Has Rio's favela pacification actually helped give the city's poorest a greater voice? And could these favela protests be a surprise during the World Cup?
The Context: Rio's Divided City
In Rio, favelas are also known as the morro, or the hill, since many favelas are built on the city's higher elevations, while the city, practically seen as an altogether different entity, is referred to as the asfalto, or asphalt. And because of this gulf between the favelas and the rest of the city and the long-standing division between favela residents and the rest of Cariocas, the concept of descer do morro--to come down from the hill--is something that makes people very nervous. There's even a samba called "The Day the Morro Comes Down When It's Not Carnival" about what would happen if favela residents "came down the hill" en masse.
What's Been Happening
I started noticing it during the June protests last year. There was a protest in Rio's Maré favela against police brutality there (pictured in the photo above), which gained some traction in the media. And since then, these types of protests have been cropping up throughout Rio, largely against police violence as well as forced removals.
In April, there were at least three cases of these types of demonstrations. The most visible was that of protests in Copacabana after the death of Douglas Rafael da Silva, or DG, a dancer who appeared on a popular TV show who was allegedly murdered by pacification police in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela. These protests resulted in one death and spurred fear in a traditionally middle class neighborhood, with streets shut down and fires burning, inspiring panicky headlines in the local media.
Earlier in the month, residents of the Cantagalo favela in Ipanema protested the shootings of two residents, with fires set in the streets. Toward the end of April, a protest in Alemão took place after a fatal shooting of an elderly woman, with a bus set alight and some throwing rocks at a local health clinic. Numerous buses were set on fire in Pavuna after the death of a young resident in the Chapadão favela.
Favela Protests: A New Phenomenon?
It's not completely unheard of for favela residents to protest. But the past year has been interesting to watch.
Recently, there have been allegations that drug traffickers are paying favela residents to protest. The argument could be sustained based on the fact that traffickers have a lot to gain if pacification fails and they would be happy to support the growing wave of pessimism and opposition to pacification. But it seems unlikely this is the case across the board, especially during the Copacabana protests.
Julia Michaels of Rio Real Blog attributes this "new willingness to come down the hill" to last year's major street protests, as well as big strikes in the past year, including that of teachers and garbage collectors. Journalist Flora Charner writes on her blog that:
"When organized resistance comes from the favelas, there is often an assumption that jailed drug traffickers or criminals are behind them. This gives police the authority to use excessive force, under the blanket excuse of keeping the peace and self-defense. As community reporting and social media continue to expand and be used by more and more favela residents, impunity and injustice will be harder to hide."
In a forthcoming interview to be published on this blog, political scientist and Amnesty International Brasil advisor Mauricio Santoro noted that while localized favela protests have been happening since the 1970s, what's new is that protesters from favelas are now creating closer ties to social movements and activists from the middle class. Plus, when a large number of favela residents "came down the hill" from Vidigal and Rocinha to protest in front of the governor's home with other Cariocas last year, "it was something I'd never seen before," Santoro said.
Perhaps pacification, despite its numerous problems, may actually be giving favela residents a louder voice. Because pacification is so visible given the city's mega-events, and because the program a constant in the local and international media, there's greater opportunity to reveal police abuses to the world. And unfortunately, pacification police give residents plenty of reason to demonstrate--namely, by killing innocent people. That police have been committing abuses in favelas is nothing new, but with a widely publicized government security strategy in place and traffickers having less tight grip over communities, residents are able to pull back the curtain on what's happening. And because the city is in the spotlight, more people are watching.
The Possibility of World Cup Protests
Many want to know if there will be protests on the scale of last year during the upcoming World Cup, especially in Rio, where an estimated 400,000 tourists will stay during the games. It's hard to predict, though small protests involving the Black Blocs seem likely. But the favela protests could be an altogether different case.
Here are some of the risk factors for favela protests:
- Pacification has become increasingly unpopular, with more scrutiny in the media. Another tragic incident could set off a demonstration.
- If there's another victim of violence with strong ties to the asfalto, as the case with DG, there's a greater chance of larger and more visible protests.
- Social media has helped spread word of favela protests and police abuses in Rio. A recent campaign following DG's death went viral, with people taking photos holding up signs saying: "I don't deserve to be murdered."
- The World Cup is an opportunity to make an impact on a global scale. Santoro pointed out that event a single large demonstration will have repercussions beyond Brazil's borders. "All of the elements exist for that to happen," he said, though it will depend on how police and authorities act, among other factors. "The whole world will be watching."
Image: Eric Andriolo. A protest in Maré last July against police brutality.