The following conversation I had virtually with Ana Paula Oliveira, co-founder of the network Mothers of Manguinhos. We spoke about coronavirus, State violence, structural racism, resistance, how these phenomena are linked, and how favela-based movements are reacting to the pandemic. I thank Ana Paula for her availability, generosity, and example of what it means to fight.
Nina Zur: The coronavirus pandemic is especially bad in Brazil. In Rio, we have municipal and state governments that, alongside the federal government, result in the worst possible scenario for dealing with a health crisis of this dimension. Staying at home is not a right when you don’t have access to an income, sanitation, healthcare, security. How is the situation in Manguinhos during the pandemic? Has State violence, in its many forms, increased?
Ana Paula Oliveira: Here in Manguinhos, the situation during the pandemic is critical for the majority of people. As you said yourself, not everyone can access the right to stay at home. Many people are having to go out just in order to find something to eat.
Many people are unemployed: single mothers with their kids at home. Public daycares aren’t open; schools aren’t open. Children who are studying in public schools are not being taught; they’re not getting the online classes that children at private schools are able to do. This is just another violence that our children suffer.
Another violence that we have heard about was the case, here in Manguinhos, of an older man who died at home, and his family had to keep his body at home for two days because the funeral services didn’t come. And another form of violence is not having a guarantee of mass testing for Covid-19. There are no offers of exams. Not even private healthcare covers this.
Zur: How are favela residents getting organized and facing this difficult period?
Oliveira: If this situation is difficult for other people [in Brazil], it’s even harder for us, since we already suffer from the absence of the State. It has really become “us for us” (nós por nós): existing organizations are stepping in to help, residents are looking after each other, and this is how we manage to resist all types of violence.
The other mothers from Mothers of Manguinhos and I, along with the girls from Manguinhos Social Forum, got together and mapped out the people who were most in need during the pandemic, and we got organized and started collecting materials for baskets of basic foodstuff [to be donated to these families].
Taking every care for our health and safety, using masks, we are distributing these baskets on specific days. We’re doing it because there’s no way we could stay at home knowing that there are people going hungry. There’s no state or city support for these people. They rely on our help.
Zur: Many mothers who have been victims of police violence say that meeting other mothers and fighting for justice is where they draw their strength, allowing them to manage to bear the pain of losing their children. How has this period of social isolation affected your life and the Mothers of Manguinhos network? How are you getting around the impossibility of meeting physically, of the more embodied struggle?
Oliveira: After losing our children in violent ways, we’ve supported ourselves through knowing other mothers who have suffered the same pain and who understand our pain. This contact with other mothers is very important; this form of providing mutual refuge is strengthening. We can hug each other, cry together, smile together, remember our children, how they were beautiful and happy. We protect each other and gain strength from these hugs.
Unfortunately, this social isolation is preventing this from happening, but we are finding ways to get around this. One way has been via our phones. We have a WhatsApp group of mothers and relatives of victims of State violence, and we also keep on talking to other mothers that need more support; we make ourselves available to chat at any time.
We have also had to adjust to everything that’s going on. We’ve joined forces with psychologists from NAPAVE (Psychosocial Attention Nucleus to [people] Affected by State Violence), who attend us, so we can participate actively in the support they’re offering, helping other mothers and relatives who have suffered some form of State violence. We’ve already started to offer online support and it’s going very well. Even though the support is virtual, we’re all coming out of it feeling much stronger.
In addition to this, we participate in livestreamed events on social media, online debates, campaigns on social networks, and we are participating in virtual meetings to organize Black July (from July 26 to 30). We also made a video for the campaign for ADPF 635 [a Supreme Court lawsuit proposing to limit police operations in favelas], also known as ADPF das Favelas.
We organize to do what is possible, because the violations don’t stop, so we have to fight against this horrible illness at the same time we fight against the violations that we were already resisting. Our struggle has grown during the pandemic. We have to be stronger and seek, in every way, to stay alive.
Zur: George Floyd was killed after buying a packet of cigarettes. Your son was killed while dropping off a dessert at his grandmother’s house. Many young black Brazilians are shot in the back. Have you been participating in the anti-racism demonstrations, against the genocide of black Brazilians, in recent months?
