Shoot first, ask questions later
Brazilian musician Evaldo Rosa dos Santos was executed while driving his car with his family in the poor Rio de Janeiro district of Guadalupe. Army soldiers mistook dos Santos for a criminal. A total of 257 rifle and pistol shots were fired, of which 83 hit the car and 9 hit Santos.
Luciano Macedo, who worked as a recyclable waste picker, was passing by with his wife. They were looking for pieces of wood to build a shack because she was pregnant and needed a roof. He saw dos Santos’s family panicking and ran to help them. The musician’s family survived, but Macedo too was shot dead by the military.
‘The army didn’t kill anyone. The army belongs to the people. You can’t accuse the people of being murderers. There was an incident,’ said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, himself a retired army captain.
Both dos Santos and Macedo were black, poor and lived in the outskirts or favelas. That means, according to the Brazilian state’s structural racism, they were ‘nobodies’. Brazil formally abolished slavery on 13 May 1888 but did not promote social and economic inclusion of the descendants of Africans brought by force, keeping them on the margins of citizenship. The death of dos Santos and Macedo were not isolated events; they were not ‘incidents’. They happen, all the time.
There were almost 64,000 homicides in Brazil in 2017 – more than the number of deaths in current wars around the globe. In 2016, the homicide rate for black people was 40 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants while it was 16 deaths per 100,000 in other groups. According to State Civil Police reports, 9 out of 10 people killed by the police in 2017 in the state of Rio de Janeiro were black.
Police and army authorities have issued no direct orders to shoot blacks and poor people. They do not have to. First, because security forces in a large metropolis such as Rio are trained to protect the quality of life and assets of those who live in the ‘postcard’ areas of cities while acting to restrain poorer people. Second, state governors and the President support police lethality as a policy to combat violence, encouraging officers to shoot first and ask questions later.
The Brazilian army has been used by different governments to help the police to ensure public safety. People like dos Santos and Macedo have never been regarded as citizens, either by those who profit from fear or those who are rendered fearful by the discourse of violence.
Brazil continues to adopt a form of ‘state terrorism’ against its own population and by so doing avoids the structural changes that could ensure peace. Those include: providing quality of life for all, opportunities for poor youths so that they do not fall into drug trafficking – and training security forces to act with intelligence.
From time to time, a hero emerges from anonymity. They are killed for their solidarity, for defending the rights of indigenous people and peasants, or, like waste picker Macedo, trying to save an unknown family.
But while killing its anonymous heroes, the country continues to seek saviours. Maybe, when the people of our Latin America realize that their heroes are already among them, they will cease to believe that they need politicians to ‘save’ them.