Police Violence from Ferguson to Rio

The police will argue that they have to be heavy-handed with criminals because they’re under attack, because it’s a ‘war.’ But they won’t admit that they’re creating a climate of terror.

Transcribed from the 13 December 2014 episode of This is Hell! Radio and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

“The police will argue that they have to be heavy-handed with criminals because they’re under attack, because it’s a ‘war.’ But they won’t admit that they’re creating a climate of terror.”

Chuck Mertz: We’re speaking with our irregular correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Brian Mier. He is social media director for the Brazilian National Urban Reform Forum and a freelance writer and producer. Yesterday he posted the article The Police and the Massacre of Afro-Brazilian Youth.

Good morning, Brian.

Brian Mier: Hey, how’s it going?

CM: Very well, sir. You write about a new Brazilian documentary called Point Blank. It tells the story of the past twenty years of massacres committed by the Rio de Janeiro military police. These chacinas are frequently committed in retribution for a killed police officer, and traditionally involve coming into a poor neighborhood and killing random Afro-Brazilian youth.

Can you explain the hierarchy of the police forces in Brazil?

BM: If you think it’s bad in Chicago, imagine having multiple police forces operating in every city. First there is the traditional civil police in Brazil that investigates robberies and homicides and things like that. Then there’s military police, which has been around for a very long time, but they were given extra powers during the military dictatorship. And when the dictatorship ended, nobody removed their special powers.

The military police today are a police force that goes around often with machineguns, and does not have to follow any regular Brazilian laws. They have their own laws through the military. So if a military police officer steals a car—which happens more frequently than you’d imagine—he doesn’t get arrested for it. He goes up in front of a military court. Their rate of prosecution is very, very low. And if they are arrested for anything, they go to special military police prisons, which are cushy too.

It’s a police force that can basically do whatever it wants. It’s almost uncontrollable by the federal government.

CM: Is there a call in Brazil for reforming the military police?

BM: There have been people calling for getting rid of the military police since the dictatorship ended, and it’s been one of the items on the PT party’s agenda for the last thirty years, but nobody can get it done because you need a majority in the House in Congress, and most of the House in Congress are very conservative.

And all this kind of crap we see on Fox News in the US, scaring people about criminals and things like that—it happens down in Brazil even worse. A large percentage of the population is terrified and thinks we need more police, and thinks it’s okay to kill thieves and things like that.

CM: I think there’s this sense in the US that Brazil is not as racist as the US. Yet the police violence that you’re talking about—like what we see here in the US—seems to stem from institutionalized or collective racism. How would you compare the racism that you see in Brazil to the racism that you experienced growing up in Chicago?

BM: Well, first of all, race is an imaginary concept that was invented by racist white people to justify slavery five hundred years ago, so every racist country has its own style of racism. A lot of people come from the US down to Brazil and think, “oh, this isn’t racist at all!” because the style of racism is different. It’s more hidden down here.

But in its own way, it’s probably more racist than the United States. I can give all kinds of examples. But one is that until 2003, it was completely legal to make black people take the service elevator in any building.

As for the police: like in many places in the United States, the were formed, originally, to capture and punish escaped slaves. There’s never been a moment in Brazilian history when anyone’s trained the police to stop racially profiling Afro-Brazilians. You see it in the arrest figures, in the numbers of people killed by the police. It’s always a much higher number of Afro-Brazilians, who make up 50.7% of the population (Brazil having the largest black population outside of any country in Africa).

It’s a difficult issue to compare, but I would say Brazil is easily as racist or more racist than the US.

CM: You write that in the Brazilian documentary Point Blank, “a former police officer and member of the Cavalos Corredores death squad that orchestrated the notorious chacina in Vigário Geral, tells how police hide most of the bodies and claims to have killed more than three hundred people. The film focuses on Rio de Janeiro but could have been made anywhere in Brazil.

“Last month in the city of Belém, after an officer was killed, off-duty cops announced their massacre on Facebook and proceeded to go into a slum and kill an estimated 35 people. As usual, most of the victims were Afro-Brazilian teenagers who had no criminal record and were killed to create a climate of terror in their neighborhood.”

Do you hear rationalizations from the police force saying this kind of tactic works? That it drives down crime, drives down violence and instability in the streets? Do they argue that this is a process that “works” to enforce law?

BM: Well, they won’t admit that they are trying to create a climate of terror. Creating a climate of terror is a counterinsurgency tactic used in Israel and in Afghanistan by the military. But they say that everyone they kill is a crook, a criminal. They always say they went in and they killed ten “bums,” or they killed ten “crooks.” And a lot of the time they’ll give fake drug dealer names to them.

