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“The Giant awoke“, a chorus that echoed ad eternum by both the streets and the corporate media in June 2013 and definitely entered Brazilian’s political imagination, a country in which giant metaphors were mostly related to the Military Dictatorship (from 1964 to 1985), where it was referred as “the sleeping Giant“, an explicit allusion to the country’s size and it’s economical (undiscovered) potential.
There are several reasons why people have been protesting in most big cities of the country since June but what united diverse professional categories such as educators, students and housewives, was the excessive use of force of it’s military police. Brazil is one of the few countries with it’s police serving under a military regiment, a vestige of the colonial period that has survived even after UN’s strong recommendation of abolishment.
When considering specifically Rio de Janeiro, the agenda of manifestations is diverse, ranging from a better universal public health system, the reduction of public transportation fares, against the eviction of favelas resident’s in areas on the route of the FIFA World Cup in 2014, corruption and others, but one has definitely entered the schedule: police brutality. Still, the excessive use of force has dominated the news, whether in the image of anarchists identified with black bloc’s tactics – mainly by the corporate media – or by the police apparatus, carried by the alternative media.
With the disappearance of a bricklayer in Latin America’s largest favela Rocinha, named Amarildo, with strong evidence of police responsibility, since he was last seen on 14 July entering the Pacification Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) in the favela, allegedly arrested for questioning by military police, things started to change. Suddenly “Where’s Amarildo” could be seen in all protests in the city of Rio, I dare say, in the whole country. The political opportunities system was open: people from different social classes started questioning where he was, as well as the whole system, once unquestionable, of inhumanity perpetrated by police, where poor people in favelas disappear.
Accordingly, middle and upper classes went to the streets to protest against the disappearance, and saw themselves part of the cycle of clashes of violence against the same police. It was said that now other social classes got to know the “repression that existed in favelas and poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro”. And so, it entered the agenda of manifestations: the suppression of the military police, that answers to a strict military regimen, as well as the whole logic of pacific and violent manifestations, altogether with the model implemented by Rio de Janeiro’s governor: the UPPs, police stations based on favelas, that were supposed to protect its residents against drug trafficking, but have been increasingly been identified with corruption, excessive violence, disappearances and even murders.
The historical context of police repression must be taken into account, within Brazilian society’s appeal of demilitarization of its police, since it’s existence is largely dealt within memories of the dictatorship’s legacy, where it emerged as a solution through the extinction of the Public Force and Civil Guard, with a military model. Nevertheless, nowadays, virtually all urban policing in Brazil is done by military police attached to the governments of each state.
Moreover, people are still on the streets and one can’t be sure of the results of such appeals, especially in a country with social and historical problems related to poverty, corruption, violence and abuses of authority. The UPPs have also been related to a significant decrease in violence within the city of Rio de Janeiro, and there are many favela residents that report feeling more safe since its implementation. The conjecture is still moving, and we can’t be sure if the police agenda will resist the fast changing clashes in the city, as well as the country.
Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes is a PhD candidate at IESP-UERJ.