In this second post for the SVRN blog, Jo Brandim-Howson, ESRC scholar and Honorary Vice-Chancellor’s scholar based in the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge, provides a snapshot of his research and the paper he will be delivering at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference. For info on how to register for the conference, and how to submit a blog post yourself, see the links at the end of this post.
Image Credit: gilprata: https://pixabay.com/en/police-brazil-crises-activism-666322/
Cameras are becoming pervasive and increasingly mobile. The massification of CCTV systems, digital cameras, and camera-enabled mobile phones has been impressive. These visual technologies are then often combined with the proliferating use of social media networks. Of course, there are prerequisites to their availability and adoption: an internet infrastructure, disposable income for consumer goods, digital skills, and digital freedoms. These are certainly not universal, however, and where these conditions (each to a greater or lesser extent) coalesce, the impact on political and social life is profound.
The extent to which digital visual technologies and social media have been causal to these changes, or simply part of a longer period of transition, is an area of debate. This blog post will park those questions for now, and focus on a particular domain in which their availability and adoption has been prominent: the favelas of Brazil.
Favelas are typically cast as spaces of underdevelopment. Whilst the absence of many facets of the State certainly hinders traditional ideas of progress, the technological and social innovation occurring within favelas, led by those who live there, pushes us to rethink this characterisation. One key area of this innovation has been the use of digital technologies and social media in organising the safety and prosperity of favela residents. For instance, online communities designed to crowd-source and archive human rights violations, apps developed for the rapid spread of safety information, and platforms launched to interface directly with government representatives and policy makers. These initiatives combine the capabilities of new technologies with a civic mission.
A significant area of development has been the use of digital visual technologies, usually camera-enabled mobile phones or cheap DSLR cameras, used to record police abuse within the favela. Grassroots organisations, such as Colectivo Papo Reto, have teamed up with international NGOs in order to capture, document, and distribute videos of police abuse. It is hoped that public awareness campaigns, and tactical legal cases using these videos as evidence, can challenge the impunity of police forces (Papo Reto, 2014).
This is a fast-growing field of activity for activists, NGOs, and legal actors, with a growing number of tools to facilitate this strategy. However, these contemporary developments are also part of a longer genealogy of video activism, and the use of video evidence within legal proceedings. Many will be familiar with key moments in this history: the video showing the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles; the video captured by Egyptian Khalid Said in 2010 that led to his brutal torture, images of which galvanised protests in the early days of the Arab Spring; videos from Free the children NAURU that since 2015 have been key to mounting public pressure against Australia’s off-shore detention facilities.
As we reflect and evaluate the various impacts of this emerging form of digital video activism, it is important to bear in mind its history and the influences on its development. Part of my research offers this critical appreciation. So ahead of my paper at the State Violence conference, I provide an informative, but incomplete, sketch of key moments in the use of video in the struggle against police violence in Brazilian favelas. My focus is limited to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo because of my own experiences, interactions, and research. However, given the national and international concentration of attention on these regions, the videos explored have also resonated across Brazil.1
Brazil is in a moment of crisis. Older forms of activism will continue to be useful in resisting a turn towards fascism, and new ones will emerge to counter the particularities of President Bolsonaro’s politics. In each case, we should remain aware of the different traditions and influences through which these activist strategies have formed. It may seem extravagant to push for reflection during such urgent times, but it is equally important to consider that each activist strategy comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and shapes the field of activism for future struggles. Video activism is no different and, as many commentators have started to draw out, also comes with its own puzzles for us to work through (Wilson and Serisier, 2010; McPherson, 2016; Ristovska, 2016; WITNESS, 2016).
Amarildo de Souza
Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year old bricklayer and father of six, lived in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro. In July 2013, police officers were conducting a two-day long raid of the favela, named Operation Armed Peace (Bowater, 2013). During this time, Amarildo was called in for questioning at his local UPP (Police Pacification Unit) office. After entering the police office, he was never seen again.
Police classified Amarildo as a ‘missing person’, yet a video from a police-run CCTV camera surfaced showing Amarildo entering the UPP office. When prosecutors requested footage of Amarildo’s exit, the police claimed that a technical malfunction had prevented the cameras from working at the moment police reports had documented Amarildo’s release (Carneiro, 2013).
The CCTV footage of Amarildo entering the police offices circulated widely, with #CadêOAmarildo (#WhereIsAmarildo) becoming a trending hashtag in the following days. Demands proliferated for the police to return Amarildo (or, at least his body). International news sites and human rights organisations also picked up on this evidence, and pressured for a fresh investigation (Amnesty 2013; Flueckiger, 2015; Delgadillo, 2016).