But the people who are monitoring what’s happening see that when they do go into the slums to kill low-level drug dealers, they’ll always kill a couple completely innocent people too—on purpose—to crank the level of fear in that community up a notch. If you look at this movie Point Blank, you’ll see, over and over again, stories of entire families being killed.

The police will argue that they have to be heavy-handed with the criminals because they’re under attack, because it’s a “war.” But they won’t admit that they’re creating a climate of terror.

CM: Do the military police still exist in part because people actually support them? Are they glamorized? Are they glorified on television shows?

BM: Not exactly. First of all, the dictatorship ended in 1985, and a lot of people are acting nostalgic about the dictatorship. They pine for the days when only two percent of the university students in the country were Afro-Brazilian, when only sixty percent of the children in Brazil were in schools. This is what it was like during the military dictatorship, and there are people who are nostalgic about that for some reason. Maybe because street crime was a little bit lower, because the police were just killing everybody.

But there’s a lot of hatred toward the police in Brazil; there’s just about thirty percent of the population who are reactionary and right wing and have sympathies for the days of the military dictatorship. They support the police.

And there’s a whole industry of daily television shows that just talk about the most gruesome crimes of the day. Every major network has one of these shows. They run on average two or three hours every day. These shows set out to prop up the police, praise the police, and build up the police’s image, because they need a lot of damage control.

Just as in the United States we have this whole Hollywood industry about “good cops.” The individual good cop who’s making a difference in the world against a bureaucracy or whatever. This is just publicity for the police. In Brazil they do this through these daily television shows, and that confuses a lot of people.

I would say a lot of people who think the police are doing a really good job are just confused. Not to say that there aren’t some police who do a good job. But the numbers of police who are not corrupt in Rio de Janeiro, where I live, are really low. Just one investigation last year arrested fifteen percent of the police in a city of a million people, for taking bribes from one criminal faction.

So in schools, the teachers will say, “study hard, children. If you don’t you’ll be a policeman when you grow up.”

CM: You write, “According to estimates, militias control 45% of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The recent arrest of military police special forces commander Coronel Antonio Fontinelle and 22 other policemen for running a militia in Rio during their days off highlights the level of involvement between the military police and death squad activities.”

Is this due to poverty and necessity, or is there simply a culture of corruption in Brazil?

BM: Brazil is corrupt, as is the United States. The World Bank, at the end of the nineties, started deciding to call the major problem in the Third World “corruption,” because none of their structural adjustment policies worked. They ended up driving poverty up everywhere where they were supposedly trying to help people. And so then they started blaming it on the countries whose economies they’d ruined by saying that the problem was corruption.

Now, there is corruption in Brazil. Just as there is in Chicago. There’s no city in Brazil as corrupt as Chicago. There’s no city in Brazil where the mayor can give out no-bid contracts to whoever he wants and where there’s no term limits. When I tell people that in Brazil, their minds are blown.

So yeah, corruption is a problem. But what really led to the rise of the militias is money. There’s a lot of money going around in the slums, in the favelas. Brazil has moved up from a poor country to an upper middle income country. Only something like 21% of favela residents in Rio de Janeiro are actually living below the poverty line right now. There are a lot of middle class people. And these are areas that were abandoned by the state. And so just as Hamas rose up by becoming a service provider, the drug trafficking gangs and militias provide services.

The militias in the favelas started off providing security, which they do in a very heavy-handed fashion. Then again, in a militia community you’ll see children running around on the streets, playing without any danger at all. So a lot of people value that. Even though their techniques are fascist—they kill thieves, they kill rapists and beat up committers of domestic violence and kick them out of the community and things like that—it does create a lot of security. A lot of people in militia favelas don’t even lock their doors at night.

And then they provide another series of services. They provide pirated cable TV for like five dollars a month, plus three dollars more for the “educational channels,” i.e. the pornographic channels. And they provide cooking gas service, and they run local transportation systems. They’re like para-statal organizations.

The problem is, it’s illegal. What they’re doing are things that the government should be guaranteeing to the people. And as helpful as it might be not to have crime in the neighborhoods where your children are growing up, it’s better to have a legal process—the right to a jury and a fair trial—than this kind of arbitrary vigilante justice.

“When these American liberals come down to Brazil and badmouth Dilma and Lula and the PT party before they even understand how the government works, that’s one thing that they don’t get: that the congress and senate are still heavily influenced by fascist sympathizers from the military dictatorship, and no president in the last twelve years of leftist government has ever had control of the house and senate.”

