Active silence

Rio is done for… Except it’s not

Rocinha, seen on a winter afternoon from the Dois Irmãos mountain

It’s tough to read the lack of noise, after years of great activity. But the silence in Rio, both this blogger’s as well as that of many others, is no hollow space. We’re lost in thought. How did we get here? What are the important questions? What works? What gets you nowhere?

Soldiers patrol the deserted Olympic Boulevard, part of the revitalized Porto Maravilha, on a Monday morning

Raull Santiago is an untiring Complexo do Alemão activist, married and father of four. He helped lead the resistance to the police invasion of private homes in the Complexo, which lasted from January to April of this year. At the surface of facts alone, the situation was clear. The police had no legal right to take over the houses.

Every day we perceive that no situation is black or white. The police claimed the invasion was needed to protect its men and fight heavily armed drug traffickers. To occupy territory.

Despite the invasion’s obvious unconstitutionality, it took months for the police to vacate the homes and for the state Public Defender’s office to indict the commander at the state’s Military Justice Board. A decision is pending.

The revelations seen since the Mensalão congressional scandal broke in 2005 aren’t just about corruption and crooked politics. Like never before, the daylight emanating from investigations and plea bargains also shines on social inequality. The great challenge– maybe an impossible mission– is to figure out where to start righting wrongs, which strand to pull first from the Brazilian tangle. The Alemão police invasion was built on drug traffic, which was built on problematic police and politicians and a long tradition of ignoring housing needs. Which was built on slavery. The lack of health and education are in there somewhere, too.

It’s no coincidence that this year’s FLIP, the Paraty literary festival, focused on racism and the life and work of black author Lima Barreto, who lived in Rio de Janeiro during his short life, from 1881 to 1922.

The skein’s knotted tangle feeds polarization. We seek and we come up with easy solutions. We mistrust everything and everyone. “Either you’re on the side of the police or on the side of the criminals,” is the slogan slowly taking the place of the old “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” In this dichotomy, poorer residents are left in the grey area of collateral damage.

That’s how it was July 31, when the state Prosecutor’s Office held a public hearing on public safety. On the plus side, it was a new approach, a chance for dialogue. But the participants divided neatly into two cheering squads, one for order and one for human rights. Security staff had to keep apart a prosecutor and a member of a group defending favela residents’ rights. Another prosecutor, together with some police officers, presented military schools as a public safety solution.

The Carwash investigation has begun to touch those who used to protect themselves in the justice system’s shadowy reaches. But there are still delays, sudden and morally inexplicable twists. This is tiring, to say the least.

Raull Santiago was happy when he heard the news about the Alemão commander and the end of the house invasions. But the Rio environment is so heavily charged that his broken cell phone spurred a Facebook outburst the other day, titled “Crisis”, in which he wrote of:

“… being favela-born and moving to guarantee the right to life and other rights, ending up being categorized as part of some of these labels, such as “periphery social movements”, the way this stuff takes problems to the tenth power or much more. There are thousands of tiny things. All extreme. All serious. All I can do is think of the Racionais (musical group) singing: ‘Every favela resident is a universe in crisis’. And we truly are. And I don’t even know if some day this will end. I only know we’ll keep on trying to change the game of real life. From the bridge to here, not everyone can take it. And lots of people jump off that bridge.”

A person who has worked with youth for years went beyond Raull’s outburst. The person confided to RioRealblog about having doubts regarding the impact of any attempt to work on social issues. Public policies to address social issues are the main demand of those who reject the violence of  “collateral damage” in relations between society and the police.

Cecília Olliveira, who with her Fogo Cruzado app took on the mission of tracking and quantifying shooting across Rio, confessed dismay in a public exchange of messages with RioRealblog, on Twitter: “We’re tired. Very, very tired. we keep trying… but I can’t see a bright horizon,” she wrote.

On the other side of the equation people might not be jumping off bridges, as Raull mentioned, but they’re throwing in the towel. In line at the book signing yesterday for Mais Forte: Olimpíadas seguras em meio ao caos (Fortis: Safe Olympics in the Midst of Chaos, soon available online in English), a 50-year-old retired military police officer said his elderly mother is the only reason he’s not moving to Portugal. He keeps thinking about a friend, also a retired officer, who’s made the move. The conversation was initiated by a carioca asking if Rio’s problem might not be the cariocas themselves. He lives alone in Rio; his family prefers another city.

Meanwhile, federal troops arrived here; last Saturday they carried out a totally new kind of operation, blocking the access to some North Zone favelas for a day. The idea was to reduce cargo theft (which this year has mushroomed) and drug traffic. The results weren’t a huge success, but they caused only two deaths. Unlike as was done with pacification (discredited for at least a year), security officials say they have no intent to occupy favelas or to even stay long in once spot. “We don’t want to merely inhibit organized crime. We want to undo it, destroy it, cut off its ability to function,” said Defense Minister Raul Jungmann.

It would be nice if this happened. But few cariocas have shown confidence in the military or support for the new strategy. They’re worn out and indignant. They are soul searching.

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Active silence

  1. curmudgeon says:

    Julia, I have a question for you and for your readers:
    Is there a direct relationship between the geometrically increasing number of cargo thefts and the geometrically increasing number of camelôs on the streets of Rio?
    I am tempted to think that most camelôs sell goods that, euphemistically, “fell off the back of a truck” but perhaps that’s not accurate.

  2. Rio real says:

    For sure there are more goods to sell but there are also more people who need to sell them, people who have lost income because of the economic downturn. It’s amazing to ride the BRT (also some buses and the metro) and see people going through selling Apple phone chargers for five reais.

  3. Pingback: Some articles I found interesting this morning | Adam Isacson

  4. Christopher J Ballantyne says:

    Really good synthesis in your mosaic, Julia. It’s been worth the wait. I can see that you are going to be very very busy reporting this. I am grateful.

  5. Pingback: The peril of “protest fatigue” | Adam Isacson

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