By Stefanie Israel
Three years after the June protests, Brazil finds itself in a political and economic crisis that no one would have imagined. Since the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate voted in favor of impeachment, suspending Dilma Rousseff’s presidency pending up to 180 days of investigation and trial, and Vice-President Michel Temer (PMDB) acts as interim president, the Left has proclaimed a “golpe” or coup and united behind the slogan, “Primeiramente, Fora Temer” (“First, Out with Temer.”) Meanwhile, as Rio de Janeiro prepared to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, state budget shortfalls left many public employees without receiving salaries in the midst of across-the-board cuts in education, healthcare, and security. When the state received federal bailout funds, which were dedicated to security for the Games, rather than to education or healthcare, many who were already critical of investment “pra gringo / inglês ver” (for the gringo / English to see) were further outraged at the money spent to put on a spectacle for foreigners. They see this as a mere “maquiagem” (cosmetic make-up) over dire social problems that they will continue to live with once the international gaze turns away. This frustration with the prioritization of putting on a show over meeting basic needs (nothing new to Rio) led some to join a movement to put out the Olympic torch, a powerful symbolic action of protest against the dirty side of spectacle.
Meanwhile, life continues in the favela. For most. The number of police killings is double what it was at the same time last year in the months leading up to the Olympics. Several favela complexes in Rio turned into virtual warzones with increased police operations, causing schools and other institutions to close due to near-daily shootouts. “It is our blood on the ground in exchange for a mega-event,” Gizele Martins and other favela-based militants cry out. A claim supported by the pattern of increase in police killings before the Pan-American Games, before the World Cup, and now before the Olympics. As the white Left began to cry “Primeiramente, Fora Temer,” favela-based militants responded with what for them was a more urgent slogan, “Primeiramente, Fora UPP” (“First, Out with the UPP”), as illustrated in these images shared by Coletivo Papo Reto based in Complexo do Alemão.
Text (right): “First Out with Temer?” Because the UPP’s assault rifle is not pointed at you.
I have been conducting ethnographic research since 2012 in Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia, two neighboring favelas originally heralded as “successful” examples of the UPP “pacification” program, explicitly aimed at regaining control of these territories from “drug traffickers” via a proximity policing initiative. When I conducted interviews in 2012, most interviewees expressed a cautious hope about the program, but advised me to come back in 2016 to see what happens after the Olympics. When I returned in December 2015, residents were saying, “The UPP isn’t going to end, it has already ended.” On the eve of the impeachment vote in the Chamber of Deputies, residents living in areas of risk (who were supposed to have received homes in the uncompleted third apartment building promised by the Morar Carioca favela upgrading program) were threatened with landslides due to heavy rains. At the same time, there was fighting going on between the two drug factions in the hill and the police. A resident living in an area of risk nervously joked about her lack of options when the siren sounds. “I don’t know what to do. If I stay home, I might die due to landslide. If I leave the house, I run the risk of being shot.” Going to the streets to protest the coup is a luxury for those not engaged in an “existential fight,” the Residents’ Association President and militant André Constantine observed as he weighed his responsibilities and decided to accept an invitation to speak at a Não Vai Ter Golpe (There Will Not Be a Coup) rally a week before the vote. He invited me along.
At the rally, I recognized few from the favela in the mostly white crowd. The organizer who had invited André, a Workers’ Party (PT) member from the favela, gathered André and three other community leaders from different favelas to inform them they would go on stage at once and each have three minutes to speak. As he introduced the community leaders to the crowd, he highlighted the importance of a democracy that includes the favelas. When he handed the mic to André, those standing around began to gather in and listen as his words went beyond the same clichés and anti-coup discourse that had been repeated over the past couple of hours.
“Of course I am against the coup, even because I am an elected President within a democratic rule of law. Of course the public policies of affirmative action – today I give lectures in the universities and you see a more colored university, you see blacks inserting themselves within the university context. But I cannot fail to say that at the same time that you see blacks inserting themselves into the universities via the policy of affirmative action–let us note in passing that affirmative action is just the beginning because the state has a historic debt with the black nation (povo negro), [raising voice] the Brazilian state has a historic debt with the black nation and it must be paid [applause] – 400 years of a process of enslavement is not healed by asking for forgiveness. … Now at the same time that blacks are being inserted into the university via the policy of affirmative action, every day 84 black youth die. In this moment that we are here, there is a black youth collapsing within a quilombo, within a favela at the guns of the Bush Captains (Slave Hunters, Capitães do Mato) that used to come on horse and now come by SUV (camburão). We have a police force that kills more than any other in the world, but it kills according to zip code and color. It only kills blacks and the poor [applause]. This is what happens. And so the moment has arrived for the PT, which is the Workers’ Party, to join arms with the favela, to return to make a place in the favela, because otherwise fascism will take hold because the only source of information we have is the Globo Network … so the time come for the leftwing parties to return to dialogue with the favelas. This is fundamental [applause]. Because when the favela comes down [to the street in protest], there will not be carnival and yes there will be revolution. No to the coup and yes to democracy!”
André was pleased with his speech and the reception, despite noting the sliver of time given to favela residents to speak, as he noted is often the case. He was hesitant to accept the invitation, because he is tired of being used by the Left so that they can pat themselves on the back for including the favela, or worse, try to appropriate their cause for their own party agenda.
