On violence and protest in Brazil

While media coverage of Brazil's urban protests continues to focus on Molotov cocktails and smashed windows, the fight against police violence, repression and institutional racism continues.

Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes
18 March 2014

The ending scenes of Bertolucci's 2003 film "The dreamers", set in1968 Paris with its barricades, revolutionaries and police repression,  consists of an intriguing debate between a North American and two young Europeans.  The North American argues that a violent response to police attacks, in particular the throwing of molotov cocktails, would reduce protesters to the level of fascists. The French character ignores him, and throws the cocktail.


Moisés Schini/Demotix

The now much debated global protests that began in 2011 with the Arab Spring, hit Brazil’s loosely urbanised cities last June with protestors rallying against declining urban mobility, protests which were more recently revived with protesters uniting against a set of broader injustices; the excesses of police violence, and failures of representative democracy. Whilst, for some the protests form part of a global set of uprisings which threaten the core of liberal democracy, what is unique to the Brazilian case is the sheer level of violence, and in particular institutional extrajudicial killing involved in the protests..

Indeed the most common image coming from the protests is that of a battle, between Black Bloc groups and the police. This portrayal, extolled forthrightly by the media, overwhelmingly focuses on protesters as "vandals" and criminals, failis to engage in a debate on the elephant in the room, the violence of Brazil's military police and its long history of extra-juridical killing.

Brazil’s is one of the worlds last remaining militarized police forces, formally classed as reserve troops and an ancillary force of the Army, the police force have recently gained notoriety among Brazil's middle-classes and international media, for behaviour well known to the majority of working class Brazilians: homicide and institutional disregard for human rights. Such behaviour has of course not appeared from thin air, since the beginning of the 1990s the Rio de Janeiro municipal government have operated an “awarded brutality” system, also known as "premiação faoreste" (Wild West awards) Rio's police officers are rewarded  with each “criminal” they “catch”.

While mainstream media coverage continues to focus on Molotov cocktails, smashing windows, the fight against police violence, repression and institutional racism continues. In the aftermath of the June Uprisings, Brazilian civil society, academics and the underground media have begun to push the public debate a little further: in a country where five people are killed by the police each day, the need to demilitarize the police force is not only latent, but also strongly supported by the UN. Whilst the time has also come to debate the normalisation of quotidian violence, especially against Brazil’s most deprived citizens: poor young people, notably living in favelas and peripheries, frequent targets of a non-accountable, racist, murderous police force. 

Were we ever this violent?

In just one emblematic case of injustice,  Rafael Braga Viera, a homeless black man carrying cleaning products on the day of the 20th June protests, was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison for carrying an “explosive or incendiary device”. Whilst vast amounts of recorded evidence of police violence and illegality go ignored, Braga Viera who was not even taking part in the protests, is thus far the only person convicted out of the hundreds arbitrarily arrested that day. Despite the pervasive "cordial man myth"[1], and growing middle-class experiences of state violence, ubiquitous institutional violence targeted at predominately black, lower class people continues unabated.

Within the highly sensitive and ideological current context of global uprisings, whether in Tuzla, Caracas, Kiev and other manifestations worldwide, society itself faces the Bertoluccian dilemma: confronted with the tight boundaries of acceptable-unacceptable violence. Hopefully, Brazil will profit from discussions between pacifists and supporters of the strong hand of the State's security apparatus and resolve its most deepest of problems: the state's endogamous corruption, inability to provide universal rights, and an institutional permissiveness towards state-sanctioned murder.

[1]  The cordial man myth (o mito do homem cordial) was a widely spread academic theory by Sergio Buarque de Holanda in 1936, based on myth of a paternalistic behavior by white male patriarch, whose ritualized forms where usually interpreted as friendliness and hospitality, that concealed the social injustice towards black and indigenous people.

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