Brazil: Workers fight back against poverty and state violence in the favellas

Eyewitness account of how capitalism brings tragedy and violence to Brazil’s poor

The anticipated brutal response by Brazil’s hated Military Police (PM) to the wave of violence unleashed by the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in Sao Paulo on the 12 May was not long in coming. In a period of only twelve hours between the 15 – 16 May the PM gunned down thirty-three “suspects”. Over the next few days over one hundred were killed. The PM failed to release the details of those they had shot. The reason soon became obvious. Many of those gunned down by the PM had no links at all with the PCC or any other group linked to organised crime and drug dealing, kidnapping and other activities.

Amongst the victims was Ricardo Flauzino, a 22 year-old young worker. He was executed in Jardim Filhos da Terra, a working class district in the north of Sao Paulo by a tactical response unit of the PM and had no link with the PCC. More than three hundred participated in a spontaneous protest in this district. The youth were so enraged that they copied some of the methods of the PCC. They stopped a bus, got the passengers and driver off it before setting it alight as a means of getting publicity for their protest.

In the following few days Sao Paulo was awash with heavily armed PM road blocks. PM officers stood armed at checkpoints often with pistols drawn and on occasions pointing them at passing motorists. On a journey to Rio de Janeiro the bus I traveled on was stopped on two occasions by police. On both occasions, one unfortunate passenger, an older black worker, had his luggage searched.

Military Police brutality

The renowned brutality of the PM against young people coupled with the horrific poverty that exists in the favellas on the periphery of Sao Paulo ensured that a certain sympathy for the PCC developed amongst some layers of the youth. The overwhelming majority of people have blamed either the state or the government for the wave of violence. In one poll, 55% of people held the justice system responsible for the crisis. Over 39% hold Lula responsible and 37% blame the former Sao Paulo governor and Presidential candidate for the capitalist Party of Social Democracy, Brazil (PSDB).

These events have terrified a section of the ruling class who fear that the consequences of neo-liberal policies have gone too far and are now threatening their interests. The current governor of Sao Paulo, Claudio Lembo, a member of the right-wing Liberal Front Party (PFL) warned that “the white elite is responsible… if it does not open its hands and distribute some of its wealth then Brazil faces the threat of barbarism”.

Such statements, although made for opportunist electoral reasons are also a warning of the threat of a social explosion which exists in Brazil. Violence and death at a young age are part of daily life in the Brazilian favellas in which millions live. In Sao Paulo, the scale and scope of the poverty and violence is partly masked to the outsider. The favellas in greater Sao Paulo are usually out on the periphery of this mega city of twenty million people.

Commentators often refer to Brazil as “BelIndia”, a mixture of Indian poverty with the development found in Belgium and other European countries. In Rio de Janeiro the stark reality of “BelIndian” society is evident in the heart of the city. Here massive favellas have been constructed side by side with the plush, spacious houses of the wealthy middle class who live imprisoned in gated estates, protected by armed guards to keep out the poor and the desperate.

Violence, crime, drugs are endemic. Forget the tourist magazines and images of Copacabana beach. Rio is a city of grinding poverty where an estimated 60% of the population is herded into more than 700 favellas around the city. It is a living hell.

Even the middle class cannot escape the consequences of the poverty. “Balas perdidas” or “lost bullets” frequently result in injury or worse as the innocent are caught in the cross fire of gun battles. This results in bullets penetrating houses and cars behind the gated estates next to the favellas.

Together with two members of the Socialismo Revoluccionario (Brazilian section of the CWI) we headed north on the metro to visit one of the favellas in Acari. Although the train announcements are in Portuguese and English, few tourists venture in this direction unless they get lost. The train passes what appear to be derelict, windowless old factories and other buildings with clothes hanging from bits of string. This is home for the youth hanging around on the top of these multi-storey blocks where women are trying to keep things as clean as they can, washing the few clothes they posses.

At Acari we are met by another comrade of Socialismo Revolucionario, Deley de Acari, an older worker with a long history of struggle in the Workers’ Party (PT) and workers movement in the 1970s. Deley has lived in this favella for more than thirty years.

“Foot soldiers”

Without him it would be impossible to enter. At the entrance of the favella and at key junctions are groups of youth. A closer look and they have walkie talkies and are all armed with guns. They control who goes in and who comes out. As we approach each group Delay has to check that we have permission to pass.

Walking up the “street” with shacks, some built of wood, some of concrete, youth are either on foot or on motorcycles and many have pistols either in holsters or just brandish them in their hands. These are known as the “soldiers”. They are the foot soldiers of the drug dealers. With the guns, motorcycles and some money in their pockets they are drawn into drug trafficking and can sometimes win “respect” and authority in an otherwise hopeless situation.

However, Deley is keen to point out that only a small minority of youth in the favella become “soldiers”. But once in, there is no escape for them. Here, like other favellas, the violence is endless. Most of it however comes not from the “soldiers” but the vicious repression meted out by the Rio Military Police (PM) who are even more brutal than in Sao Paulo. In Acari, where about 50,000 live, at least two people are killed every week. The Rio police have been trained by other state machines with experience of brutal repression. Officers of the PM in Rio were sent to Israel to learn techniques used to repress the Palestinian people.

