and the Intelligence System. The Workers’ Party (PT) and its government, represented by the justice minister transformed into the “minister of the police”, are ignoring and abandoning their history of struggle, even against the dictatorships. The only door they open to the popular movement is the one to prison. Rousseff and Cardozo are only concerned with the security of their power.

In Rio, five months of daily democratic mobilisation showed that when the government doesn’t want to kill anyone, it doesn’t, despite the usual violence and the episodes of use of fire arms by a few police officers. This demonstrates two things. The first is that the execution of poor, young, black people from the favelas is not an isolated event, but a sustained, rational and purposeful state policy. The second thing is that the movement from June to October has effectively stood up to the right-wing narrative of violence, and has countered it with a “new idea of peace” which opposes pacification (by violent means). They have demanded a new reality where peace and security rule the streets, not through police repression, but through freedom and democracy for the poor.

Bruno Cava has a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Law, works with Direito do Comum collective and is the author of “A multidao foi ao deserto; as manifestacoes no Brasil em 2013”.

Eduardo Baker has a Master’s degree in Criminal Law and is active in Justica Global.

Giuseppe Cocco is Professor at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and the author of O Trabalho dos Direitos, The Work of Rights and MundoBraz.