As the movement to defund and abolish the police gains momentum worldwide, community organizers in Brazil, a country that suffers from it’s own scourge of racist police brutality are using the opportunity to bring about change. In Brazil, police forces killed an average of five people per day in Rio de Janeiro in 2019, a rate 6 times higher than that of the United States. Police violence disproportionately affects Black Brazilians, as 80% of those murdered by the police in the first half of 2019 were Black.
Brazil’s police force expanded during the country’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, becoming the well-funded state apparatus it is today. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, who ran with a tough on crime stance, has said criminals “will die like cockroaches” under his rule. He has since passed policies that shield police from lawsuits, which many advocates say has led to a rise in murders at the hands of the police.
I had the privilege of interviewing Giselle Florentino, one of the executive directors of the Rio de Janeiro-based abolitionist organization the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative (IDMJR). The organization’s purpose is to combat racialized state violence in the Baixada Fluminense, a region north of Rio’s city limits. The Baixada is home to approximately 3.7 million people, many of whom live in Favelas. Many of these areas are controlled by police militias, made up of off-duty or retired police officers and soldiers who charge residents fees in order to get access to utilities like water and electricity and are often involved in vigilante and organized crime. They work with local police forces to create instability throughout the region. Giselle and I discussed police abolition in Brazil, the impact of COVID-19, and the intersection between femicide and police brutality.
Latina Republic: What is your role in the organization?
Giselle Florentino: I am an economist and one of IDMJR’s two executive directors, alongside Fransérgio Goulart. Together, we oversee all of the organization’s programs. I focus on data collection and analysis, specifically related to state violence and political advocacy in the Baixada Fluminense.
LR: What is IDMJR’s mission and what are the organization’s main activities?
GF: IDMJR was created to combat state violence and seeks to challenge the public safety policies in place. We recognize that racism is systemic and shapes the everyday lives of Black communities in perifeiras [low-income suburbs] and favelas across Brazil. All of our advocacy stems from that recognition and is the reason why our programs seek to build public safety policies that serve as alternatives to police and respect the rights of state violence victims and their families. We hope our fight for the right to memory will mean that the next generation will not die at the hands of the police.
Our team is interdisciplinary and includes people with a range of backgrounds. Together, we fight against narratives that strengthen state violence and work together in an anti-racist struggle. We work in three different areas: 1) education, programming, and debate, 2) political and legal advocacy and 3) data on state violence.
We lead workshops, courses, conversation circles, and other activities that foster debate. We hope that through these programs, the Baixada community will no longer see state violence and other human rights violations as a normal part of everyday life. Our policy advocacy and legal teams ensure that any questions the community may have about policies and legal processes are answered and helps individuals sue for damages. Our international team investigates and brings attention to instances when Brazil’s police or military forces violate international human rights accords. We also collect data and release reports about urban and state violence quarterly, emphasizing the impacts Baixada residents face. This information is readily available to community members and serve as counter-narratives that give power back to communities and delegitimize the extremist narratives already in place.
LR: I noticed IDMJR works with organizations like Mulheres Negras Decidem (Black Women Decide) and has worked on campaigns that tackle femicide and violence against LGBTQ+ communities. How does IDMJR approach collaboration?
GF: Femicide cases in the Baixada have skyrocketed as militia control has expanded. The number of femicide attempts tripled in 2019. In 2019 alone, 84 femicides were registered in Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 30% of these murders occurred in the Baixada Fluminense, representing a total of 23 deaths. Most of the women who are murdered are Black, poor, and residents of favelas and perifeiras.
We have collected data and released reports that tell the stories of the survivors and victims in favelas and perifeiras. We can’t confront femicide without understanding the government’s public safety policy. The country’s policy is based on institutional racism and promotes the genocide of Black people every day.
Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries for LGBTQ+ communities, and the current presidency’s rhetoric has only led to more violence. A study by Grupo Conexão G found that LGBTQ+ people living in Rio’s favelas are hunted by traffickers, militia members and police in the communities where they live. Through interviews and surveys, they found that many in the community are beaten and forcibly exiled from favelas after torture sessions.
IDMJR knows how important it is to work with local social movements to strengthen mobilization efforts and transform favela and periferia communities. We can only survive and build a better future if we come together in community and class solidarity, to support one another as our neighborhoods are gradually militarized and as militia power becomes more and more solidified. IDMJR hopes to build bonds of affection and mutual aid, which is what our Us for Us program is all about.
Read their Femicide Newsletter to learn more: https://dmjacial.com/dados/
LR: Many supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States are calling for divestment and the abolition of the police, as many other reforms throughout the years have failed. What kind of change does IDMJR push for?
GF: A public budget increasingly directed towards public safety results in intensified confrontations, more operations, shootings, and murders in slums and perifeiras. Every day that passes, police around the world become more violent and aggressive. This violence, a kind of everyday genocide, has always targeted a very specific population, working-class Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant communities in favelas and perifeiras. A population that has been historically oppressed and characterized as the enemy.
Rio de Janeiro’s government spends $12 billion reais on its public safety policy, most of which goes to our militarized police. This is more than what is given to fund health, education, and other social services. The state spends more on militarization and incarceration, a genocidal policy than it does in sectors that can guarantee a better quality of life.
