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

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