Oliveira: I went to the Black Lives Matter demonstration on the steps of Guanabara Palace [the governor’s residence] on May 31. It’s very suffocating to see these acts of violence repeating themselves, people being killed in their homes, police operations, all types of abuse carried out by the State—the State which should be guaranteeing our rights, including our right to stay at home. And none of this is guaranteed. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. More and more, what we’re hearing is that we don’t have the right to anything, not even the right to life.
It’s very difficult to watch all of this and not being able to speak, to shout, to express this indignation. [After the demonstration] I went home feeling lighter for having shouted.
Zur: What’s the importance of movements like this one now, globally and locally?
Oliveira: We, here in Rio de Janeiro and in other states across Brazil, have for a long time been shouting that black lives matter, that the favelas need to be respected. Unfortunately, George Floyd was brutally executed, but every day in Brazil, dozens, hundreds of black people are assassinated. And we don’t stay silent about it; we shout.
This movement over in the U.S. was very important, because it seems that people only take note of what happens outside Brazil. It ends up giving more visibility, through very powerful demonstrations over there, to what’s going on in other countries, just like in Brazil. Racism is not isolated to one country. Many people across the world are killed because of their skin color or because of where they live.
Zur: On June 5, the Supreme Court issued a temporary order prohibiting police operations in favelas in Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic. However, the court’s decision allowed for operations to take place in “absolutely exceptional” cases, without establishing the criteria for a minimal rationality about what such cases are. Authorities merely need to justify such cases in writing to the State Public Prosecutor’s Office. Can it be that the judiciary can both guarantee rights and produce inequality and structural racism? What can we expect from the judiciary?
Oliveira: This possibility of police operations taking place in “absolutely exceptional” cases worries me a lot, because we can compare this to the so-called “acts of resistance” [the former term for police killings in circumstances where police claimed the victim was resisting arrest]. Unfortunately, the police is not a transparent or trustworthy institution. Often the police alleges that it acted in legitimate defense and, in reality, when cases are investigated, if testimonies are gathered and forensic studies are conducted, it ends up being proven that this allegation of legitimate defense was not true. I’m worried about this criteria. Who’s really going to guarantee if a case is exceptional or not? Who’s going to guarantee that a police operation is going to happen in the correct manner, respecting the law and the rights of residents?
Before I had access to the judicial system, I really thought that I would get justice there. But, unfortunately, that’s not what happened. The judiciary, in my experience, only guarantees the rights of the elite. It guarantees their privileges. When someone from a favela, a black person, is in court, that person already suffers a pre-judgement. I think that the judiciary produces inequality.
If you take the case of a white person who is arrested with a small quantity of marijuana, for example, alongside a black person who has been caught with the same quantity, and both allege that the quantity is for personal use, when they get to court they are judged completely differently. The white person is treated like a drug user, and the black person is treated like a drug trafficker, like a dangerous person.
When you look at [former Rio governor] Sérgio Cabral’s wife, who was granted the right to complete her sentence at home because she alleged that she needed to look after her children, contrasted with the thousands of mothers who give birth in prison and are then separated from their children, without the same right to cohabitate with them, it is clear that they’re not seen in the same way, as people or mothers.
Queiroz [the arrested former aide to President Bolsonaro’s son] was given the right to stay at home while under arrest and to be with his wife, because she needed to look after him due to his various health conditions, while we know that lots of people die in prisons, people with extremely serious illnesses like Tuberculosis or even Covid-19, without any medical assistance or contact with their families. And the justice system denies requests from prisoners who ask to complete their sentences at home in a dignified manner.
Zur: Many people said that the pandemic would be able to create a sense of unforeseen solidarity among us. They said that the positive result of this moment would be the focus on the ethics of care, that our relationships could be transformed across the world during the pandemic. However, others say that the pandemic is accentuating preexisting inequalities and that the world after the pandemic will be one with increased privileges for some and social inequalities for others, as well as health inequalities. What do you think? Do you think it’s possible that the world will become a place where we look after one another better?
Oliveira: I don’t see this force during the pandemic. People who were already showing solidarity will continue to do so, and people who only worry about themselves will continue to do the same.
We’re seeing how difficult it is to maintain social isolation. People who are healthy just want to know when they can go back to their normal routines, go out, enjoy themselves. This is a part of society, mainly formed of people who don’t rely on a job to have a good life. These people will continue to think about maintaining their privileges.
