‘We have a lot to teach the city’
‘We have a lot to teach the city’
Header image: The spirit of creative resistance is strong in the Rio favela of Maré. But Brazil is suffering a ‘genocide’ of black youth. All pictures in this article: Vanessa Baird
What does ‘the state’ mean to you if you are poor or black or both? Vanessa Baird writes about the difficult life in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro after the coup.
Lala is eight months old and is sitting on my lap. She’s a lively, strong baby with dark eyes. She is looking at me without fear.
On the sofa next to us are her mother, Tayla, and a family friend, Eliana.
On another sofa, there are three dogs.
Cars drive past us just a few inches away and very close to young Lala’s lungs.
Carlos Henrique, Lala’s father, has brought me to their ‘home’. It is in fact a kerbside in the street, under a viaduct in the busy central São Paulo area of Bras.
This is home for about a hundred families – about 400 people. A few have lived here all of their lives. Old Manuel has been here for 38 years. He lets me take his photo, but only if I write that all he wants is ‘uma casa digna’ – a good place to live.
Almost every local governor or mayor of São Paulo has tried to evict the people living here, using persuasion or force.
Homelessness is increasing fast in São Paulo. The city authorities say around 20,000 people have no homes and social workers have names of more than 12,600 living on the streets.
Street people like this are bad for the way people see São Paulo as the economic capital of a country which wants to be one of the best industrial nations.
Life under the viaduct: Lala with her mother, Tayla, was born there.
Like poor Londoners, people do not like homeless people in São Paulo. These are the people who think that a city is to make money and not help the citizens. And the Brazilian ITAU bank has real-estate in the area around this viaduct that it wants to develop.
Efforts to evict the homeless here have failed. Paulo Escobar is an ‘autonomous social worker’. He is there every day. He says that the community is strong and organized. ‘We follow Zapatista ideas,’ he says as he shows me around a large space like a hall under the road. ‘This is where we meet every two weeks and where we make decisions.’
‘What do the people living here want?’ I ask.
‘Some people want a house to live in. Some want to be with their families. Some want to live on the streets. Some use drugs or alcohol. Others don’t. Some are very much involved with community activities. Others prefer to keep to themselves. But the authorities always ofer only one solution, and this is usually moving the people out of the city centre and into hostels. In the hostels they separate the men and women, and gay people are not welcome You have to be in at seven o’clock at night and out again by six in the morning. People don’t want that. So they say “no”.’
‘The first duty is to survive’
I ask Eliana where she sleeps. She takes me to a traffic island under the bridge. She is hoping that ‘God will give us something better’, but she and her husband have made a good job of their home. There’s a TV, a small kitchen, a bedroom. It’s clean and cosy.
The bathroom, showers, and a place to wash clothes are across the road in the communal area. There is also a communal kitchen and a workshop where they design and make their own T-shirts to sell. There is artwork everywhere. There is a sleeping space for people who come for a night. Others often sleep near the community. Paulo says. ‘If the police attack them, they can call for help from the residents inside.’
‘The authorities want to kill these people. So the first right and duty is to survive.’
The people here have rights to basic services like health and education but the local services often say no to them because they are against homeless people. Children may find they cannot go to the schools for no real reasons, and doctors will put homeless patients at the end of the waiting list. Maria is a resident in her late fifties who sells a delicious honey-flavoured cachaça drink She had a heart attack and the residents could not get an ambulance to come to her.
‘We had to stop a car and almost force the driver to take us to hospital,’ says Paulo.
A message at the meeting in Maré. It asks: ‘When will they stop making black lives criminal?’
Things are harder after the coup. There are cuts in welfare and no extra public money for 20 years and a more authoritarian and militaristic approach to the city.
In May 2017, 500 armed civil guards made a raid on a city-centre area known as ‘Cracolandia’, because of its drug users. They set on fire homes and tents. Many working-class residents in the area, who are not drug users, were angry. They complained that they gave no warning and said the raid would not help at all. About 900 people had to move and made a new camp a few hundred yards away in a square near Luz Station. The civil guards made another raid a few weeks later. The raids were the idea of Sao Paula’s rightwing mayor, João Doria, who wants to be president.
‘People use drugs all over Brazil,’ says Paulo. ‘A helicopter crashed with 400 kilos of cocaine. It belonged to a politician. What happened to him? Nothing. If they find someone with only a little marijuana, for their own use, they put them in prison.’
