‘We have a lot to teach the city’
Lala, eight months old, is sitting on my lap. She’s a lively, strong baby with dark piercing eyes and a bold demeanour. She is scrutinizing me fearlessly.
On the sofa next to us are her mother, Tayla, and a family friend, Eliana.
Further along, on another sofa, are three dogs – alert, sitting up and looking outwards, in what appears to be a canine mimicry of our own poses.
A few inches away from all of us – and alarmingly close to young Lala’s lungs – cars whoosh past.
For the ‘home’ that Lala’s father, Carlos Henrique, has brought me to, is actually a kerbside, under a viaduct in the busy central São Paulo area of Bras.
This ‘occupation’ is home to about a hundred families – some 400 people at any one time. A few have lived here all of their lives. Old Manuel has been here, off and on, for 38 years. He lets me take his photo, but only if I write that all he wants is ‘uma casa digna’ – a decent place to live.
Almost every local governor or mayor of São Paulo has at some point tried to evict the people living here, using varying degrees of persuasion, coercion or force.
Homelessness is rocketing in São Paulo. Around 20,000 people are without shelter, say the city authorities, and social workers have registered more than 12,600 living rough on the streets.
Occupations of street people like this one are seen as a stain on São Paulo’s self-image as the economic capital of a country aspiring to win a place at the top table of industrial nations.
Homeless Paulistanos, like poor Londoners, are despised by those who think that the purpose of a city is to serve capital, not citizens. And besides, the Brazilian ITAU bank has real-estate investments in the area around this viaduct that it wants to develop.
Up to now, at least, efforts to permanently remove the occupiers have failed. Paulo Escobar, an ‘autonomous social worker’ who is there every day, explains that the community is determined and organized. ‘We are influenced by Zapatista principles,’ he says as he shows me around a large hall-like space under the road. ‘This is where we meet every fortnight and where decisions are made.’
Photos pinned up on a wall tell a history of their struggles – and their support for other homeless actions in the city.
What do the people living here want, I ask?
‘There are many different demands because there are many different people here. Some people want a house to live in. Some want to be reunited with their families. Some want to live on the streets. Some use drugs or alcohol. Others don’t. Some are very much involved with communal activities. Others prefer to keep to themselves.
‘But the authorities always present us with just one solution, which usually involves moving the residents out of the city centre and into hostels, where men and women are separated, where gay people are not welcome, where you have to be in at seven o’clock at night and out again by six in the morning. People don’t want that. When the proposal is put to them, they say “no”.’
‘The first duty is to survive’
I ask Eliana where she sleeps. She leads me to a plywood structure on a traffic island under the bridge. She is hoping that ‘God will deliver something better’, but in the meantime 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 clothes-washing facility are across the road in the communal area. There is also a communal kitchen and a workshop where residents design and make their own T-shirts to sell. Artwork and murals are everywhere.
There is a sleeping space for random people who need shelter for the night. Other rough sleepers often pitch up on the perimeter of the occupation. ‘For their safety,’ Paulo explains. ‘If they get attacked by police, they can call for help from the residents inside.’
The people in this occupation are living close to the edge. Although they have rights to basic services like health and education, they are often denied them by local service providers due to prejudice against homeless people. Children may find themselves excluded from local schools on the most flimsy of grounds, and doctors will put homeless patients at the bottom of the waiting list. When Maria, a resident in her late fifties who sells delicious honey-flavoured cachaça (a distilled spirit) from her makeshift bar, had a heart attack recently, residents could not get an ambulance to pick her up.
‘We had to stop a car and almost force the driver to take us to hospital,’ recalls Paulo.
He is blunt in his assessment of the situation: ‘The intention of the authorities is to kill these people. Everything they do seeks to make their death more rapid. So the first right and duty of this struggle is to survive.’
That struggle has become more challenging since the coup. Cuts in welfare and a 20-year freeze in public spending is coupled with a more authoritarian and militaristic approach to city management.
In May this year, 500 armed civil guards launched a dawn raid on a city-centre area known as ‘Cracolandia’, for its concentration of drug users. Makeshift homes and tents were set on fire. The attack angered the area’s many working-class residents who do not identify as drug users. They complained that they were given no warning and said the raid would not solve anything. Sure enough, the 900 or so people dislocated by the raid set up camp a few hundred yards away in a square near Luz Station, which was then raided a few weeks later. The crackdown was spearheaded by São Paulo’s newish mayor, João Doria, a rightwing presidential hopeful, determined to show his toughness.
‘Drugs are used all over Brazil,’ says Paulo. ‘A helicopter which crashed, carrying 400 kilos of cocaine, belonged to a leading politician. What happened to him? Nothing. If someone here is caught with a small amount of marijuana, for their own use, they are put in prison.’
‘They are monsters’
A week later I’m travelling on a main artery leading to the north of Rio de Janeiro, and heading for Maré – a waterside favela that sprung up in the 1940s. In those days the shanty dwellings were constructed on stilts in the water. Nowadays it is a pretty solid complex of about 15 shanty towns and home to around 130,000 people.