There have been several attempts to reform the police, through improvements in police training, the creation of use of force policies and the use of non-lethal material. They have all failed. For a simple reason, there is no possibility of reforming, improving, or humanizing an institution that was created to kill people. We are talking about a government institution that invades houses in favelas and perifeiras, humiliates workers inside their own homes, that shoots into homes from helicopters – often during school hours. An institution programmed to generate mass incarceration and the everyday genocide of Black people.
The police exists to repress, coerce, and control. We need to remember this and think strategically about who are allies and enemies are in this struggle. We can’t make the same mistakes we have made in the past, we cannot believe that reforms to the police system and the state will be successful. Just as it is not possible to create a more humanized capitalism, it is not possible to create a more humane police.
We can only bring an end to police brutality by bringing an end to the police as an institution, which needs to be at heart an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-patriarchal struggle. We cannot enter the conversation of police reform, it will not bring about change. The debates around systemic racism are rigorous and layered, and they are making the end of policing a possibility in a Brazilian context, which is currently marked by drug trafficking militarization.
LR: Has COVID-19 impacted IDMJR’s approach to advocacy? How?
GF: We suspended all of our in-person programs due to COVID-19 as we believe that social distancing is the best way to prevent spread. IDMJR knows that even when the state does not shoot us, it kills us with hunger and unemployment. So, we contacted the Ford Foundation and Saap da Ong Foundation to see if we could shift some of our grant budgets to support those most impacted by COVID-19. We created an emergency aid campaign that provided water and food donations as well as cleaning kits to people in 4 Baixada Fluminense municipalities: Mesquita, Japeri, Queimados, and Belford Roxo.
We also just started a campaign called “Us for Us,” which gives financial assistance (around $100 reais) to mothers and family members of state violence victims. We believe that people deserve autonomy and dignity, and hope that this financial assistance will help. We see this program as a way to collaborate with state violence victims in the fight against police brutality, as the mothers of victims are often at the forefront, facing and fighting police brutality every day.
LR: I understand IDMJR recently conducted research on policing during the pandemic. What did you find? How has the pandemic impacted policing in Favela and Perifeira communities in Rio?
GF: Militias made up of retired or off-duty police officers and soldiers have taken over the Baixada and many other low-income areas in Rio de Janeiro. In militia-controlled neighborhoods, residents must pay the militia “taxes” to get access to utilities like water and electricity. Many now sell drugs and guns as well. When international travel, borders, and airports shut down due to the pandemic, it directly impacted the international trade of drugs and arms. This made the intimate relationship between the police, the militias, and political organizations clear, be that through their flawed police “investigations” or direct negotiation with faction leaders and large arms trade organizations.
IDMJR heard that some militia factions closed operations due to the pandemic. This was short-lived as they decided to open up and continue collecting “taxes.” We believe the alliance between militias and the neo-Pentecostal community now involved in politics in the Baixada Fluminense is what led to the expansion of COVID-19 and the collapse of the publicly funded healthcare system (SUS), as they sought to bring down social distancing measures to ensure greater reliance on the militias.
The pandemic did not lead to a reduction in police presence in perifeiras and favelas. Our politicians continued to support militarization during the lockdown, which has only led to the death in Black, poor, favela, and periferia communities. A month after the stay at home orders were put in place by Wilson Witzel [Rio de Janeiro’s governor], there were 58 police operations in Baixada Fluminense, with a total of 5 dead and 15 injured, according to official information collected by the police. After 90 days in quarantine, IDMJR found that there were 105 police operations in Baixada Fluminense with 23 people murdered and 42 wounded. There were a total of 41 police operations in Belford Roxo over three months, it was the area with the highest concentration of police presence during the lockdown.
Racial inequality in Brazil can be seen in the way homicide rates disproportionately impact Black communities. Every 23 minutes, a young black man is murdered in Brazil. Every year, 23,100 young Black people aged 15 to 29 are killed. The homicide rate among Black youth is almost 4 times higher than that among white youth. In Rio de Janeiro, a lot of violence is concentrated in the Baixada Fluminense region. More than 18,000 murders have occurred in the Baixada over the past 10 years.
We signed on to the ADPF Case 635 filed in November of 2019 by a coalition of organizations and movements. This petition gave Rio de Janeiro state officials 90 days to make policy changes that would reduce police violence and reduce human rights violations. On June 5, the Brazilian supreme court decided to suspend police operations for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a victory for everyone living in favelas and perifeiras!
LR: How can readers support IDMJR’s work?
GF: You can visit our social media and website to participate in discussions, and provide monetary support to help us confront COVID-19 in the Baixada Fluminense.
Featured Image Credits: @laisdant4s
Maria Hernandez Pinto | Pitzer College
Maria is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Foreign Languages at Pitzer College, where she is a rising junior. Born in Guatemala to Colombian parents, Maria has always been deeply invested in Latin American issues. She is passionate about Latin American politics, human rights, and community development. She is looking forward to using storytelling as a tool for advocacy while writing about Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela as a Latin American Correspondent. Maria is excited to highlight and learn from the important work being done by local organizations in the region and hopes to bring Latin American voices to the forefront.