Deley has arranged for us to meet one of the many mothers who have had their children murdered by the police. Many of the victims are “collateral damage” – innocent youth and children caught in the cross fire between the PM and the “soldiers”. The police are also involved in drug trafficking and take their own kick-backs. For a fee, the “soldiers” can be left with a free hand.

We meet Creuza, in her small undecorated concrete house. Creuza explains the the PM for their part, see all youth in the favella as drug traffickers or violent criminals. Sitting on the floor, with tears running down her face, she recounts the story of how Rafael, her 16 year old son was shot by the police. Clutching a plastic bag she produces which contains mementos of his short life – some photos and the note he had left her just saying he was going to work – she explains what has happened since the death of her son. Almost inevitably Rafael was black. He had got a job as a bus conductor and was able to give her some money for the first time towards food. After a few weeks the press lost interest and they could get not press coverage. With Deley’s help she had organised a quite heroic campaign and managed to get witness statements which resulted in the prosecution of two policemen.

No health care

Yet while the police have been in court judgment can take up to a year. Any prosecution of the police is extremely rare especially given the threats and intimidation by the police against witnesses. The trauma of these events, trigger panic attacks in Creuza. For these there is no medical support available in the favella. This is one of the issues that Deley and the network of families against violence is now fighting to win. After recounting her own story, Creuza wanted to know what had happened in London when the Brazilian worker Jean Charles was shot by the police under the pretext of being a terrorist suspect and about the events in France and the repression of immigrant youth which had triggered the social explosions in 2005.

Rafael was not the only youth to be killed in Acari. We were also told of the eight year old who was running down the street and was shot by the police. At a later meeting, an older worker, Ze Luis told of the hunger strike he had held outside the town hall in Rio in protest at the death of his two year old son. This hunger strike was taken up by the MST (the landless movement) during one of its protests. At this later meeting which the SR had organized other issues of violence were raised in the discussion.

A health worker, Bobby argued that the absence of health care was another form of violence. He also wanted to know if it was possible to be a socialist and a Christian as he regarded himself as both and that Jesus was the first revolutionary socialist. In Acari in the last few years a whole series of “churches” have been opened. Up to 90 in this favella alone now exist. These are just small huts or houses. The swing to the right and collapse of the PT and other organizations of the working class and social movements in many favellas has left a massive vacuum.

P-SOL (Party of Socialism and Liberty – the new broad socialist party that Socialismo Revolucionario, CWI in Brazil, is helping to build in Brazil) still has to prove that it is capable filling it. P-SOL will need to campaign for a real socialist alternative and also build a base of activists in the work places and communities like Acari.

This work is beginning to be done by members of SR in Acari. A part of this is to link the struggles in favellas like Acari with the other s struggles of workers in Brazil and internationally. The struggles of the homeless in Kazakhstan, the recent movements in France, Germany, Britain and other countries are discussed and reports distributed to activists in the favella by Deley and other members of the SR.

Chico Mendes Camp

In Sao Paulo members of SR, which leads the teachers union, APEOESP, in Taboao, have organized solidarity with the camp of homeless people, called “Chico Mendes”. At its peak this camp organised an occupation of land and built temporary homes for over 1,000 people. Before speaking at a meeting there, I, together with members of SR, were shown around the camp by one of its organisers, Marcos. This struggle was organized by the MTST which is the organisation of the homeless linked to the MST movement in the countryside. The MTST has incorporated some of the methods of struggle in the countryside into the struggle of the homeless in the cities.

The camp has involved the construction of homes, meeting rooms, kitchens and even a crèche. It is broken down into “brigades” which discuss all of the common problems of running the camp, like lighting, water supply and security. These “brigade” meetings then elect representatives to a committee to run the camp as a whole. At the beginning they considered organizing a common kitchen but this became too difficult to organise. Groups of families now get together and arrange the cooking. But Marcos emphasizes that nobody in the camp will be left without food if they need it. A 12 day protest in front of the city hall in Sao Paulo forced the city government to agree to grant some concessions and offer some houses and flats to some involved at the camp. Over 250 people are currently left on the camp and waiting for houses. Political education meetings have been a feature at this and other camps. These have included discussions on the history of the workers movement.

At Chico Mendes camp, Marcos explained that they have managed to keep drug traffickers out of the camp. However, the threat of violent attack has been ever present but mainly from the police. The PM regularly swoops and illuminates the entire camp with spotlights as a means of trying to intimidate activists. Shots are fired indiscriminately into the camp.

The neoliberal polices implemented by Lula and the PT-led government have been a disaster for the working class of Brazil. To ensure that the poverty and misery which blights the lives of millions in Brazil are ended, it is urgent that a mass socialist alternative is built. P-SOL has the opportunity to build such a force. The SR is fighting for this party to adopt a genuine socialist programme and build such an alternative. For this reason it is also urgent to strengthen the SR in P SOL.

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