In the process of my ethnographic research, and at times when I thought I wasn’t doing research, I found myself a part of many conversations between favela-based and Movimento Negro militants regarding their tenuous relationship with the white middle-class Left. These conversations took place during protests in small huddles, before and after events where they were invited to speak (protests, rallies, occupations, and debates in academic settings), over beers, during random encounters on the street downtown, and during meetings of various social movement groups. It was not an intended focus of my research, but as I attended these events with André, independently, and with other favela militants, it presented itself repeatedly.
A common theme that emerged in these conversations was a sense of being used by the Left, of having their struggle appropriated by NGOs and political parties who want to use it for their own ends. They shared story after story of feeling used as the token favela or black person by a movement that wants to claim it speaks for them or at least wants to envision itself as inclusive. They expressed frustration at being invited to speak in academic settings and debates without being offered any compensation, sometimes not even to cover public transportation, which represents a burden to someone from the favela who dedicates a significant portion of their time to such engagements. They complained about unequal access to the sound cars and mics in protests. Most of all, they told stories to caution one another about what to watch out for and how to protect against being used by the white Left. Of course, these are only the conversations to which my white middle-class American female self was privy, often after someone had vouched for me in the presence of those I did not yet know.
I had noted the miniscule percentage of mic time given to favela militants at anti-coup rallies, the one seat given at a debate table so they could consider themselves representative. But the moment when much of what I had heard from militants’ conversations materialized most clearly before my eyes came at OcupaMinC on June 3. A young woman got up to hula-hoop immediately after the panel of favela militants finished and two mothers had in tears shared their heartbreaking stories: Deize Carvalho, whose teenage son was tortured to death by police in Cantagalo, and Irone Santiago, whose adult son is now paraplegic after being shot during a military operation by “Pacification Forces” in Maré. Even as they were speaking, the mostly white, young, hipster-esque crowd continued drinking and chatting. An indigenous activist who knew the panel members tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to hush the audience. André spoke last, drawing more attention with his powerful oratory skills and in-your-face discourse, echoing the loss of the mothers, their sons victims of police who kill according to color and zip code. The panel was followed by a Q&A time in which the organizer gave the last question to a woman sitting in the crowd rather than the man from the Movimento Negro who was clearly next in line at the question mic (sparking more conversations in huddles about being excluded by the white Left).
As Repper Fiell performed and the white middle-class Left stood around the edges drinking and chatting in huddles, the dance floor empty with the exception of the hula-hoopers, the cultural divide was painfully evident. I stood with the emotionally-spent mothers who had shared as we watched the party resume. They were ready to go. The audience did not feel their pain; they did not know their reality. They could drink and smoke pot and be merry, because their color and zip code enjoy police protection. As the panel organizer drove us home, she asked for feedback. The mothers talked about how they felt disrespected, how those there did not listen, how they were drinking and someone was even rolling a joint as they spoke. How it was agonizing to share when the crowd does not even bother to show empathy.
This was yet another attempt by the white Left to “include” favela militants, to incorporate their voices into the Fora Temer movement, this time with good intentions on the part of the organizer. Even so, the event was a painful repeat of a patterned relationship between the white Left and favela militants and a brutal reminder of the social distance between them. As the white middle-class Left cries Fora Temer, favela militants continue to cry Fora UPP, Fora Exército, Fora BOPE (Out with the UPP, Out with the Army, Out with the Special Forces Police).
Is there hope for the inclusion of their voices by the white Left? Is there a way for the white Left to listen, to hear, to empathize with the very different reality of workers from the favela? Favela militants like André Constantine and Deize Carvalho continue to speak to the white Left in various contexts when invited, with the hope that their words and stories may wake some up to their reality. But their very use of the term white Left, sometimes white middle-class Left, or white elite Left, signifies something from which they are excluded by virtue of color, class, and zip code.
Nor do favela militants necessarily desire to be a part of a social movement space constructed by the white Left that does represent them. André sees more hope in the construction of new spaces that are truly horizontal and inclusive, his favorite being the Campaign for the Freedom of Rafael Braga who was arrested in the June 2013 protests for carrying a bottle of Pine Sol. Having attended the weekly meeting of this group as well as protests at Rafael’s hearings, I understand André’s admiration. The favela militants in the campaign are not called in to speak or act as the campaign’s token favela members; they have built the campaign together with others of different race and class backgrounds. Their protagonism in the struggle has been respected by white middle-class campaign members who perform administrative support functions, while yielding mic space at events to the campaign’s black and favelado members. As André explains, these activists accompany Rafael’s family, take care packages to him in prison, recognize Rafael as a person rather than merely a symbol of a racist and classist criminal justice system, and generally sensitize themselves and show love. “That is the main difference. When you enter into a struggle, you involve yourself with those human beings who are included in that struggle. You have an affective connection to those human beings, those persons, those citizens. They are not just a banner for you to raise, for you to turn into a banner for political ends, or to claim that you are a left-wing militant.” Meanwhile, André and other campaign members may poke fun at the white coxinha activists who show up to Rafael’s hearings and take selfies then leave, but at least their struggle is not being appropriated by them.
In the end André does not cast his hope in the white Left. I will close with his words, which resonate with those of #BlackLivesMatter and other anti-racism activists around the world. “The Left is not going to transform anything. The Left is not a revolutionary tool. The Left does not want to change anything because it is in a comfort zone. This is the grand reality. The revolution and the transformation of Brazil will come from the favelas and the black nation (povo negro). I have no doubt. If we keep waiting around for this Left we are not going to attain anything.”