motorcycle diaries / brazil: "in the favelas"

exclusive feature
Justin Hansford
The Liberator Magazine 2005: 4.3 #11


Part One

When I entered the “favelas” for the first time, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I am no stranger to the projects in the U.S., but third world living conditions are a different level of poverty. The Brazilian favelas were for the most part created by the rural migrants who came the cities of Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo, and Salvador during the 50’s looking to cash in on the economic promise of the budding economy, which was powered by the coffee industry. But when cities became overcrowded and housing prices skyrocketed, people had to make shelter for themselves the best way they knew how. Soon they formed communities wherever there was space, like on the outskirts of town in what they call the “periferia,” or the perimeter, of the city.

And so you have these communities built on the sides of hills or on the bottoms of valleys, something maybe equivalent to the shantytowns in Jamaica. The houses they’ve built here, they call them “borrachos,” make the one room shacks they had in southeast D.C. when I was growing up look like luxury suites. People here are too poor to even buy tiles for their floors, so they live on the house’s pure stone foundation, or packed in dirt. Some of these people have never had hot water in their homes, will never use a washer machine, and only have lighting because the community has found a way to rig the wires to get free electricity. They’ve created a makeshift sewage system that, unfortunately, sometimes leaves a foul smell and overflows when it rains. Because these are usually open sewers, the children must be careful not to fall in when playing in the streets.

But there are a lot of children playing in the streets. One thing that affected me from the first time I set foot in the favelas was the fantastic spirit that the communities have, in spite of the poverty in which they live. I must have received hundreds of warm smiles and pats on the back from the people in the favelas, as my friend introduced me to what seemed like everyone in the neighborhood. At home in the U.S., because they live in the richest society in history, people complain about their poverty and feel sorry for themselves, as they sit in a carpeted room, with cable T.V., about to go to the grocery store in their car. 90% of the people in the favelas will never drive a car in their lifetime, but they still enjoy their lives.

Maybe it has something to do with the culture. I could go to any block in the favela, and a sistah might pass by that would be so beautiful that it would make my head spin. I’ve seen maybe the most beautiful sistahs I’ve seen in my life in the favelas of Brazil, sistahs whose wardrobe includes some flip flops and a couple of dresses that might be worth $20 in the U.S., all put together. The overall lifestyle here is different too. Like at home, brothers would sit on the block, discussing the game (here it’s soccer), the latest happenings on the local Hip Hop scene, or world politics. But here, old and young alike would be on the block, entire families having a chance to spend lots of time together everyday.

Even so, as I got to know the people more and more, it really hit me how tragic the situation here is. I’ve learned a lot from my friends here. I’ve learned things about U.S. foreign policy, and how corporate globalism has created living conditions like these in the favelas, and helps to maintain them. I’ve learned things that the mass media, owned by these corporations, has “forgotten” to report. But most of my friends here, who I’ve learned so much from, will never have an opportunity to leave the favelas, let alone travel abroad or see the things that I’ve seen in my short life. Going to college is almost unrealistic except for the richest class of Brazilians, who live in luxury and paradise on the beaches, and are almost without exception of European descent and light skin.

These families in the favelas are not only under attack from poverty and a broken system of social advancement, but they are under constant attack from the brutal, racist police in Brazil. In an effort to secure their unequal grasp on the nations’ wealth, the rich classes push for more and more harsh oppression, and have created an environment of police impunity. Beatings, shootings, and random detentions are commonplace, and they can only be halted through bribes; whatever money the people might have. The only protection people in the favelas have from the police are the drug dealing gangs, some of whom use their drug money to help residents get the basic necessities that the society denies them. To encourage the people to escape reality instead of taking the initiative to change their situation, the favela has a bar or a church on every corner, in addition to a steady serving of crack and heroin. In the midst of these complicated relationships, life goes on in the favelas of Brazil.

Part Two, Police Brutality in São Paulo and Rio de Janiero!