CM: You write, “social movements and civil society activists who fight police violence are doing everything they can to ensure that these measures are passed into law. If this happens, it will be an important step in the right direction. If not, Rio de Janeiro State University violence researcher Dr. Ignacio Cano’s recent comment that ‘in Brazil, Ferguson happens every day’ will remain as pertinent as ever.”

What side is the US on when it comes to police violence in Brazil?

BM: I don’t think the US cares at all, or even recognizes the problems with police violence in Brazil. I know that the US sent a lot of training and special super-expensive militarized equipment down to Brazil last year. The US trained the Brazilian military on torture at the School of the Americas during the military dictatorship.

And at home, Obama has increased the number of African Americans arrested on marijuana charges during his presidency. The Democratic Party has done nothing to stop the systematic targeting of African Americans for drug possession arrest in the United States. They certainly don’t care about what’s going on in Brazil in this case.

If anything, they just hope that the Brazilian police keep buying expensive equipment from them and paying for training to control protests and things like that. That’s my opinion.

CM: You write how Ferguson is a problem that is not limited to the United States, that this is clearly not a uniquely American problem when it comes to police violence targeting people of color. Should that make us feel any better about it here in the United States? That it’s not just us that allow our white cops to kill non-whites at an alarming rate? Because everybody’s doing it?

BM: That wasn’t the intention of the article, that’s for sure.

The one thing that ties what’s happening in Brazil and the US together is that in my experience, every country where they used to have slavery has this problem of police targeting black people. Colombia, Brazil—both countries had large slavery institutions; the United States had a large slavery institution; and in all three of these countries black people are not considered equal humans as white people. We see this historically, and even to this day this is manifest in a lot of different ways on television and in the media.

Each country has its advantages and disadvantages in the fight against racism, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they have police systems that used to be involved in capturing and torturing slaves. And in each of these three countries the targeting of black people continues. Black people are disproportionately punished, punished more excessively, and harassed on the street more than their white counterparts, unfortunately.

CM: You sent me a link to an article at the Intercept by past This is Hell! guest Glen Greenwald. He wrote it with Andrew Fishman. The headline is The Most Misogynistic, Hateful Elected Official in the Democratic World: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Is he indicative of the new resurgent Right within Brazil? Because if he is, according to this article by Glen Greenwald, then that’s not a very good sign for any kind of opposition to Dilma.

BM: Yeah. He’s the leader of the Bullet Caucus. He was a captain in the army during the dictatorship, and he’s been in congress for the last twenty years. He’s gotten both of his sons elected to congress, saying the same kinds of fascist things, with the same kinds of fascist objectives.

He’s a fascist. He’s a straight-up fascist. He says things on TV like his son would never marry a black woman because he didn’t bring his children up to be promiscuous. He says all kinds of really offensive things, and just on Monday he told Dilma Rousseff’s former human rights director, who’s in congress now, that he’s not going to rape her because she’s not worthy of it. In a session of congress.

That’s fascism. These military dictatorships in South America in the seventies and eighties—they really were fascist. They liked Hitler. The Nazis were down here helping them with torture and things like that. In the case of Brazil, a lot of these people never left power. They were never punished. A large percentage of the people in congress and the senate were in the government during the dictatorship. There’s never been a full transition to democracy.

So when you get these American liberals coming down to Brazil and badmouthing Dilma and Lula and the PT party before they even understand how the government works, that’s one thing that they don’t get: that the congress and senate are still heavily influenced by fascist sympathizers from the military dictatorship, and no president in the last twelve years of leftist government has ever had control of the house and senate. They have to build coalitions with conservatives to get anything done.

CM: One last question for you, Brian. Do you ever get a sense of white privilege in Brazil, something akin to what you might have experienced when you lived in the States?

BM: The sense of white privilege is much greater down here. Until very recently when they changed the labor code, most middle class families had a live-in black kitchen maid who worked six and a half days a week, twelve hours a day, washing their underwear for them and things, and making less than minimum wage.

This is a long tradition in Brazil that’s just beginning to disappear since Dilma changed the labor code and forced people to pay them minimum wage and give them labor rights. And when that happened, there was this huge backlash against the PT party. The cover of the biggest news magazine in Brazil showed a white guy washing the dishes, and the title was “It could happen to you.”

So yeah, the sense of privilege is outrageous down here.

CM: Wow. Well, Brian, it’s always good to hear from you, even if it’s a hellish report like this. Thank you so much for all of the great work that you have done this year. I look forward to 2015 with you as well. Enjoy the rest of your year, and I will talk to you soon.

BM: Alright! Thanks, Chuck.

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