“Stop Killing Us” – Police Brutality Is Destroying Brazil’s Most Vulnerable Communities
21th July 2020
Police brutality in the United States has been making global headlines recently, sparking international outrage and solidarity with victims. However, despite receiving only a fraction of the media attention, a similar phenomenon is currently wreaking havoc on Brazilian society. In the first four months of 2020 alone, an alarming 606 people in Brazil were killed by the police. In 2019, this number reached 1,814, greatly surpassing the US’s yearly average of 1,000.
Political leaders in Brazil have defended these actions as a necessary response to violent gangs and drug-traffickers operating in the country’s favelas, low-income neighbourhoods which are home to Brazil’s most disadvantaged citizens, the majority of whom are black or POC. Owing to decades of state neglect, the favelas operate under an informal structure, of which gangs are commonly the rulers. Determined to eradicate criminal activity, state authorities have largely voiced support for brutal police tactics as the only solution.
Far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, infamous for his trademark gesture of a weapon with his thumb and index finger, argues that officers should not face charges if they kill on duty. In an interview, Bolsonaro claimed excitedly that the approval of such a policy would lead to criminals dying in the streets “like cockroaches” . Likewise, the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, who took office in the beginning of 2019, promised that authorities would “dig graves” to bury criminals if necessary and vowed to “slaughter” any armed subject. Evidently, police in Brazil aren’t just trained to hit their target; they’re encouraged to kill.
A cause for concern, it appears that the state condonation of violence affords police officers a free pass to kill without restraint and to expect no repercussions. Although police are legally obligated to call forensic experts to inspect the scene of a fatal shooting, this rule is widely ignored. In an interview with the BBC, Paulo Roberto Mello Cunha, a state prosecutor who investigates allegations of police violence, noted that sometimes, officers intentionally neglect to leave crime scenes preserved. According to Cunha, there are frequent claims from family members that victims of police killings are taken to hospital already dead in an attempt to cover up wrongdoings. More shocking still, there have been alleged incidents of guns and drugs being placed beside bodies of those killed as a means to incriminate them.
“Evidently, police in Brazil aren’t just trained to hit their target; they’re encouraged to kill.”
Although the police aim at gang members, there is no guarantee they will hit their target. Owing to the clustered nature of the favelas, residents live in close proximity to one another, and the result is that scenes comparable to a warzone are occurring in the middle of residential neighbourhoods, alongside ordinary people going about their daily lives. In addition to skirmishes in the streets, snipers on police helicopters, popularly referred to as “cavirão voador”, or “flying big skulls”, have been ordered to routinely patrol the skies and open fire on potential suspects. In the Complexo de Maré favela in northern Rio de Janeiro, an epicentre of police violence, a school has attempted to take measures against unintentional civilian killings, installing a big yellow sign on its roof which pleads “School, don’t shoot”.
Yet despite protective measures, civilians living in favelas are repeatedly caught in the crossfire between gang members and police. In May of 2019, Jean Rodrigo da Silva, a jiu-jitsu instructor who offered classes to disadvantaged students and adults, was shot by an officer in the head while unloading gym materials from his car. Only months later, in September 8-year-old Agatha Felix was killed in the back of a van after police, aiming for suspected criminals on a motorbike, overshot their target.
The demographic breakdown of those who have died at the hands of Brazil’s police officers has not gone unnoticed by the country’s citizens. Overall, out of the 9,000 police killings to occur over the last decade, black men counted for over 75%. This shocking reality spurred angry demonstrations in September of last year in which civilians took to the streets to protest, some among them holding a banner which read: “Stop killing us” .
Those residing in the abject poverty of Brazil’s favelas, where drug traffickers and criminal gangs operate, are predominantly black or POC. And while it is sadly not unusual for low-income areas to be populated by racial minorities, the alarming scale of police violence being deployed in the favelas means that structural poverty is posing a very real threat to the lives of black and POC Brazilian citizens. Bolsonaro and his government are right to take action against gang crime. However, carrying out violent police operations in favelas will achieve nothing more than the destruction of Brazil’s most vulnerable communities.
Featured photo Rogério S.