Blood and vinegar: Practices of violence and Brazil’s protest movement

Notwithstanding my general sense of optimism about Brazil’s protest movement, disturbing incidents have occurred on the margins that raise questions about the role that violent practices play in actors’ responses to the uprising. It would seem that the citizen-centric governance toward which protesters, in the best of worlds, would move; yet at the same time, entrenched practices of “violent pluralism” will likely prove a formidable obstacle to democratic deepening.

This piece published by the New York Times yesterday gets at one piece of the violence puzzle nicely throughout. The author elaborates upon a theme of structural violence that underlies Brazil’s modernizing project, which he sees as driving a “delusional modernism,” intoxicating to the country’s wealthier denizens. He notes the burden placed upon many Brazilian citizens by the price of services inadequate to their needs, and notes ongoing inattentiveness to the needs of the country’s poorer urban residents:

The cost of public transportation for a family living in Rio or São Paulo is, proportionally, higher than in New York or Paris. Yet, the service delivered is humiliating. In 2009, security guards of a train company that services the Rio metropolitan area used whips on passengers during rush hour crowding. The mayor of Rio has proudly declared that during his tenure not a cent is being spent on subsidizing public transportation.

At the same time, he notes that repressive police actions against protests helped to catalyze resistance and bring more people into the streets. This only makes more striking, though, the clear implication that São Paulo’s initial police response was really business as usual. That is to say that from accounts of pervasive police brutality in the 1990s; to the insertion of “milicia” – death squads made up of off-duty security forces – into the violent political economies of some urban favelas; and on to Rio’s contested favela pacification programs in the present day, in which even proponents of the counterinsurgency-inspired approach to policing concede that more work must be done to avoid human rights abuses; it is clear that Brazil’s forces of law and order remain profoundly imbricated in violent practices. These relationships of violence and control, often mediated by the country’s notorious corruption, undergird a democratic status quo which perpetrates ongoing structural violence against Brazil’s urban poor. These multiple types of violence – interpersonal, structural, state-directed, and criminal – are bound together by complex networks of exchange.

This bloodshed on the margins of a movement in which Brazil’s mobilized citizens protest, in part, against the conditions that are part and parcel of what has been brilliantly characterized as a politics of “violent democracy,” illustrates the complexity of Brazil’s contemporary political context, and highlights where the limits of optimism may lie. Take, for example, the following incident, reported yesterday by the BBC:

At least nine people have died in gun battles with drug dealers in a favela (shanty town) in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, police say.

The clashes started on Monday evening after a demonstration in Bonsucesso, which reportedly ended in mass robberies near Rio’s main access road.

Hundreds of police and National Guard officers, with the support of a tank, are being deployed to secure the area.

Police say at least six of the victims were suspects and one was a policeman.

At least nine others were arrested during the operation in the Favela da Mare area, and a number of guns and drugs were confiscated, police say.

The violence broke out on Monday evening, after a peaceful demonstration ended in mass robberies.

Shops, passers-by and demonstrators were robbed by a group of criminals, police say.

We can draw at least a couple lessons from this incident:

  1. Even if police have curtailed violent tactics in response to political pressure from above, an unusual level of violence can still be expected to manifest itself in the usual places – that is, in exchanges of violence and/or authority between police and criminal groups, and unfortunately by extension against favela residents. The article quoted above notes that schools in Favela da Mar were closed as police moved to clear the area. This militarized response shows that while some of Brazil’s citizens are moving to throw off their fear of Brazil’s military police units, others are likely to continue to suffer a certain level of justified apprehension. While some practices may be changed by the ongoing display of people power in the streets of Brazilian cities, others may well not.
  2. Following on from this: at any time of political flux, existing criminal structures will react opportunistically to take advantage of heightened confusion for their own gain, and there is only so much that mobilized protesters can do to provide their own security, or to entirely take over the streets for their own peaceful ends. More traditional violent actors retain the power to disrupt progress toward these goals, and will continue to pose ongoing challenges toward democratic deepening in Brazil.

All this is to say that conditions and practices of violence are rarely far from political mobilization in Brazil. Violent practices stem from multiple sources, and can occur simultaneously. A key part of democratic deepening must be to dismantle the politics of violence represented by repressive organs of the state apparatus, organized illicit actors, and the many conjunctions and grey zones between them. These violent and shadowy practices may even be heightened during a period of contentious politics, which will only add to the difficulty of rolling back the routinization of violence. Nonetheless, this represents an aspect of Brazil’s ongoing struggle for political and human rights that ultimately cannot – or should not – be ignored.

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One Response to Blood and vinegar: Practices of violence and Brazil’s protest movement

  1. Pingback: Toward “pacification of the state” in Brazil? | Obscure Suddha

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