Seattleite in Brazil says protests bring little relief for the poor

by -
2

Residents of "Nova Holanda," a shantytown in Rio de Janeirno, embrace at a memorial for victims killed in a police incursion. (Photo by Nick Wong)

More people were killed recently in a single police incursion into a Rio shantytown than in a month of raucous protests around the country. 

Over the last month, for the first time in generations, the people of Brazil have flooded the streets in protest. They started over a 20-cent raise in bus fares, but that was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

The real causes are rooted in a long history of government corruption and neglect of public services — especially healthcare and education.

Recently, the majority of public funding has been directed toward preparing the country for the upcoming World Cup and Olympic games arriving in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Winning a bid for these mega-events can certainly boost a nation’s global reputation, but the overall benefits for the people of the host country are questionable.

 mural in Rio critiquing preparations for the World Cup in 2014 reads, "They destroyed my community on account of the Cup" (Art by Metro Mangueira, Photo by Nick Wong)

A mural in Rio critiquing preparations for the World Cup in 2014 reads, “They destroyed my community on account of the Cup” (Art by Metro Mangueira, Photo by Nick Wong)

The World Cup in 2010 has done little to lessen the wealth gap in South Africa, and some blame a large part of the current Greek financial crisis on the multi-billion dollar price tag of the Olympic games back in 2004.

While there are certainly examples of improvements in public infrastructure coming from world events, i.e. Barcelona and the ’92 Olympics, such outcomes require precise preparation, and the consequences of poor planning are dire.

Safe to say, any country hosting a World Cup or an Olympic games is under a lot of pressure, and Brazil has both, back-to-back.

But the public frustration is not just about the investment in the games themselves. It’s a lack of accountability for how that money is spent. Brazil has a well-documented history of corruption and political embezzlement Inflated construction costs, reoccurring delays, and constant additions in renovations have raised the public eyebrow.

And so, for the first time in a long time, Brazilian people have had enough.

But blanket demands of ending government corruption and improving public services don’t always translate cleanly to actual policy changes. Different interests emerge behind different proposals and suddenly it’s hard to understand who or what is actually being represented at these protests.

A resident of "Nova Holanda," a shantytown in Rio de Janeirno, holds a sign reading "No Violence" at a memorial for victims killed in a police incursion. (Photo by Nick Wong)

A resident of “Nova Holanda,” a shantytown in Rio de Janeirno, holds a sign reading “No Violence” at a memorial for victims killed in a police incursion. (Photo by Nick Wong)

Some speculate that the traditional middle class have blamed the congestion of public services upon the entry of a “new middle class”, which emerged as a result of social programs aimed at lifting the poor.

Others demand a change in government, or perhaps no government at all. A friend even told me he saw some holding signs calling for a return of the military dictatorship, claiming that the new democracy has allowed this current state of social disorder.

I started out mostly apathetic to the protests. As a visitor, I cannot say I embody the movement. I’m here on an academic scholarship, doing research on boxing gyms. I’ve been in the city for less than five months in a position of privilege, so how can I begin to say I truly understand this city, this country and it’s struggles?

I volunteer as a photographer and teacher for “Fight for Peace” — a non-profit organization that uses boxing and marital arts to deter youth from involvement in drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro.

The gym is located in “Nova Holanda”, a favela, or shantytown, that’s part of a community of seventeen favelas called the “Complexo da Maré.” Historically, this area has had some of the highest rates of violence in the city. But one would hardly feel that when you’re there.

What you mostly find is a vibrant community working hard to get by each day. My students and teammates in the boxing gym are some of the most decent people I’ve ever met. I guess to say in short, I’ve grown to love this community.

When police enter favelas there are often shootouts with drug traffickers. During an incursion into "Nova Holanda" in the end of June, one police officer and nine residents were killed. (Photo by Nick Wong)

When police enter favelas there are often shootouts with drug traffickers. During an incursion into “Nova Holanda” in the end of June, one police officer and nine residents were killed. (Photo by Nick Wong)

So it did become personal for me when, on June 25th, 2013, Brazilian Special Forces entered “Nova Holanda”, and killed nine residents during a search for suspects in looting and robberies that allegedly occurred during a nearby protest the night before.

To put these casualties in perspective, in over a month of huge protests throughout Brazil, only 5 people have been killed. And it is worth noting that none of the causalities in the general protests were a direct result of police action, despite there being similar acts of store looting (in some cases even banks), as well as costs estimated in the millions resulting from vandalism.

I was there the day of the police operation, a few minutes after one police officer died, and hours before nine residents were killed.

The police in Brazil are not known for their civil procedure when entering the favela in search of a suspect, and there is often armed resistance from the drug gangs for that reason. Exchanges of gunfire are common and stray bullets don’t discern non-combatants, so the gym remained closed for the day when I had arrived.

A coworker and resident of the favela, Carlos Eduardo Viana, found me walking alone from the gym and insisted in ensuring my safety by accompanying me back to the freeway.

Along the way we saw burned motorcycles and car windows shot out, bullet holes tattooed onto brick buildings, and a community paralyzed in fear. It felt like a warzone that day, because here in the favelas of Brazil, it sometimes is.

I have no more anger left for the injustices of the world. I have grown tired of the political ideologies battling across the intellectual foregrounds. Or maybe I was never smart enough to understand them in the first place.

All I know is that I am sad — sad that we had to close the gym, and that the kids from the program didn’t have a place to go that day; sad that this is a commonplace in favelas, and people grow used to it as a coping mechanism. Sadness. That is all I have left for this situation.

A favela resident holds a sign with the name of one of the youngest victims of a police incursion into his neighborhood, which resulted in at least 10 deaths overall. (Photo by Nick Wong)

A favela resident holds a sign with the name of one of the youngest victims of a police incursion into his neighborhood, which resulted in at least 10 deaths overall. (Photo by Nick Wong)

A week later the community held a vigil for the fallen victims in the community.

To be honest, it became more of a protest than a vigil, as the event was more-or-less coopted by outsiders from the general protests using the tragedy as a platform for their own agenda. But Carlos said something interesting when I asked him what he thought of the event.

“It was an important for the community because people in Maré are killed all the time and nobody ever pays attention,” he told me. “This time, someone listened.”

And if that is one outcome of the protests, I suppose that is something I can get behind.

Nick Wong is a graduate from the University of Washington, currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has spent the last decade exploring culture through the sport of boxing and is working towards his goal of building boxing gyms around the world. His work can be seen here

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Nick! There are many of us “gringos’ here in Seattle, who love Brazil, the people and the culture. From the choro groups to the capoeira schools, the community here in Seattle is strong. I have been to Brazil dozens of time since my study abroad experience in 1991, and have hope that positive change will come for the Brazilian people.

Leave a Reply