segunda-feira, 21 de julho de 2014

between tragedy and farce: getting back to normal in rio de janeiro

not surprisingly, the end of the world cup hasn’t done much to improve human rights in rio de janeiro.  it’s not as though they were doing very well before the cup came along, of course, but the authorities’ eagerness to put on a happy face for tourists and show off a “global city” to foreign investors and multinationals provided a huge accelerating force for the sharp (but not especially short) shock of forced evictions, police brutality, and clampdowns on free speech.  the first justification for those instincts has passed, but with presidential and gubernatorial elections coming up in october and the olympics scheduled to come crashing down in two years, it seems unlikely that the situation will improve any time soon.

we want to have classes - free our teachers!
(sign at the july 15 protest)
it’s been a pretty bizarre week here, accentuated by brief glimmers of hope and by a bumbling criminal justice system that would be funny if it weren’t so fundamentally belligerent.  after the intense repression that marked the final world cup protest last week, there was a protest on tuesday to free the 19 activists being held temporarily and accused – though not formally charged – of criminal conspiracy.  the protest was bigger and louder than most of the actions during the world cup (around 1000 people showed up), and though the riot cops came out in force, they mostly managed to restrain themselves:  there was no tear gas, no rubber bullets, and apparently not even any arrests.   toward the end of the march, word got out that a habeas corpus motion had been accepted and that 12 of the prisoners would be released the next day, and that four of the cops caught on video beating the shit out of protestors and stealing their stuff were going to be taken into administrative custody.

protest is not a crime:
the new de rigeur facebook profile picture for the local activist set (by amnesty international)

this news kicked off days of bureaucratic confusions and contortions.  the habeas corpus writs were initially challenged and then upheld, but the actual paperwork somehow took more than 24 hours to find its way to the right people, so the 12 people scheduled to be released on wednesday only got out early on thursday morning, when their 5-day arrests should already have expired.  almost as soon as they were released, state prosecutors announced that they would release a new dossier file a new motion to arrest all of them again on friday.  that motion apparently went through without any delays for paperwork, and the 12 are now considered fugitives (along with 6 others who managed to avoid the initial arrests).  meanwhile, 5 more prisoners are still being held indefinitely, along with 2 underage prisoners, who are still in custody but not subject to criminal prosecution.

before being leaked to the press, the new charges against the 19 activists were classified,
which sent their lawyers on a bureaucratic goose chase

the accusations keep getting more grandiose and the numbers keep shifting – there were originally supposed to be 60 arrest warrants, with more possibly on the way – which has understandably created a pretty constant sense of fear among most of rio’s activists.  with different state agencies and public officials competing with each other to either vilify or liberate our friends, it’s difficult to how large the anti-activist dragnet will extend or what consequences will be attached to what actions.  the recently-leaked police dossier makes some pretty outlandish claims (for example, that a local anarchist coalition was plotting to blow up the rio de janeiro state legislature), and to my mind, its tone is eerily similar to ai-5, the 1968 declaration of martial law that signaled a major turning point for the worse in brasil’s dictatorship.  (i won’t go into detail about that in a blog post, so you’ll either have to take my word for it, or wait for my phd thesis in about three-ish years).

as new warrants circulate, raising the prospect that more prominent activists will be subject to arbitrary imprisonment, comparisons between between current political circumstances and the 21 years (1964-85) of full-on military dictatorship keep coming up. these comparisons have been common for a long time brasil, in part because so many of the faces of the political and intellectual leadership are the same (check out josé sarney and antônio delfim netto for a very basic introduction), but mostly because institutions like the military police operate in essentially the same way, largely ignoring the 1988 constitution and interpreting the older, unchanged criminal code as they see fit.  it’s a trueism that the dictatorship stood out for subjecting the primarily white middle and upper classes to the same sort of treatments that poor people of color always were and continue to be subjected to:  torture, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances, to name just a few.   

the difference between a political prisoner and a common prisoner
is that the common prisoner doesn't know that he's also a political prisoner
the human rights debacle that we’re seeing played out now didn’t start with the world cup, and what my activist friends are going through has long been an everyday reality for favela residents throughout brasil, among others.  ironically, many of the folks getting locked up now have been especially vocal in pointing out the continued abuses of the criminal justice system, and their current situation highlights what they’ve been expressing for years:  namely, that many of the practices that defined the dictatorship continue more or less unabated. bruno cava, a legal theorist, points out in this article (in portuguese) that the current situation is not so much a return to the dictatorship as a reflection of how the current political system in brasil has absorbed both dictatorial repression as well as more democratic instincts that are constantly trying to outdo each other.  these days, unfortunately, the old-school hardliners seem to have the upper hand.

