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Network of Mothers Against State Violence: An Interview with Mônica Cunha

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Amnesty International’s State of Human Rights in the World Report, released last month, describes Brazil’s ongoing impunity with regard to police violence, and the increase in police violence levels in general, specifically in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Last year, more than 3,000 people nationwide were killed by on duty police, an increase of 37% compared to 2013, according to Amnesty.

Ten years ago, Mônica Cunha lost her son, Rafael da Silva Cunha, to police violence when he was 20 years old. From the moment Rafael entered the criminal justice system at 15, Mônica became active in the pursuit of reform and in support of other mothers with children in the system. We sat down with Mônica at the Network of Communities Against Violence headquarters to talk about her life, her path as an activist and leader, the movement to reform the penal system, and the qualities and challenges of being a woman activist in Brazil.

Between questions, Mônica advised a member of the Network on a case of domestic violence, she received a call about the birth of a baby girl–and commented, in her words, “another black warrior woman for the struggle,” and then congratulated a technician working on the Internet for being a woman in a male-dominated field. Please read RioOnWatch’s exclusive interview with Mônica this International Women’s Day.

RioOnWatch: Where were you born?

Mônica: I was born here in Rio, I was born in Botafogo. I joke with my girlfriends that I’m a South Zone girl but I’m already 51, and I’ve lived mostly in Baixada Fluminense and the North Zone. I was born in the South Zone, but I only stayed there until I was 15.

RioOnWatch: What is the Network of Communities Against Violence movement?

Mônica: This space consists of mothers and families who have had loved ones killed by the State. The Network was formed due to a massacre 12 years ago in Morro do Borel. The first mobilization was called “Can I identify myself?” It was in response to a massacre of five young people who could not be identified afterwards due to the conditions. [The police] branded the men by writing on their chests, alleging they were bandits, they were traffickers, and they killed them. And they were not. They were just young, Borel residents who were murdered by the police. All of these people, the relatives of favela massacres, were made aware of what happened and were outraged that people kept dying, over and over, in their favelas, and so they decided to join the cause.

[The Network] has this space, which is a space far away from the community, away from the favela, far from any place that could be dangerous places. It is a neutral place. People here are not separated by factions [and the logic that] “I’ll just receive victims from a certain place.” No! Here we work with victims from the whole of Rio de Janeiro state. Have you suffered any violation by the state of Rio? If so, you belong to the Network Against Violence.

And the idea of the Network is also to be a core partner to centers being created inside specific favelas that give support within their own communities to family members who had a relative murdered. From the moment that they receive a victim, they make contact with us, and we start a partnership. We try to progress together, so that’s really cool. It lets go a little of the centralization. The Network does not have to be centralized. You have to teach the favela how to deal with their own victims, and that is what the Network is doing. So this is also an expectation for 2016 and 2017, because today there are already centers in Manguinhos, Cantagalo, Alemão, Pavão-Pavãozinho, Borel, and Jacarezinho, but we want to continue expanding to others.

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RioOnWatch: In what other ways does the Network provide support to families?

Mônica: Sometimes we need to take someone in who is suffering a violation immediately, someone facing persecution, who is being threatened. So we take care of them here for one or two days and then find another place for them to go. It’s an immediate response… we take in people who receive police threats. This is real, because sometimes the person who was victimized really wants to talk, really wants to identify who it was and ends up negatively affected. Other times the person didn’t experience the victimization personally, but perhaps saw a neighbor or someone else victimized and is tired of seeing it, so now this person has to speak out. When this happens the person is risking their own life. Because if the state will kill you, will it protect you? What security do you have? The state has a witness protection program, but today the program is a failure. We can’t trust it.

RioOnWatch: Why are you in the Network? Why are you in this fight?

Mônica: I was part of the Network’s birth. But not because I had a loved one murdered at that time. I am the very proud mother of three sons. And I was an extremely proud mother of Rafael da Silva Cunha, who at age 15, became a teen who committed a nonviolent crime. And with that my struggle began.

