Food for Thought From a Robbery in Rio de Janeiro: Who is the Real Victim?

We were coming back to Rio de Janeiro after a happy day on Ilha de Paquetá, an island in Guanabara Bay outside the city. In a good mood and, in hindsight, perhaps admittedly naïve, we disembarked the ferry and decided to continue home by bike although it was almost midnight. Even though I can clearly be spotted as a gringa (Brazilian slang for foreigner), my friends were locals and all three of us were biking, so we thought it would be okay. 

It turned out we were wrong. 

At one point during the ride, I stopped to wait for my friends that had lagged a bit behind and, while wondering why they were taking so long, I suddenly found myself surrounded by three guys who looked to be about half my age. Before I realized what was going on, i.e. realized that my friends were lagging behind because they were getting robbed by the same guys who were now in front of me, one of them took out a knife and pointed it at me, telling me to give them my bag.

When something like this happens, you can either blame the robbers and the poor security of this city, or you can reflect on what happened and try to get a deeper understanding of the underlying causes. 

To start with, the three robbers were undoubtedly of school age. Though I cannot be certain of their student status, the situation brings attention to a serious problem in Rio: the lack of space to accommodate children in schools. This problem mostly affects people living in the poorer areas of the city — especially the so-called favelas, i.e. the slums. The social inequality in Brazil goes far beyond economic aspects and is closely tied to a racial hierarchy that still reflects the colonial period. This is clearly noticeable in the favelas, which are populated principally by people of colour. Predominantly, the origins of these slums can be traced back to the country’s era of slavery. They are often remnants of places of refuge for escaped slaves or communities of former slaves that emerged with the abolition of slavery. With the absence of mechanisms to integrate former slaves into the labour market, education system, or other institutional structures, many of their descendants remain effectively segregated from Brazlian society. Not only was Brazil the last country in the Western world to end slavery only in 1888, but effects of the colonial period’s slavery system are alive and perceptible in modern day Brazil. 

Although people of colour make up more than 50% of the Brazilian population, the proportion of their representation with regards to politics, education, income, etc. is significantly lower. The state’s lack of successful efforts to erase social inequality maintains the status quo without giving the lower classes the ability to lift themselves out of the poverty that is essentially the result of colonialism. In the favelas, public schools are often full and do not have the capacity for all school-age children, leaving many of the poor residents without chance to send their children to school. By the time of the beginning of the school year in February, the Brazilian news portal G1 reported that Rio’s Secretary of Education officially admitted that there were not enough places for all kids in public schools and that possibly many of them would miss the whole school year. Moreover, public schools are often closed for long amounts of time due to strikes protesting low teacher salaries and the lack of priority given by the government to basic education provided through public funds. Needless to say, this creates an extremely unstable and vulnerable education situation for the lower classes, deepening the country’s social inequality gap even further.

Rio de Janeiro’s inequality in a nutshell: a five-star Sheraton hotel just next to a favela, overlooking the beach (Credit: Åsa Dahlborn)

One might think that a country facing this issue would benefit from more public investment in education so that access to education would become less of a class question. Tragically, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is doing exactly the opposite: cutting the country’s education budget by as much as 30%. Although the cut is principally attacking public universities, significant cuts have been made to the funds for public elementary and high school education, scholarships, literacy programs, etc., which makes education even less accessible and, in increasingly more cases, simply impossible for the lower class to attend. In a country that is already suffering devastating social inequality, both extremes of the social class spectrum are moving even further away from each other. This is remarkably problematic in Brazil since, as mentioned, the social and economic inequality to a high extent includes racial aspects rooted in the country’s history of colonialism. Thus, economic policies that discriminate against the lower classes of society are almost directly discriminating against people of colour. Cutting the budget for public education to a large extent translates into limited education opportunities for people of colour and consequently limited chances for them to reach economic stability in the future.

It is not a surprising phenomenon that people from excluded groups, living in poverty and without access to education, might end up being forced to make a living through illegal means. By increasing police intervention and the severity of punishment of crimes that are in fact consequences of the colonial era, the Brazilian state sustains the elements of these former times through a modus operandi comparable to Louis Althusser’s theory described in his work Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. He explains the “Repressive State Apparatus (RSA)” as follows:

The State is a ‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes (…) to ensure their domination over the working class. (…) The role of the repressive State apparatus, insofar as it is a repressive apparatus, consists essentially in securing by force (physical or otherwise) the political conditions of the reproduction of relations of production which are in the last resort relations of exploitation.