a lot of folks in rio have been reviving marx’s quote that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.”  it’s worth bearing in mind, though, that there’s an ongoing cycle of repetitions at work, and that the distinction between tragedy and farce depends less on the passage of time and more on an observer’s distance from any given event.  as we move on from the world cup, things may slowly be getting back to normal, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting any better.

cavalry cops with swords (and with no id numbers or badges) at the final world cup protests

segunda-feira, 14 de julho de 2014

protesting in rio: the legacy of the world cup

so yesterday’s protest sucked.  it’s important to start off with that because basic rights here are under siege.  yesterday’s protest was like a showcase for exaggeratedly bad policing, a homegrown and fifa-approved smorgasbord of international-grade repression.  free speech is in deep trouble in rio, as is freedom of the press, freedom of movement, and the right to assemble.  meanwhile, we’re drowning in a sea of euphemisms: ideas like “public safety,” “pacification,” and the ubiquitous “progress” are serving either as smokescreens for increasingly violent repression, or as catchphrases to justify it.

photo by mauro pimentel, a photographer for the mainstream news site terra,
as he was being beaten by police
yesterday’s protest was called by a coalition of different groups in an attempt to unify local activists and boost the number of people present.  even so, it was a small crowd of probably 600 people at its peak, obviously reduced by saturday’s “preventative arrests” and the intimidation they provoked.  (the loud and incessant predictions that the brasilian team’s 7 x 1 loss in the semifinals would lead to widespread political instability were never more than a lot of noise).

protestors started to assemble around 1 pm at praça saens peña in tijuca, a couple of miles away from the stadium, and started marching a little more than an hour later.  the praça was surrounded by riot cops from the beginning, and their numbers seemed to keep increasing.  by the time the march began, they outnumbered protestors by a factor of at least two to one.  there were cordons around the marchers as well as in the middle of the march, in addition to barricades of mounted police, motorcycle cops, and ordinary officers on all of the surrounding streets.

policing in rio has always been defined by its brutality, but it’s important to point out that what went down yesterday happened without any real provocation.  none of the protestors threw projectiles or rushed police barriers or skirmished with cops or among themselves (although when groups of cops moved in to search or arrest protestors at random, other protestors would surround them, chanting and monitoring what was going on).  because of the barricades, only about three blocks were available for marching:  the protest moved to the first barricade, reversed course until it ran into the second, and then started to head back, at which point the cops started to unleash the stun grenadres and tear gas (the pepper spray had started earlier in generous but selective doses).
i assume this is tear gas, but i didn't stay long enough to find out
photo by ellan lustosa/a nova democracia
i was at the back of the march, along with a friend with a cracked rib.  we had decided to leave at the first sign of trouble, so as the tear gas bombs started to fly in on three sides of us, we speed-walked in the one direction that was mostly clear.  we managed to slip past one barricade with pleading looks and ours hands high in the air, but one block later, we found ourselves sandwiched between five lines of police with all available exit routes cut off.  pedestrians who were on their way home or leaving apartments or stores in the neighborhood were stuck with us.  the air was mostly clear where we were, but the smell of tear gas kept wafting over, and the sounds of stun grenades and rubber bullets were loud and constant.

friends in the thick of the protest told us later that, although the cops were doing their best to gas and beat everybody into submission, they seemed to be making an especially concentrated effort to go after journalists.  jason o’hara, a canadian documentary filmmaker, was beaten up and had his camera stolen, and at least nine local journalists had their equipment broken or confiscated by cops.  cops also pursued protestors and a large number of totally uninvolved pedestrians (including several little kids) into a subway station, which they tear gassed thoroughly.  presidente, a homeless activist in his 60s, apparently bore the brunt of it.
the tear gas died down once the chanting had stopped and the protestors were sufficiently scattered, but the police barricades just grew.  no one could leave or enter the roughly one-mile radius cops had cordoned off, so all of us who hadn’t left the area at the very beginning of the march – pedestrians and protestors alike –  were essentially under temporary house arrest in the streets surrounding praça saens peña.  without  else anywhere to go, we congregated around the one bar that was open within the “safety zone,” occasionally breaking into chants, but mostly chatting in small groups, and trying to guess when the police would finally let us go. we stayed that way for over three hours; once the germany-argentina game ended, the barricades slowly began to open.