Maré is one of the favelas targeted for the controversial ‘pacification’ programme, which was intensified in the lead-up to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The idea was for police with military back-up to drive out armed criminal gangs and create permanent police posts, as part of the ‘war on drugs’.
‘The war on drugs is not a war on drugs. It’s a war on residents,’ says Flavinha Candicle, a Maré-born-and-bred mother of three boys aged 16, 13 and 9. This view is shared by many residents. Though many were initially pleased to see the power of the drugs gangs diminished, the violence of the empowered and trigger-happy police became a bigger and more unpredictable 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’s 16-year-old sets out at four every morning to go and study hotel management in Rio’s smart Southern Zone. She worries for his safety.
‘When the kids in the Southern Zone use drugs, they are called “users”. But if the kids here use drugs they are called “traffickers”. If drugs were legalized the police would just use another excuse to attack us. They want to kill us. Why are they like this? Why can’t they respect human beings? They should be protecting us, not attacking us. It’s worse today than in the past. The Rio police are monsters. They have no respect for anyone.’
She says her sons, thankfully, have not been at the receiving end of police brutality, but she has. During a protest against police violence in 2013 she was injured by them and still has the scars on her back. At first she sought emergency treatment – but then escaped from the hospital because she feared 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. It is a daily struggle. 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
There is, it is said, a genocide of black youth happening 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 caught in the crossfire between police and criminal gangs. But increasingly 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 rate of killings by police had increased by 78 per cent. Most of the victims are young black men.
Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute, a security and justice think-tank in Rio, says: ‘Unfortunately, police violence here has been a tragic reality for some time.’ He attributes the increase in recent years to a combination of the military police being trained in aggressive tactics, an organizational culture that tolerates high levels of force; and the economic and political crisis in Brazil, which he says has led to ‘a deep crisis of leadership’.
‘You have a deeply distressed and exasperated population who see the police as an enemy, not as a servant to the public good. This creates a very antagonistic relationship. It’s worsened by the routine egregious use of force caught on film,’ he says.
Police, and their families complain that they too are at the receiving end of violence. In July, after the 91st police officer was killed in Rio this year, relatives took to the streets of Copacabana to protest.
Shortly afterwards, the government announced that it was deploying 8,500 troops to crack down on crime in the city. In August the troops raided several favelas, as they did before the 2016 Olympics.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media obsessively replays acts of criminal violence and presents the ‘insecurity’ and ‘the enemy’ as coming from the shanty towns – the places where poor people live.
Pride not prejudice
Flavinha is showing me around the Museum of Maré. This is a wonderful and moving project that recreates the life of the first settlers, showing, in grainy black-and-white photos, their enterprise in all its precariousness as they push wheelbarrows on gangplanks over swirling water.
Among the exhibits is a life-size reconstruction of an original one-room house on stilts with furnishings. There are children’s toys of the epoch and religious paraphernalia of many faiths.
An especially poignant photo shows a line of bare feet facing a line of police boots. Elsewhere there is a glass box full of bullet casings, presented like a grim reliquary.
Today is a special day for Maré – it’s the first meeting or encontro of six different favelas organized by Marielle Franco, a black woman member of the Rio City Council. Franco is a daughter of Maré. A sociologist by training, she has been a great inspiration 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.
This is how Marielle explains her decision to go into local government. ‘The State is the main violator [of our rights] but it is also a principal means by which our rights can be obtained.’
The event, called ‘Right to the Favela’, is a vibrant affair. About 200 participants are getting stuck into debates, workshops and cultural performances. Under discussion are civic rights, health and sanitation, education and culture. Improvements in these areas were promised with ‘pacification of the favelas’ but they have not materialized. Sanitation systems are in disrepair. There is a serious lack of decent local schools and teachers refuse to work in the shanty towns; public transport, ditto. There is also, inevitably, a session on drug decriminalization and security.
Taliria Petrone, a teacher and black local councillor is talking about the uphill struggle to deliver lessons on equality in schools these days. Posted around the hall in which we are gathered are vivid messages exhorting rights and respect. Someone hands me a leaflet that mentions the problems faced by LGBT+ people in the favela.
There is a rolling of drums. Another theatre performance is starting up. The theme of the piece happens to be about a young, bookish boy who likes wearing dresses – to his mother’s dismay, incomprehension, fury and, ultimately, disgust. We follow him through the stages of his childhood and the flowering of his affections.
We see the anger and family turmoil his developing sexual and gender identity seems to provoke, culminating in him being thrown out of the home, in his teens, by his mother. We see him being teased by local boys; the bullying intensifies and leads, shockingly, to his murder. The audience is transfixed, saddened and appalled – then gets to its feet. The teenage cast receives a standing ovation.
The values being asserted in this darkened room full of people, with the hot sun outside, are those of support, equality and community. I’m left thinking 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.
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