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How to Construct a ‘Pact for Life’ Extensively Discussed at PUC-Rio

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On Thursday, July 5, a roundtable entitled “A Pact for Life: How to Build One?” was organized at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC-Rio). The discussion centered on public security measures and the need to reduce homicide rates in Rio de Janeiro. The nine-speaker panel was diverse. The event was mediated by Marcelo Burgos, a professor from PUC-Rio’s Department of Social Sciences.

Adriano de Araújo, coordinator of the Grita Baixada Forum, spoke first. He asked: “Do all lives really matter? Do black youth really matter? Is there a consensus on this?” As a resident of the Baixada Fluminense, Araújo describes h0w he grew up hearing the expression “extermination group” before the term “militia” was in use—a testament to the Baixada’s terrible security situation over time.

According to Araújo, a great many efforts and public hearings have proposed ways to combat insecurity in the region. Despite this, public officials do not act. Therefore, for him, the notion of a “pact for life” in which society as a whole remains uninvolved will not yield substantial impacts. “We do not see society itself really mobilized by this situation. What we do see are brief moments of outrage following the deaths of young people featured in the media,” he affirmed.

Araújo reported that for many decades, public security experts have developed projects and initiatives with the aim of reducing homicide rates. Likewise, civil society organizations have presented an agenda of concrete measures with the same objective. However, he emphasized that such work will fail to bring about desired results without the commitment of public officials. Araújo concluded that in the absence of this commitment, the State will continue to apply palliative measures to reduce crime, such as the federal intervention.

The second speaker was Edson Diniz, coordinator of Redes da Maré. He asked, “What will the future be? Over the past 200 years, we have always believed that the future would be better. Today, we are at a crossroads, such that we no longer share that perspective.” This is the new rationality. Diniz criticized the new neoliberal logic ingrained in society, in which one’s worth is correlated to their purchasing power. For example, he noted that in primary school, first graders are being offered classes in entrepreneurship, as though the ability to innovate and make money were a precondition for citizenship. Diniz noted that this mentality makes people believe that the lives of people who can contribute more, within a market-based logic, are more valuable to society than othersHe concluded by stating that we must reject the idea that lives have a price. “Last week, [well-known journalist] Ancelmo Gois stated that between 2016-2017, there wasn’t a single homicide case in Ipanema. [Compare that with] Queimados, which had 44,” Araújo stated. “That is to say, a life in Ipanema cannot be worth more than a life in Queimados.”

Next to take the microphone was Eliana Pereira, prosecutor and advisor on human rights and minorities at the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPRJ). She reported on what the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been doing since the creation of the Commission on Human Rights and Minorities, stating that the Commission is investigating whether or not the Public Prosecutor’s Office fulfills its constitutional duties. Pereira noted that a self-assessment methodology was utilized. The diagnosis, based on assessments completed by staff at the Office, revealed flaws in the external control of police activity; problems in environments related to the deprivation of freedom, prison and socio-educational facilities; and a lack of adequate performance by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in relation to more vulnerable populations, such as minorities. According to Pereira, based on this analysis, the structure of the Commission was conceived with the goal of reflecting and acting in the most precarious spaces of the State. According to her, it’s necessary to be very rational and understand the reality in which populations live in different parts of the city, in order to be able to act in a way that is just for all. “There is no way to speak of a ‘pact for life’ without acknowledging that a young black man is two and a half times more likely to die than a young white man,” she said. Pereira stated that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been committed to evaluating evidence and engaging in dialogue with the population to help people understand its role.”

After Pereira, Eufrásia Maria das Virgens, a public defender at the Coordination for the Defense of the Rights of Children and Adolescents, addressed the crowd. She focused her speech on the high number of deaths of adolescents and children in the State of Rio de Janeiro, recalling the death of nineteen-month-old Benjamin during a police raid in Complexo do Alemão. To honor the memory of Benjamin and former city councilor Marielle Franco, a State Council for the Defense of Children assembly took place on March 28, 2018. Virgens recounts that during the assembly, Benjamin’s parents made a public statement. Benjamin’s five-year-old sister, who only survived gunfire in the community because she managed to hide in a pharmacy, was also present. The girl asked, “Was she [Marielle] the woman who died of gunfire?” When Virgens said yes, the girl asked, “Was she the one who had gone to buy the dress?” This exchange led Virgens to reflect upon the troubling reality in which these children grow up, in which dying “from gunfire” is already so normalized. She reported that the State Committee for the Prevention of Adolescent Homicide was inaugurated in May 2018 to combat this sad reality, counting on the support of 22 institutions.