(Althusser, page 1339, 1344) 

The “Repressive State Apparatus” are the centralized legal institutions, such as the police, military, and prison system, that the state has at its disposal in order to maintain the status quo through violent or non-violent means. Althusser’s explanation of the state’s use of repression in order to “ensure their domination over the working class” (Althusser, page 1339) to maintain the conditions of production is clearly reflected in Bolsonaro’s politics that are widening the already deep gap between the social and economic classes. Cutting the education budget is likely to push even more people from the lower class into a situation in which economic survival is only possible through illegal means, which in combination with newly relaxed gun laws presumably aims to catch these people in a trap where they are confronted by a police force ready to violently remove them from society.

“Were they black?”

That was one of the first things the police officer asked me and my friends when we went to the closest police station to report the robbery. At first, I thought the question was to be followed by further questions about the robbers’ appearances, maybe so that the police officer could report the information to a colleague in the area to begin searching for them. That was not the case at all. After being questioned by an evidently uninterested police officer that clearly preferred to have a dialogue with the male representative of our group rather than with me and my other female friend, he gave each one of us a report with all of the information about the robbery and confirmation that we had reported the incident. Already slightly shocked by the fact that the police officer committed an error with regard to such a simple detail as my nationality and registered me as Brazilian instead of Swedish, I was shocked even more by another detail. At the top of the document, together with my main details such as name, nationality, etc., my skin colour was stated. 

Cor: Branca. 

I turned to the next side of the document, which confirmed the skin colour of the robbers along with barely any other information about them. While I understand that it could be relevant to ask about the skin colour of someone who has committed a robbery with the purpose of creating a police sketch in order to search for the suspected person, I can’t think of any good reason for documenting the skin colour of the suspect and the victim in the police’s system. In fact, it is a mechanism that strengthens racial division and gives it a structure on paper. It is a mechanism that is taken advantage of by the police in order to justify their institutionalized discriminatory and violent behaviour against people of colour, ranging from stopping people for unwarranted interrogations on their way to the beach because of their skin color, to “accidentally” killing black people during police operations against drug-trafficking gangs in the favelas. Hence, the fact that a president as encouraging of racism and state violence as Bolsonaro has the police at his disposal is extremely worrying and poses a significant threat to Brazil’s black communities. 

Gun possession laws are clearly a hot topic in Brazil at the moment (Credit: Åsa Dahlborn)

Instead of efforts to combat the root causes of the country’s serious insecurity, Bolsonaro has chosen to address the issue through superficial and violent approaches, such as easing the regulations of gun possession — both for civilians and for the military/police — and relaxing the import restrictions on guns. While his supporters find this desirable for reasons of self-defense, I cannot imagine that these policies could result in anything but a violent disaster, victimizing mainly poor and racialized Brazilians. The more weapons circling around in society, the easier it gets for anyone to have possession of weapons, which obviously increases violence rather than security. Sadly, more weapons will likely end up in the hands of people of the lower classes who, because of the lack of a social support system, will find themselves without other means of survival other than illegal ones, increasing the likelihood of gun violence. Consequently, more armed crimes will be committed, indirectly giving the police green light for an even more violent behaviour in order to “combat the insecurity”. 

The words “Ele Não” (not him) are widely spread all over Brazil in protest against Bolsonaro, here along with “Violência Gera Violência” (violence creates violence) (Credit: Åsa Dahlborn)

Although this sounds like a hopeless situation, I am glad to say that it is not. Bolsonaro might have won the elections, but Brazil is a huge country, and there are millions and millions of people who did not vote for him and refuse to accept his politics. The recent political changes mentioned in this article didn’t pass by with silence: there have been huge and powerful protests against the new laws all over the country. Moreover, legal actions have been taken in protest to the education cuts: the State Court of Bahia, one of the biggest states of Brazil, has ordered the Ministry of Education to stop the university funds blockade. Ex-ministers of different departments of the government are also gathering in order to plan actions against Bolsonaro’s policies, which shows a huge growth of dissent. I have attended a few demonstrations organized by Rio’s student movement and I feel quite confident to say that they will not let themselves be run over that easily. These students manifest an impressive resistance to the recent political crises in Brazil. I am also glad to see the amount of cultural events —  theater performances, art exhibitions, concerts — in the city that are influenced by and align themselves with this resistance. The power of protests, demonstrations, and community organizing shouldn’t be underestimated. In many different contexts, from the Civil Rights Movement in the US to labor struggles across Europe and Asia, protests have changed more than some people might think around the whole world, and taking to the streets has historically been the first step in resisting authoritarian politics such as the ones Bolsonaro is carrying out. The streets are our public space to use our freedom of expression, and in these times we should make good use of them.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes on an Investigation)”. ​The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism ​ edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain and Laurie A. Finke, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 1332-61. p. 1339 & 1344

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