But at the time I had a life quite different to typical families with adolescents who commit misdemeanors. I was considered middle class. My children were studying at a private school and I lived a reasonable financial situation, so I thought this type of thing wouldn’t happen to me, that I had no relation to it.

We also know there’s a part of this society that is more vulnerable to becoming the perpetrator of a crime because of how difficult life can be here. As much as I’m telling you about my means at that time, I was a single mother. I had to support my kids, so I had to go out every day. This is a sexist country and we still suffer prejudices from this, so it was no different for me. I had to be a single mother and in that sense I had to educate my children, I had to work to support them, and they were left alone. And as they were no longer children but teenagers, they had to shape their lives by themselves.

So I had this unpleasantness of having a child within the Rio de Janeiro Department of General Socio-Educational Action (DEGASE) youth correctional system, where I discovered a reality that I hadn’t known. I really didn’t even know it existed, because it’s very easy when you only see it on television or in the newspaper.

So I started to understand everything that I understand a bit more now: What leads these teenagers to commit offenses? There are several reasons. It is a lack of love, yes. Because the woman who works hard has everything on her shoulders. Because the woman performs multiple functions, then these multiple functions do not allow her the right to be free 24 hours attending to her children, watching over her kids like we should. We do not have these opportunities; we always have to struggle in this capitalist country where everything has a price, everything has a value. You have the value of how much you can do, then you end up hurting those we love most, our family, our children that we had out of love. This happened to me.

RioOnWatch: How did your activism start? What was the process?

Mônica: I had to understand this process in my life. I had to get to know the Child and Adolescent Statute. I had to learn that even the teenager who commits a crime has rights and isn’t a bandit like people say. He wasn’t a monster, he wasn’t an animal. I hadn’t given birth to an animal, I hadn’t given birth to a monster. I gave birth to a human being. I gave birth to a child, that came with a lot of love, a lot of affection. I gave him lots of love. I did everything like any other woman, like any other mother would do.

So from that point on, with this interest and engagement, my activism started. It wasn’t my intention. My intention was to end my son’s criminal acts. It was to free my son from that system. This was my intention but it opened up a way for me. We [women] are always leaders because who controls the house is the woman. I had this leadership inside my four walls there in my little life. I wasn’t born a woman leader of the movement, I wasn’t born a woman that inspires others to fight for their rights. When this woman was born, it made me so proud.

Monica Cunha at work_resize

RioOnWatch: What were the first things you noticed visiting the DEGASE unit?

Mônica: There were three things I saw in the queues that called my attention. The first was the color. They were all black the same as me, so I soon realized that black women were the ones who suffer the most. It was the children of these women that were incarcerated. The second was that these women had low levels of schooling. They had life knowledge because all of them were working, but they all had little education. They didn’t know how to read. I had a little bit more schooling than them. At that time I still only had primary school. Today I have completed high school and technical courses.

I stood on a rock and started to read the Statute for the other mothers. An agent had given me the Statute and said I would find the answers to my questions there. I started to read it alone and really understand. I saw the necessity of the others also knowing, I said to myself “Am I the only one that needs to know this? My son isn’t there alone! The others also have to know.” I’d go to this rock. I’d ask them to arrive early, all of them with the things that we took to our children:, biscuits, lunch and such. We put our bags on the ground and continued standing. I stood on the rock and started reading the parts of the Statute about youth that commit offenses.

Finally, the other thing I noticed was that fathers in that moment didn’t exist. There was a line of 40 or 50 mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and maybe two or three fathers. So where were these men? Their presence makes a difference and they weren’t there. They hide; they’re cowards. It’s not just the state that violates us, humiliates us, oppresses us, but the men who are the fathers of our children, rarely are they with us, rarely are they partners. If they are fathers, friends, companions, they should come with us.