Thanks to these CCTV images, as well as wide public interest, an investigation resulted in 25 UPP officers being charged with torture and murder. Four were directly involved, twelve stood guard, and eight officers were present and did not help the victim. In 2015, more CCTV images emerged from cameras close to the UPP station. Although these were initially inconclusive due to image quality, computer enhanced imaging determined that a package compatible with Amarildo’s body was hauled into the back of a police truck on the night of his disappearance (Flueckiger, 2015). Despite the new and mounting evidence, Amarildo’s body has yet to be returned.
Video was central to the circulation and public support of this case and, rather astutely, Amarildo’s story has been turned into a documentary, O Estopim (The Trigger, 2014). The documentary offers a story of resistance against the violence of the state (Niven, 2014).
Claudia Silva Ferreira
Claudia Silva Ferreira worked in a Rio hospital and cared for her four children. In March 2014 she was shot multiples times during a military operation in the Morro da Congonha (Rio de Janeiro). Bullets entered her neck and back. The 38-year old woman, now unconscious, was put in the back of a police car. Those at the scene tried to stop the officers from taking her body, but the officers insisted, supposedly seeking to transport her as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. Officers even had to fire warning shots to disperse the gathering crowds who sought to save her body.
On the Intendente Magalhães highway, Claudia’s body rolled out of the trunk of the police car. Secured by a single piece of clothing, her body was dragged along the tarmac for nearly 300 metres without the officers realising. An anonymous driver was able to record this horrific moment on a mobile phone.
Whilst mainstream media re-hashed various race and class-based tropes in communicating the death of Claudia, Brazil’s activist Twitter/Facebook scene went into overdrive (Borges, 2014; Garcia, 2014; OlGA, 2014). The video circulating on YouTube received hundreds of thousands of views, and was shared widely. Intense feelings of indignation, and concurrent exasperation at the commonplace nature of such violations, led to street protests across Rio, and coverage of events by international news sites and Human Rights groups (BBC, 2014; Garcia, 2014; HRW, 2014; Lopes, 2014).
The police officers involved – Sub-lieutenant Adir Serrano Machado, Sub-lieutenant Rodney Miguel Archanjo, and Sergeant Alex Sandro da Silva Alves – were all arrested. However, they were all released the following day. Monica Waldvogel, a Brazilian journalist, investigated and found that during their careers as police officers, Sub-lieutenant Adir Serrano had been involved in at least sixty-three deaths, and Sub-lieutenant Rodney Archango in six (2014).
Como ocupar um colégio (How to occupy a school)
In October 2015, São Paulo’s State Governor unexpectedly announced an educational restructuring plan. Pushed forth without dialogue or the participation from students, 94 public schools were tabled for closure – a move which would impact over 300,000 middle and high school students (Belinky, 2015).
Soon, a wave of student-led occupations spread across the São Paulo state. Aided by How-to videos, and an 8-page manual called Como ocupar um colégio, students occupied over 200 public schools. The government’s response was to deploy armed military police to surround the schools and break the occupations. The student-occupier’s response was to use their camera phones to document the peaceful nature of their protests, capture proof of police abuse, and encourage other students to join the movement (Neri, 2016). In one of the most highly circulated videos, Josepha, a student-occupier, interrupts an interview with O Globo (Brazil’s biggest news network) to correct the interviewer’s use of the work invasão (invasion) with ocupação (occupation). The video has gone on to be become featured in a number of popular gifs and memes (such as this one).
The student occupations and subsequent mass mobilisations led to the resignation of the State’s Secretary of Education, as well as the suspension of the restructuring proposal. Student groups then partnered with human rights organisations in an attempt to hold the police accountable for the violations that took place during the clashes between students and police. After a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they brought a hearing before the commission in 2016 (Ortiz, 2016).
Key to this case was a video compilation of images of students being beaten and assaulted, set to the soundtrack of the Governor’s rhetoric on the State’s well-trained police forces. The juxtaposition of this discourse with reality proved successful, with the Commission validating the complaints of the students (Neri, 2016). This rarely favourable hearing was then covered by national and international news outlets (Fellet, 2016; Ortellado, 2016; Pureza, 2016). This successful combination of direct, video, social media, and legal activism went on to inspire a new wave of school occupations across other Brazilian states (Alegria and Moresco, 2017).