On July 5th 2005, twenty-year old Everton Ribeiro de Souza was closing his small hip hop clothing stand in the small favela (shanty town) where he lives on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil. As he packed his bags and headed home, he noticed that the streets were flooded with police, and his neighbors had gathered outside of their homes. He saw his sister among the crowd, and headed towards her to find out what had happened. Before he reached her, he was stopped by the military police. They announced that they were sweeping the neighborhood looking for drugs, and they proceeded to perform a search. During the shakedown, a police officer asked him if he had ever had a warrant out for his arrest. When he said yes, they threw him in the police car, where his cousin, Marcos,was already being held. Then, one of the officers threw a plastic bag in the car, full of cocaine, crack, marijuana, and a cell phone, and said that it belonged to them.

The crowd of neighbors saw everything, his sister included. “You planted those drugs!” she screamed. “You can’t take him away; he’s not a drug dealer!” One of the police officers grabbed her by the neck, and told her “shut your mouth, now!” When she continued to scream, he hit her in the face, while still grasping her by the neck. In desperation she spat at his face, which further enraged the officer and prompted him to continue to beat her into submission. He then threw her in the police car. She went to jail that night for “disregarding police authority,” while her brother and cousin currently faces much more serious charges.

Her husband went to the police station that night to bail out his wife. Because he is a rap artist and community leader, the local police have been hungry to get a slice of the little money they think he has earned through his music. When he announced that he would fi le a complaint against the police, they reacted swiftly.

The next day, the police returned to the neighborhood. After stealing some food from the neighborhood grocery store, they stole his brother's DVD player and T.V. Later, they arrested him and charged him with dealing drugs based on an “anonymous tip.” They claimed that they had enough “evidence” to lock him away for a long time, and the only way they would agree to leave him and his family alone was if he paid a bribe of $10,000 Reais. In the following days since their bribery attempt, they have returned to ram sack the houses of his family and his friends, numerous times. Last weekend, after a complaint was fi led, they stopped him on the street and pistol whipped him with a shotgun, causing the gaping wound in the back of his head that is shown in the attached photo.

São Paulo police are no strangers to allegations of corruption, violence, and brutality. In 1997, Human Rights Watch published an emergency report entitled “Police Brutality in Urban Brazil,” which recorded the hundreds of shootings, forced disappearances, and extra-judicial executions committed by Brazilian police. During its peak years in the 90´s, police reported killing 1,470 civilians in one year alone in the city of São Paulo (1). By 2004, the slaughter had abated somewhat, and São Paulo police reported proudly that they had only murdered 915 people in that year (2). Most were killed execution style, with bullets in the back of the head, or the underarms showing that the people had had their arms raised when they were killed (3). To put this in perspective, in New York City, the police have been criticized for killing 24 suspects in 2004 (4). Even more, the United States Department of State has gone on record saying that, in Brazil, “information indicate(s) that on-duty officers were responsible for less than half of the homicides by police” and that “organized death squads linked to police forces targeted suspected criminals and persons considered “undesirable”. . .in almost every state.”(5). Consequently, even these astronomical numbers, as reported by the police themselves, are likely to be understatements. Needless to say the majority of these “suspected” criminals tend to be young, black, and male. Even I, as an African American tourist, have had guns pointed at my face and been on the receiving end of blows to the private parts, courtesy of São Paulo police officers. My only crime: being young, black, male, and in the vicinity of over-zealous Brazilian police. Sources indicate that “violence has been going up, namely, rates of police executions of untried 'suspects,' mostly black males. There were 427 of these incidents in 2000; by 2002 the number had more than doubled.”(6).

The problem is not isolated to São Paulo. In 2004 in Rio de Janiero, a city much smaller than São Paulo, police admitted to the murders of 1,195 people (7). And the police are getting more bold and violent each day. On April 1, 2005, 30 innocent civilians, including mothers, teenagers, and children, were publicly executed by police in front of their own homes. This was in retaliation for complaints filed by community members. (8)

The twisted attitude of the state police here is one of the causes of this problem. A holdover from the days of the military dictatorship here, the military police here patrol the streets with a brutal, predatory attitude, and are trained to treat criminal suspects as “military enemies who are to be destroyed”.(9)

Another cause of the problem is misguided leadership from the authorities. For example, in 1997, after reviewing the record of a military police officer who had been

{The Liberator Magazine 2005: 4.3 #11 (Pt. 2); Online Journal (Pt. 1, previously unpublished)}

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