‘They are monsters’
A week later I travelled to the north of Rio de Janeiro, to Maré. |It is a favela by the waterside from the 1940s. In those days they built the places to live on stilts in the water. Now there are about 15 towns and homes for around 130,000 people.
Maré is one of the favelas on the ‘pacification’ programme, which was strong before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The idea was for police and military to remove armed criminal gangs and make police posts, as part of the ‘war on drugs’.
Flavinha Candicle was born in Maré and is the mother of three boys aged 16, 13, and 9. She says, ‘The war on drugs is not a war on drugs. It’s a war on residents.' Many agree with her. They were happy to see the drugs gangs have less power but the violence of the police became a problem. ‘The police come in with guns and they just shoot. We want a normal life. I just want a normal life so that I can send my kids out to school without fear.’
Flavinha: ‘The police have killed so many people here. Isn’t the right to life for everyone?’
Flavinha’s 16-year-old leaves at four every morning to go and study hotel management in Rio’s smart Southern Zone. She worries about his safety.
‘When the kids in the Southern Zone use drugs, they call them “users”. But if the kids here use drugs they are called “traffickers”. If drugs were legal the police, would just use another reason to attack us. They want to kill us. Why are they like this? Why can’t they respect human beings? They should protect us, not attack us. It’s worse today than in the past. The Rio police are monsters. They have no respect for anyone.’
She says her sons have not suffered from the police violence, but she has. During a protest against police violence in 2013 she was injured and still has the scars on her back. At first she asked for hospital treatment – but then escaped from the hospital because she was worried the police might come after her.
‘I am black, a woman, and from a favela. For me, the state is violent. We suffer a coup here every day, from the police, from the state. They have killed so many people here. They never said how many but there were many, many black people. The police are the main problem we have here. Why isn’t the right to life for everyone?’
In Brazil black lives don’t matter
People say there is a genocide of black youth in Brazil today. One black youth is killed every 23 minutes. Black males are three times as likely to be killed as white. Sometimes citizens are in the crossfire between police and criminal gangs. But more and more they are killed by police. In 2016, 920 citizens were killed by police in the state of Rio. In the first two months of 2017, the killings by police increased by 78 per cent. Most of the victims are young black men. Robert Muggah is a research director of the Igarapé Institute, in Rio. He says: ‘Unfortunately, there has been police violence here for some time.’ He says the reasons are the military police are trained in violent methods, the organizations accept force, and the economic and political crisis in Brazil. ‘The people are stressed and anxious and they see the police as an enemy,’ he says. Police, and their families say that they too receive violence. In July 2017, after the 91st police officer was killed in Rio this year, families went onto the streets of Copacabana to protest. Soon after this the government said that it was sending 8,500 military to stop crime in the city. In August the troops raided several favelas, as they did before the 2016 Olympics. And the media always show criminal violence again and again and say ‘the enemy’ is coming from the favelas – the places where poor people live. Pride not prejudice
Manuel has lived on the streets for 38 years. ‘I just want a good home’, he says. Today is a special day for Maré – it’s the first meeting of six different favelas organized by Marielle Franco, a black woman member of the Rio City Council. Franco is a daughter of Maré. She is a sociologist and she has been a great help to Flavinha. ‘It’s thanks to Marielle Franco that I studied,’ says Flavinha. This day makes her proud to be from Maré, she says, from the favela. About 200 people are in debates, workshops, and cultural theatre. They talk about civic rights, health and sanitation, education and culture. There were promises for improvements in these areas with ‘pacification of the favelas’ but nothing has improved. Sanitation systems are in a bad condition. There are not enough good local schools and teachers refuse to work in the favelas. There are problems with public transport, too. They also talk about making drugs legal. Taliria Petrone, a teacher and black local councillor talks about the problems of giving lessons on equality in schools. A leaflet tells me about the problems faced by LGBT+ people in the favela. Another theatre performance starts. It is about a young boy, who likes wearing dresses. His mother does not understand and she is angry. We follow him through his childhood. We see the anger in the family about his sexual and gender identity and how his mother throws him out of the home when he is a teenager. Local boys make life hard for him and he is murdered. The audience watches closely and feels very sad and angry – and then they stand and applaud. The values here are support, equality, and community. As I leave, I think about what Mariluce Mariá, from nearby Complexo do Alemão, has just told me: ‘We, from the favela, have a lot to teach the city about respect.’ And the world.