On Monday July 31 the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor’s Office held a public hearing to debate the latest security crisis to hit the state of Rio and its impact on the protection of citizens. Bringing together two working groups within the Public Prosecutor’s Office–the Human Rights and Minorities Department and the Public Security Working Group–the public hearing with its approximately 300 attendees occurred 23 hours after a declaration by Raul Jungmann, Brazil’s Minister of Defense. On Sunday, the minister had outlined the strategic planning of the Peace and Security Operation (Operação Paz e Segurança). According to Jungmann the operation would once again authorize the deployment of the armed forces and its highly militarized apparatus to undertake anti-crime operations.
Douglas Almeida, an economist, doctoral student of sociology and resident of São João de Meriti in the Baixada Fluminense region, was present at the hearing. Almeida said that even though the hearing’s attendees were numerous and diverse, the Baixada Fluminense region and other municipalities in Rio’s metropolitan region were poorly represented, despite being areas with high levels of violence and fatalities. “The situation in the Baixada was hardly mentioned by the speakers. Given the amount of time allocated to the panel, the gravity of our situation was given little attention, considering the startling levels of homicide in the region and the fact that violence is increasing at a higher rate in the Baixada than in the city of Rio,” he said.
Almeida expressed surprise at some of the statements he heard from the panel: “At some points the participants got angry, making statements that were permeated with hatred. It seemed at one point that police officers present thought there was an underlying conflict between members of civil society and the police officers present. The Military Police should have taken the opportunity to take a critical look at their incursions into the favelas. Lives cannot be treated as collateral damage.”
Adriano de Araújo, sociologist and coordinator of Fórum Grita Baixada, noted that the theme of public security, just like other social issues discussed in Brazil, “is deeply rooted in dichotomized and hateful positions. All this talk, deprived of real facts, makes it hard to think of alternatives to the security situation people are facing. Some of the statements from the panel set up the model of the policeman in a fight of good against evil, working heroically to protect society, negating the politics of confrontation. This image of the police does not take into account the increase in fatalities resulting from police actions, nor the daily conflicts that take place as part of the politics of the war on drugs. It also doesn’t explain how some segments of society are more vulnerable than others, such as people who live in favelas or on the outskirts of the city and young black men,” Araújo argued.
What Araújo was most surprised by were the statements referring to police actions. Some said that the institution of the police should not be subject to any kind of control. “This is frightening,” he said, “especially since one of the roles of the Public Prosecutor’s Office is to monitor police activity. This leads me to wonder how it would be if police actions were not held to account by society? I think the statements show a kind of military logic that separates the police from civil society, leading to the idea that the Military Police should not be monitored or under any external control.”
Fransérgio Goulart, historian and political consultant for the Human Rights Center of the Nova Iguaçu Diocese, said that public hearings like this one have resulted in “little or no change in the lives of those whose rights have been violated.” He said that the Public Prosecutor’s Office had let the public hearing lose focus, straying from the objectives originally proposed for the meeting. “At no point in the meeting description did it say that we were going to discuss entry routes into police careers, or the financial matters of the police, or projects to militarize schools. The priorities of the meeting ended up being weighted towards the police–the police which has demonstrated institutional racism and a taste for the politics of confrontation,” said Goulart.
However, Goulart also recognized that many favela residents were able to criticize public security policies. “They spoke about how these communities have become like battlegrounds during a war where young people, especially poor and black youth, are being exterminated. This is a fact, it’s more than just an ideological feeling; black police officers kill black youth and vice versa. But, when police officers or ex-police officers spoke during the public hearing, they ended up referring to themselves as heroes or guardians of society, and this ends up removing the idea of dialogue between the two sides, since it imposes a sense of superiority,” Goulart said.
Another criticism made by those interviewed for this article was the absence of members of the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly (ALERJ) at the public hearing, other than the participation of the president of ALERJ’s Human Rights Commission, Marcelo Freixo. Roberto Sá, Security Secretary, spent a large part of his allocated speaking time talking about controlling weapons, but didn’t go into detail on the issue of the Military Police’s excessive use of force and made generalizing statements on corruption, saying that the police is only a “reflection of society.”
Mario Brum, a researcher at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) who studies urban peripheries, thought that the Public Prosecutor’s Office acted correctly in trying to mediate a range of different views on the security debate and praised the strength of the testimonies of residents who had lost family members but, similar to the other people interviewed for this article, also had the impression that both sides of the debate took an overly defensive position. “I was worried by the way people were suggesting that fighting crime should be done by ‘going to the top’ and also the way in which campaigning for the protection of people’s lives was labelled as ‘defending criminals’ or ‘preventing the police from carrying out their work,’” he said.
This article was written by Fabio Leon and produced through a partnership between RioOnWatch and Fórum Grita Baixada. Fabio Leon is a journalist and human rights activist who works as communications officer for Fórum Grita Baixada. Fórum Grita Baixada is a forum of people and organizations working in and around the Baixada Fluminense, focusing on developing strategies and initiatives in the area of public security, which is considered a necessary requirement for citizenship and for the right to the city. Follow Fórum Grita Baixada on Facebook here.