The people in power continue not to be aware of the people who are dying in hospitals, without worrying about the people who are dying because they don’t have resources. They continue benefiting from our pain and suffering to make a profit and maintain their privileges.
And, in the favela, it’s the residents who are engaged in helping each other. Favelas help each other, favelas support each other: that’s what I’ve seen.
Zur: Virginie Despentes (a French feminist writer who experienced many situations of violence) drew a link between the State and a mothering function, as if the State were a mother looking to control us, surveil us, and determine our lives. I understand criticism of the maternal role as a way of detaching the role of the woman from the role of mother, in a traditional society like that of France. However you look at it, it’s a criticism of power. As a mother who is fighting against State violence every day, as a mother who uses this label as a tool in your struggle, what do you think about this? What does it mean to be a black mother from a favela in Brazil?
Oliveira: Being a black mother from a favela in Brazil means getting pregnant often without access to a health network where there are prenatal care services. It means, nearing childbirth, running a higher risk of suffering obstetric violence during maternity; it means being mocked and ignored and having a higher risk of dying during labor, of losing your baby.
Being a black mother from a favela in Brazil means resisting all the denial you face, rowing against the tide, even when you’re told you don’t have rights. It means needing to be strong, fighting for your life and the survival of your children, relatives, friends.
It means being scared all the time, being scared of going into a shop with your son and being stopped by the police, being scared of your children having to go through this embarrassing situation.
It means educating and doing the best you can for your children and, even so, the same State that never guaranteed anything for you or your children telling you that you don’t even have the right to live with them.
It means hearing your black friends, also from favelas, say that they long to be mothers but they’re scared to bring a child into this world to suffer the same violence.
Zur: What would you say to mothers who are losing their children right now through State action or inaction?
Oliveira: We need to gather all our strength, the strength that we’re left with after experiencing the violence our children suffered and use it to act, to move. We need to say to the State that we don’t accept this violence and what it’s doing to our families, to the place where we live. And we need to show that we’re rising up against this violence. We will act against this in the name of our children, the ones that we’ve lost and the ones that are still here.
They took away a piece of us, but, even without that piece, even when we’ve been dilacerated, we need to rise up against this oppressive State, for the sake of our children, so that their blood was not spilled in vain. There are many lives that depend on our action.
Zur: What would you say to the mother of João Pedro, the boy who was executed inside his home by a joint civil and federal police operation in Salgueiro on May 18?
Oliveira: [I would say] I’m so sorry about what happened to your son, but I hope that you will gather your strength to become João Pedro’s voice. Because if you are his voice, you’ll also be the voice of thousands of other children, young people, teenagers, and women too, who live in favelas and suffer this violence.
And stay standing, don’t let the story of your son be forgotten, because while you’re alive and while you are your son’s voice, this is a way of keeping him alive too, keeping this memory alive. We can’t let people forget the cowardly killing of our children. Brazil needs to have this memory and we are the ones that can stop this memory from dying.
I want you to feel embraced by me, with all my affection, and may God give you strength to keep going.
Zur: Is there any way of helping to strengthen the networks of mothers and residents in Manguinhos right now? How can people make an emergency contribution?
Oliveira: Anyone who’s interested can go to the Facebook pages of the Manguinhos Social Forum, Fórum Social de Manguinhos, or to the Mothers of Manguinhos, Mães de Manguinhos, to contribute basic foodstuffs. We also have a bank account which can receive donations. On those pages, people can get in touch and find out more.
Ana Paula Oliveira is an educator and co-founder of the movement Mothers of Manguinhos, formed by mothers in the Manguinhos favela, in Rio de Janeiro, whose children were executed by the State or who have children in prison. She is also part of the Manguinhos Social Form, a space formed by residents, institutions and social movements to monitor, create and execute public policies for the favela. Ana Paula is the mother of Johnatha, assassinated in 2014, at the age of 19, by a UPP military police officer in Manguinhos.
Nina Zur is a master’s student in Theory of the State and Constitutional Law at the Catholic University of Rio, researching Theory of Law, Ethics and the Construction of Subjectivity. She writes and is the mother of Santiago, almost 5 months old.