RioOnWatch: And how was it that by reading the Statute to the other mothers the Moleque Movement was born?

Mônica: In article 227 of the Statute it says that all human beings, all adolescents, all children, have rights: to have dignified housing, education, and to life with a family. Even if he has committed a crime, he cannot be treated the same as an adult gangster criminal. He doesn’t serve a sentence, and the socio-educational methods should be there to rehabilitate this teenager into society. This was a watershed moment, not just for me but for the other women too. We understood what had happened to us and from these articles of the Statute, we began to question: why? When a favela resident is beaten or cursed by the police, it’s not unintentional. Why does this not happen [to teens] in Leblon? This has a why. It is this why you have to look for.

The state takes our children, the state takes our money, the state oppresses us, but it can’t take our knowledge. It only takes that when it kills us. And the knowledge we have when we get together with university learning becomes much stronger, even when the mothers and families don’t have a college education. The mother’s knowledge is very strong because it’s carried in your body, your soul, your skin, the pain of being violated. What this woman has to say and show is very strong because she has to make a difference. This is how the Moleque Movement was born. It doesn’t have its own space and it is one of the movements within the Network.

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RioOnWatch: What is your opinion of DEGASE?

Mônica: DEGASE should be a rehabilitation unit. I don’t think it is. On the contrary it prepares adolescents—not to become bandits—but to commit petty crimes. They’re not bandits. The real bandits are in Brasília with white collars and ties. That’s the gangster. No. The DEGASE unites prepare teenagers to be killed. And today things are so bad that boys aren’t even going into the DEGASE unit because they’re dying first.

It’s not to become gangsters. There isn’t a way for them to become gangsters. They’re not drug lords. They’re not the ones who get the drugs in their homes. They’re not the ones who go and get the drug traffic’s guns. These boys hardly even know the favela where they live. They don’t even go to the shopping mall near their homes. How can they go to Paraguay, Colombia, get drugs, get guns from the United States? They’re not the gangsters that society thinks they are.

RioOnWatch: Where did Rafael grow up? What was he like? What did he like to do?

Mônica: Rafael was raised in the North Zone, in the Riachuelo neighborhood.
Look, Rafeal was gorgeous. He was mixed race and had green eyes. He was beautiful. He loved life. We had this in common, both being Virgos. It’s a characteristic of Virgos – we love life. My son had this love of life. He was a real ladies man, and he was respectful as far as possible. He really didn’t think teenagers could be rehabilitated, even after he became a young man because when he went through the system he saw how outrageous it was. He’d say to me: “Mom, no one gets out of there, no one manages to get out to work and live a normal life.” He was caring. I remember on Mother’s Day he led the morning parade to wish me Happy Mother’s Day, running toward me with a present made at school because he wanted to be the first to give his present. He was my partner, my friend, the first person to take me to a funk party. Not that the others aren’t my friend, but he was more so.

RioOnWatch: How did he die? How did it happen?

Mônica: My son was killed on December 5, 2006. He was on his knees. It happened in Riachuelo, which has two favelas, Rato Molhado and Jacaré. He was killed there between one favela and the other, on his knees in the middle of the street by Civil Police officers. There wasn’t a shootout. They tried to register it an “auto de resistência” [the term for deaths caused when suspects resist arrest], but it wasn’t, it was a summary execution. It is summary execution when the person is on his knees, one person above the other with a gun. He was called Rafael de Silva Cunha and he was 20 years old. He started committing crimes at 15 and was killed aged 20. He lasted five years in that life.

RioOnWatch: How did Rafael’s death affect you?

Mônica: At the time it was a huge blow, as it clearly is for all of us. But for me, since I came from this movement, I had been almost positive that I had my son to serve as a lesson for others. When he was killed I was lost in time, in the moment. I didn’t take the appropriate action that today I make a point of advising and orienting all mothers to take which is to get justice. I didn’t do this, not out of weakness or fear, but because I was devastated, completely devastated. I isolated myself. Even though I belonged to the movement, I insisted on isolating myself and not letting anyone get close to me. I went into a very deep depression. I had my youngest son, today he’s 22 but at the time was 12. I tried to fill the gap with him as a way to forget and the years passed by like this.