The next speaker was Itamar Silva, coordinator of iBase. Silva, who was born in the Santa Marta favela and trained as a citizen through his life in the community, stated that he is “fed up” with all of the violence and deaths in favelas. He said, “I often hear that education is the way out, but who is defending high-quality public education for these children, to give them the chance to gain full citizenship in this city? On the contrary, we see this whole issue of a significant part of society seeking to protect their own privileges, [fighting] against a right that should be for everyone.” Furthermore, Silva mentioned the brutal death of Marcos Vinícius to show that the population isn’t able to really mobilize to protect lives. According to him, individuals must now protect themselves to the best of their ability, whether behind the ever-higher walls of school buildings or in underground spaces. For Silva, the following question arises: what is needed to effectively mobilize people to change the situation of violence in Rio? “I am against violence, in principle,” Silva said, “but I think attitudes [must change] to tear through this curtain, through this veil. We see through this veil, but we remain protected behind it.” He concluded that if the population doesn’t fully understand violence, it’s impossible to promote the mobilization necessary to effectively take action.”

Next to take the microphone was Nísia Trindade, president of health institute Fiocruz. For Nísia, violence is a health issue. She noted that the disruption of the public sphere is strongly linked to the spread of communicable diseases, such as measles and poliomyelitis. According to Trindade, Fiocruz has a center for studies on violence and health. The institution has an internal working group with members from ten Brazilian states, which defined guidelines in reference to the issue of violence. She also reported that World Health Organization recognized violence as a health problem in 1996.

After Trindade came Sílvia Ramos, coordinator of the Intervention Observatory, a project of the Center for Studies on Security and Citizenship (CESEC) at Candido Mendes University (UCAM). Ramos had extremely practical arguments. She said, “Three weeks ago, the Atlas of Violence reported that Queimados has the highest homicide rate in Brazil. Instead of claiming, ‘See how horrible Rio is? See how the intervention is working?’ a real interventionist would have moved their administration to Queimados and say, ‘I’m going to reduce the homicide rate in three months. I’m going to rotate out everyone in the battalion. Get everyone out of there. Queimados is small, you can reduce these rates by at least one third.” For her, violence has a solution. According to her, a few—such as former governor of Rio de Janeiro Leonel Brizola—invest in education, health care, and other long-term public policies. However, she also sees a place for more immediate action, such as public security measures, to be developed in tandem with long-term actions. “If you articulate several fronts of action in terms of public security, homicide rates plummet,” Ramos said.

The next speaker was Victoria Sulocki, a researcher at the Center for Human Rights at the PUC-Rio Department of Law. Sulocki said: “To build a pact for life, we must deconstruct a mark in the Brazilian social imaginary called slavery. Brazil is a country built on slavery.” According to Sulocki, as long as this slavery-based imaginary persists, public policies will fail to treat everyone equally. The researcher described the history of the Military Police itself, tracing its origins from the Portuguese Royal Guard, which was responsible for prosecuting the slaves who escaped to quilombos. The Civil Police, formed in the twentieth century, also assumed a militarized posture. Only in the 1930s were manifestations of black culture legalized. “Playing capoeira on the street was forbidden. You were arrested,” she said. In conclusion, Sulocki reminded us that despite some changes, a slavery-based mentality persists in Brazil. Therefore, building a real “pact for life,” requires the deconstruction of this historical mentality entrenched in Brazilian society.

The last speaker was André Lima, historian and resident of Manguinhos. Lima recounted scenes of police brutality in his neighborhood and his own home, which was raided by police. He told the audience about his nephew, who was playing soccer when a shooting began. When he ran away, he was arrested, taken to the police station, and then falsely charged with drug trafficking. For Lima, “a pact for life” requires the revival of democracy—a context in which humiliating situations like these are not repeated. “Defending democracy means defending clean elections, and defending a cause in which we can call the candidates and show them what needs to be done in the area of public security. It is to work with political parties, and then oversee their performance to see if they have accomplished what they promised.”

After all the speakers were finished, the audience questioned and commented on these different perspectives on a “pact for life.” This space remained full throughout the event with the presence of PUC students, professors, activists, and representatives of residents’ associations. Significant participation by civil society in events such as these is extremely important to truly mobilize and promote effective public security measures in the State of Rio de Janeiro.