(the bar, of course, was showing the game on two big-screen tvs.  it was almost as though part of the punishment for protesting the cup would be to have to watch the final game with no chance of escape).

an sos for basic rights during our semi-imprisonment
it’s becoming increasingly clear that rio’s cops have protests mapped from the start:  they decide in advance when the tear gas will start to fly and when protestors will be allowed to leave, and then make arrests and use all available pretty much at random.  first, though, they’re working to break protestors and protests before they even begin.  “preventative arrests” is just a euphemism for taking political prisoners, and targeting journalists is an especially ugly and brutal way to make your power felt.  ironically, even the traditionally right-wing mainstream media – which has traditionally pretty much any police action against protestors – has started to criticize the excessive use of force, especially against its colleagues, as "martial law."  but it’s also clear that cops don’t care about bad press as long as they’re controlling and intimidating protestors. 

this is not a question of public safety: given the numbers, yesterday’s march could never have reached maracanã stadium, but it could easily have ended without the tear gas-heavy special effects show.  the new rules in rio seem to guarantee free speech and physical integrity only for protests conducted on the beachfront in copacabana during daylight hours; assuming, that is, that there are enough tourists nearby to keep make excessive force seem uncommonly newsworthy.

a camera belonging to the independent site linhas de fuga, destroyed by cops

everyone in rio has been hearing about the legacy of the world cup for years.  it was sold as the crowning achievement of years of economic growth that would show off brasil as a world player.  at the ground level, though, it’s become an excuse for police violence, censorship, and intimidation.  the games are (finally) over now, and daily life in rio will continue to be much more marked by the crackdown on basic rights in the city’s streets – unquestionably hastened by the cup – than by any of the goals scored in the stadiums. 

photo by guilherme carvalho

domingo, 13 de julho de 2014

human rights and the world cup: an update from rio de janeiro

on the first day of the world cup, i posted something on facebook about how i thought you couldn't watch the games and care about human rights at the same time.  a month later, i wish i had changed my mind.  i would love to say that i've gotten caught up in the spirit of togetherness or just the giant fan-driven street party in rio.  i would love to say that the beauty and emotion of the games had helped me see the light.  but as the cup has gone on, police have gone on killing indiscriminately in rio's favelas; victims include a 3-year-old named luiz felipe who was shot in the face, and a 15-year-old who was killed execution-style (another teenager played dead and escaped).  and protestors in rio have been subject to increased police violence (including live ammunition), arbitrary arrests, and intimidation.  as the games have gone on, the human rights situation in rio and throughout brasil has continued to go downhill, and the cup is directly to blame.

rafael marques lusvarghi, an english teacher in são paulo, is pepper sprayed while immobilized during protests on the first day of the world cup.

yesterday, two of my friends were taken into police custody where they will be held for the next five days, and another has a warrant out in his name for similar treatment, all because of their association with past protests in rio de janeiro. they are musicians, students, public school teachers, and all around good folks, and they were charged with possessing gas masks, or anti-cup pamphlets, or t-shirts connected to local protest groups.  in the last 24 hours, local police have issued at least 60 "preventative" arrest warrants that will let them detain activists for 5 days with no charges, keeping them off the streets and attempting to demoralize and scare the rest of us away from participating in protests scheduled today's final game.

the judge's decree that permits all that is right here.  i don't have time to translate it all, but it authorizes these illegal and unconstitutional arrests for anyone that cops decide is capable of carrying out "extreme violence."

before getting locked up, my friends have been tear gassed, pepper sprayed, beaten up, and dragged by cops.  kids in favelas have been executed execution-style or by stray bullets.  tomorrow marks exactly one year since amarildo went missing, and though we pretty much know for sure that he was tortured to death by a group of "pacifying" cops, his body has never been recovered.  yet activists, not cops, are accused of "extreme violence," and now at least 20 of the 60 warrants have been served, taking activists off the streets for five days to prevent them from carrying signs and chanting.

(meanwhile, a british executive for a fifa-licensed ticket agency who is suspected of perpetrating millions of dollars in fraud was released on a decree of habeus corpus 12 hours after rio cops took him in).

i'm writing this en route to today's protests, so i don't have time to make it polished or especially well-written.  but my point is this:  the world cup has been a fiasco for human rights in brasil since the planning stages, and it's only gotten worse in execution.  the poor and disenfranchised continue to be the prime targets of state-sanctioned violence, and free expression and freedom to assemble - both guaranteed by the brasilian constitution - are arrestable offenses these days.  i wish our experience here had been different, but it's increasingly clear that the beauty and drama on the field can only be maintained by a crackdown against anyone that fifa or the police perceive to be a threat.

so if you're watching the final, i hope you think of my friends who are being held in jailhouses and prisons to prevent them from marching today.  i hope you're thinking of luiz felipe.  their freedom is the price of your spectacle. and i do hope the whole thing leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, because living through the cup has certainly left a bad taste in ours.