The pain is deep. “Ah it’s not a physical pain.” It is a physical pain, I’m telling you. The pain in my soul, the pain in my bones, the pain in my head–I developed real illnesses. I say that the State gives you a full kit: depression, panic attacks, cancer. It’s a kit.

RioOnWatch: What was the impact on your family? On your community?

Mônica: It had a huge impact, huge. The impact is devastating for everyone. I was in a relationship with his father, but when it happened… well, you keep wanting to find people to blame. Not just the state, but in that first moment you want to find people around you to blame. You feel guilty because you weren’t there at that moment, you weren’t there to grab the police officer’s hand and take his gun. You feel guilty because you weren’t with his father… He could have done something if he were by your side.

There’s so much blaming that you put it on yourself. At the time everyone… my mother, father, uncle, anyone who didn’t help me I blamed. I was very alone trying to get him away from crime, so when he was killed I was outraged with the world. I refused to seek help in that moment and that was when I became ill. It’s not that you don’t get ill when you have support, because the pain is so deep, but I felt even worse pain.

RioOnWatch: How did you resolve to continue in the struggle with all this pain?

Mônica: Now, I had to make this struggle a real fight because you look at yourself and look at your young child and see that he needs you. Also, cell phones already existed and I had mothers calling me saying they needed me and needed my strength. It was this that pulled me out of the hole. I gained strength to be in the fight again. And so I went, stumbling along because I’ll never be whole again. I say that like this we can’t have happiness. We have happy moments. But we have to survive like this, because after you lose a child, you survive. Every day will be another day.

I’m the mother of two other children and have six grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is 15 years old. The youngest is Valentina who’s two months old. There are all these people who I love very much, who I want to see grow up and marry. I want to believe, I need to believe, that my family can carry on normally. That I have my children, they grow up, become adults, marry, leave home, build their families – the normal cycle of life. I don’t want to believe that what happened to me, having a child killed and die before me, that this is normal. This is not normal.

To get here today, I need these people [from the Network], I need to be here, I need to be together with them. Today it’s not just something I do because I enjoy it or because I admire the work. It’s because I need to do this and don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t know how to live without being part of this movement. This movement takes care of me and keeps me alive. The more I learn, the more I can pass on. It’s the movement that sustains us and keeps us on our feet, because we all have other children, we all have families. We’re wives, lovers, women, some have degrees, we’re workers, grandmothers, aunts–how does this other side of life continue? Only this union makes us able to understand and continue.

Mônica, second from right, with relatives of victims of police violence

RioOnWatch: What do you think is different about the experience of being a woman activist?

Mônica: We believe that a woman can change her story – she can change. How does this happen? Through bringing this knowledge, taking that woman from inside her home, making her coffee and listening to the radio and showing her she can be empowered. It’s showing her a Statute, the constitution, and that these bodies exist. It’s showing her that she has to make demands. It’s showing her that we are the public. The public isn’t an abstract thing, it’s us! This money is taken from our pockets. And so this woman makes the difference, with her son and her husband. You have to seek it. This is the main aim of Moleque and the Network.

It’s placing this woman on the frontline, but this empowered woman doesn’t let men or society encourage this idea that women only go out to shout and fight. No. Women shout for their rights, for their children, for their husbands. When a man is imprisoned it’s the woman who visits. When a child is imprisoned it’s the woman who visits. When a child dies, the first person at the funeral is the woman. So this woman fights for her rights, for her being.

