State-sanctioned violence is part of everyday life for many Brazilians. This is true, especially for those who are unlucky enough to be poor, live in a favela and have “the wrong skin colour”. Indeed, poor Black and brown people living in precarious situations are the preferred victims of the Brazilian police – a force that is seemingly committed to eradicating not poverty, but the poor.
Brazil’s first favelas appeared in the 19th century in Rio de Janeiro and they grew exponentially after the end of slavery. Over time, poor migrants escaping armed conflicts also joined the former slaves and their descendants in these communities. Soon, similar favelas started to emerge and expand in other parts of the country. And the police forces, which had served to protect the elites, their property and lifestyles from dangerous “plebs” from the very beginning quickly focussed their attention on favelas.
In Brazil’s favelas, residents live with a constant fear of “police operations” – or to be more accurate, indiscriminate shootings across narrow residential streets involving automatic weapons and helicopters. They know that if a police officer happens to approach them – regardless of what they may or may not have done – they could be threatened, beaten up, jailed, killed or simply “disappeared”. They know that their house can be invaded any minute, their possessions confiscated, their lives turned upside down – all with the complete support of their country’s government and other state institutions.
On May 24, 25 people were killed during a police operation in the Vila Cruzeiro Favela in Rio de Janeiro. On July 21, 2022, yet another police raid claimed 18 more lives in Complexo do Alemao in the same state. These massacres were only a few in a much longer chain. According to a study conducted by Federal Fluminense University researchers, 182 people have been killed in at least 40 separate police operations in Rio de Janeiro alone between May 2021 and May 2022.
These deadly operations have the full support of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who regularly praises bloody police action in favelas and proudly claims all those who were summarily executed were “criminals” and “thugs” who have been “neutralised”. Of course, activists and international organisations emphasise that only a small percentage of those who have been killed in these operations have had arrest warrants in their names. And favela residents often talk of people being “hunted down” by police, and at times executed even after they surrender. But in the eyes of the Brazilian state, these details do not seem to matter.
In Brazil racialised police brutality is an inevitable consequence of a deep-rooted culture of criminalisation of poverty and the poor. Coupled with a failure to adequately train security forces and reluctance on the part of authorities to even acknowledge the problem, this culture of criminalisation turns police officers into willing and eager perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence.
Brazil’s security forces are spreading terror in the favelas and brutally murdering vulnerable Black citizens during traffic stops because that is what they were designed to do – and because they are not being trained, equipped or encouraged to police these communities in any other way. The main reason why the Brazilian police are acting the way they are – and seemingly waging a deadly war against the poor – is that the force was created to do just that. Historically, police forces were first formed in Brazil not to ensure public safety as we understand it today, but to control, repress and intimidate slaves.
Brazil’s ruling class have always perceived the favela as areas to be controlled, places where the poor must live and be watched. And the police, as the protectors of the elites, took it upon themselves to keep the favelas in check through intimidation, abuse and violence.
The culture of policing the favelas – and generally the poor – with violence continues also because of the fact that there is no enforcement against poor performance and abuses by law enforcement.
“The Public Prosecutor’s Office does not fulfil its function of overseeing police activity, the judiciary does not fulfil its function of protecting victims of abuse who resort to the courts, the state government does not regulate its agents,” Cecilia Oliveira, a journalist specialising in public security once explained. “It is a whole system that allows the police to be what they are. The lives of Black and poor people are palanquin for those who sell cheap solutions to a complex problem.”
Brazil’s never ending war on the poor | Opinions | Al Jazeera
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