Black Bloc discussion and the radicalisation of debate in Brazil’s public sphere

The disproportionate use of violence in peaceful protests in Brazil quickly led to a radicalization of its protests. But who was responsible?

Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes
6 November 2013

Since the protests began in some of Brazil's major cities in June this year, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and others, the discussion on Brazil's mainstream media has focused on the action of groups of activists that use the Black Bloc technique, commonly associated with anarchists since the end of the 90s. The ongoing manifestations have had many associated causes, such as the reduction of travel expenses, the education strike in Rio, the increase of forced evictions to make way for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. But lately they have focused on what has turned into the latest public debate in Brazil, the violence of its police.

Omnipresent across all the demonstrations and protests since then, is the case of the disappearance of the bricklayer named Amarildo, whose tortured body was found in Latin America’s largest favela Rocinha, Amarildo having last been seen entering the Pacification Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) in the favela on 14 July, allegedly arrested for questioning by military police. Last month, a police inquiry found that the 47-year-old was tortured and killed by the police, indicting 10 police officers and throwing a spotlight on the excessive use of violence by Brazil’s military police, as well as in the so-called ongoing “pacification process” in Rio de Janeiro's main favelas.

The disproportionate use of violence in peaceful protests in Brazil quickly led to a radicalization of its protests, with an increase in the participation of young people dressed in black, identified with the Black Bloc's techniques. The clash between police officers and protesters then began to invade public debate, with mixed reviews on the use of what has been called “violent tactics” (setting fire to buses, breaking the windows of banks, and so forth) from leftists professors as well as the mainstream media commentators, who were all looking in one way or another to incriminate participants in those groups, by repeatedly calling them “vandals” while never mentioning police violence and the brutality of the mass arrests.

The debate on the use of violence in Black Bloc's participation in protests has even been put on the agenda in the US, with Chris Hedges’ manifesto regarding what is allegedly, "the cancer in the Occupy movement", triggering a discussion on anarchist tactics and whether this violence effectively demobilizes peaceful protesters and prevents them from protesting. The concentration on these acts in Brazil's public sphere, nevertheless, has completely neglected PMERJ (Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police) violence, which should however be seen as a symbol of Brazil's violent democracy.

Earlier this week, President Dilma addressed the nation by twitter, condemning the violence of Black Bloc groups, whilst Human Rights groups continue to press for an official statement condemning police violence, as well as some promise of much-needed police reform. However, the state responses have so far only been confined to the criminalization of protesters, promulgating a new law in which to frame them as terrorists.

The ongoing debate on the excessive use of force by both protesters and police officers is sure to stay on the Brazilian agenda, mobilizing the opinions of intellectuals, regular people and mainstream media in a somewhat asymmetric fashion, though, when media routinely refer to protesters as “vandals”, conveniently forgetting that many people on the streets conduct themselves peacefully. What needs to be discussed, especially now that Amarildo’s body has been found and how he met his unhappy end revealed after Where's Amarildo? protests throughout Brazil - is the license to kill that police officers, mostly in Rio de Janeiro, continue to have.


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