Alegria, P. and Moresco, M. (2017) Occupy and resist! School occupations in Brazil, Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/protest/brazil-school-occupations (Accessed: 1 February 2019).
BBC (2014) Police car death shocks Brazil, says President Rousseff, BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-26638995 (Accessed: 27 January 2019).
Belinky, B. (2015) Brazil students take over schools and fight off police, Dazed. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/28495/1/brazilian-students-takeover-schools-fighting-off-police (Accessed: 1 February 2019).
Borges, W. (2014) Marido suspeita que mulher arrastada por carro da PM tenha sido executada, O Globo. Available at: https://oglobo.globo.com/rio/marido-suspeita-que-mulher-arrastada-por-carro-da-pm-tenha-sido-executada-11897656 (Accessed: 27 January 2019).
Bowater, D. (2013) Where’s Amarildo? How the disappearance of a construction worker taken from his home by police has sparked protests in Brazil, The Independent.
Carneiro, J. (2013) Amarildo: The disappearance that has rocked Rio, BBC.
Delgadillo, N. (2016) The Trouble With Rio’s Police, The Atlantic.
Fellet, J. (2016) ‘Vi meu filho ser preso ao vivo na TV‘, diz mãe que denunciou PM-SP nos EUA, BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/videos_e_fotos/2016/04/160410_estudantes_eua_jf (Accessed: 1 February 2019).
Flueckiger, L. (2015) Investigations in Amarildo de Souza Case Reopened in Rio, The Rio Times.
Garcia, R. (2014) The ‘Woman Who Was Dragged’ and Killed by Brazil’s Military Police, Global Voices. Available at: https://globalvoices.org/2014/03/30/brazil-claudia-silva-ferreira-dragged-killed-military-police/ (Accessed: 27 January 2019).
HRW (2014) False Police Rescues and the Case of Cláudia da Silva Ferreira, Human Rights Watch.
International, A. (2013) URGENT ACTIONL: ‘SUSPECT’ GOES MISSING FROM POLICE CUSTODY, Amnesty International.
Lopes, D. (2014) A morte violenta de Claudia Silva Ferreira, Vice.
McPherson, E. (2016) ‘Source credibility as “information subsidy”: Strategies for successful NGO journalism at Mexican human rights NGOs’, Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), pp. 330–346.
Neri, P. (2016) ESTUDANTES LEVAM GOVERNO DE SP À CIDH POR VIOLÊNCIA POLICIAL, WITNESS.
Niven, R. (2014) O Estopim, YouTube.
OlGA (2014) CLÁUDIA, 100 VEZES, OLGA. Available at: https://thinkolga.com/2014/03/19/100-vezes-claudia/ (Accessed: 27 January 2019).
Ortellado, P. (2016) Brazil’s Students Occupy Their Schools to Save Them, New York Times.
Ortiz, F. (2016) ‘Nenhuma força policial armada deveria ser enviada para lidar com protestos estudantis’, diz relatora da CIDH, OperaMundi.
Pureza, F. (2016) Brazil’s Students Upsurge, Jacobin.
Reto, P. (2014) Sobre. Available at: https://100ko.wordpress.com/sobre/ (Accessed: 1 June 2018).
Ristovska, S. (2016) ‘Strategic witnessing in an age of video activism’, Media, Culture & Society, 38(7), pp. 1034–1047.
Waldvogel, M. (2014) Para destruir um dia no seu começo: subtenente q matou e arrastou Cláudia, no Rio, está envolvido em outras 63 mortes. SESSENTA E TRÊS., Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/MonicaWaldvogel/status/446263007702962176 (Accessed: 27 January 2019).
Wilson, D. and Serisier, T. (2010) ‘Video Activism and the Ambiguities of Counter-Surveillance’, Surveillance & Society, 8(2), pp. 166–180.
WITNESS (2016) Video as Evidence: Ethical Guidelines, WITNESS. Available at: https://library.witness.org/product/video-as-evidence-ethical-guidelines/ (Accessed: 1 June 2018).
1 In this post I have not included images from the videos themselves. I’m unconvinced that contributing to the further circulation of these violent images, in networks quite detached from those in which these people lived, would be of much use and only further contribute to mediated voyeurism. If you require, a quick Google search with the names of these individuals will bring up the relevant content.
Registration for the SVRN’s inaugural conference, ‘From the State to the Streets: Representations of and Responses to State Violence in the Nuclear Age’, is now open. To register, please click here. To see the provisional programme, please click here.
If you are interested in submitting to the SVRN blog, please click here for more information.
The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.