And the desire, as I’ve said, is the power to be born again through knowledge, because when this woman starts to know her rights and options, she changes. She doesn’t do this alone. She brings multitudes of women together: her daughter, her cousin, she makes coffee and a snack and passes on all that she’s learned. I think this experience of exchange that we have is fabulous. I think it’s very rich that a woman never wants to keep the knowledge she’s learned just for herself–she insists on passing it on, and without needing to know the person or have a connection! She’s at the bus stop and you’re crying and she’s there!

RioOnWatch: And the challenges?

Mônica: Look, the challenge is being a woman in this country today. Always, not just today. Always. Today it’s a bit better because we have access to knowledge. We didn’t in the past. Then we were totally oppressed by the father, grandfather, then by the husband and even the son when he became a man. Today no. Today we go for ourselves. There can be an oppression, but we go. We get together, we protest. But it’s difficult being a mother, very difficult. And particularly being a black woman, that’s even more difficult because the black woman has the color of her skin which brings racial discrimination. In this society having her body and black color is an even greater challenge. Every day you have to prove that you’re a black woman but you work hard, you have rights, you have the right to live, to give birth, you have the right to raise your children, you have the right to work and earn a decent salary, you have the right to get involved with politics. The challenge is a lot greater as a black woman.

RioOnWatch: What is the most important message you would give to a young person frustrated with the way things are or is interested in engaging in social issues?

Mônica: I think this teenager, this young person, needs to understand: What is this place? What city is this? That some can and others can’t? Why is it that the mayor or the governor of Rio de Janeiro prohibit youth, children and adolescents, that live in favelas or the Baixada or North Zone from frequenting the South Zone beaches? Why is that? Why does the mayor order puddles, not beaches, to be made in Madureira and Ramos? Because he’s nice and wants us to have fun? No, because they want to create an apartheid.

When these youth have the awareness that they are human beings, they have rights, that the city and the state are theirs, something changes. When human beings, mainly women, are more empowered and put themselves out there more to try and end this separation, you can be sure that we’ll actually take power. But with consciousness, not taking power for the sake of it, but with consciousness.

RioOnWatch: How would you like to see the presence of the police in the community? What would be your ideal for public security?

Mônica: First, removing the police. This police isn’t about public security, not here and not in China. For the love of God why are the police in the community? The plans when the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) program was launched were very beautiful. But in practice this became a disgrace. The UPP is nothing more than a killing police. It can’t exist this way, going into the schools inside the favela, terrifying the students.

Obviously it will be very difficult for the police not to exist in Rio, in Brazil. I even think this is a utopia. But it shouldn’t exist in this form. This form doesn’t work. This form just kills, mutilates, destroys. And there’s only one group within society that is affected: poor, black favela residents. It’s just for us. So let’s start experimenting a police that’s like that for everyone, because once it starts affecting them the same way it affects us, they will want to make it different.

RioOnWatch: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mônica: This isn’t normal. The state can’t kill the way it’s killing. The State can’t punish us the way it is punishing us. Because what the state does, when we see these killings, it’s very serious. You are certain you live in a state that is racist, that commits genocide. I don’t want this for myself. I don’t want this for my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren. I want change. I won’t say I want a utopia and everything pink and blue, none of that. But I want a fair country, a dignified country. [Rafael] was a human being like anyone. In the end he became a criminal yes, but I shouldn’t be isolated for this. I shouldn’t be lost for this. I shouldn’t have to live my days like it’s the end of the world, like I’m an aberration, for this. No, of course not. This is what I believe. This is what I work for.

And that this day, March 8, 2016, in the year we’re in, that women actually unite, independent of color and where they live, that they don’t let their children, their youngsters, be killed in the way they’re being killed. And that all these women take as belonging to them each child and youth that dies in this state, feel as though they were hers, someone you’d given birth to. That’s how we’ll make the difference. Not looking at the boy in the street as someone else’s child, but as if he were your own child. When we understand something as our own, we want change. When we say “look he’s someone else’s,” we don’t care. That’s it.