In this eleventh post for the SVRN blog, Gabriel Funari, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of Sao Paulo, discusses the role of Brazil’s heavily militarised police forces in the state-sponsored murder of Brazilian citizens. If you are interested in submitting a blog yourself, please see the instructions at the end of this post.
A bus hijacking in the early hours of the morning of August 20 blocked off the Rio-Niteroi bridge, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Rio de Janeiro. The assailant, 20-year old William Augusto Nascimento, carried a toy gun, a knife, a lighter and bottles of gasoline that he hung around the inside of the bus, which was filled with 37 commuters-turned-hostages. Three hours of negotiation with the police ended abruptly when the kidnapper stepped out of the bus momentarily, just enough time for an elite police sniper, standing on top of a fire truck, to fire six shots and kill him. Another casualty in the state’s steep headcount. Another criminal that transgressed state legality and has, in turn, felt the force of the killing state.
Live footage of the scene shows dozens of people behind the cordoned off police area celebrating vigorously after the shots are fired. The sniper on top of the firetruck gives thumbs up to the adoring crowd, a furtive sign of a job well done. The macabre spectacle is completed a few minutes later, when a helicopter carrying Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio, lands on the bridge. Witzel jumps out of the helicopter while waving his arms and pumping his fists, celebrating the killing as if Brazil had just won the FIFA World Cup.
The hijacking and subsequent killing of William is emblematic of a social phenomenon increasingly defining the contours of a Brazilian politics: the growing acceptance of indiscriminate state violence. A dominant discursive rubric has consolidated itself throughout Brazil that determines that all criminals deserve to die at the hands of a militarized and increasingly unhinged police force. The popular expression bandido bom é bandido morto (a good thief is a dead thief), widely used during Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and administration, is increasingly interwoven into a national consciousness defined by the affective potency of fear of violence. Brazilian sociologist Claudio Beato (2019) has defined this affective terror as “a Hobbesian fear of violent death” that is mobilized to justify further violent interventions by the state (p.40). Killings by the police, sufficiently recurrent to be deemed egregious by any standard, have become normalized by members of a society who are persistently afraid for their physical integrity. Meanwhile, any criticism of state lethality is considered to be an apologia for banditry.
The celebration of the assassination of a citizen by an agent of the state is a testament to the consolidation of a necropolitical regime that has historically coexisted alongside Brazil’s formal democratic arrangements, but is increasingly subsuming any existing semblance of institutional stability. The promulgation of the democratic constitution in 1988 enshrined a wide array of civil rights, but maintained the military structure of the police enacted by the previous dictatorial regime. A constitutional clause was also included that made the armed forces the ultimate guarantors of law and order, thereby empowering the military with exceptional prerogatives (Misse, 2019).
This clause notwithstanding, capital punishment remains illegal under Brazil’s legal code, but the Brazilian police kill more than ever, with Rio’s military police leading the bloody charts. The man killed in the Rio-Niteroi bridge was one of over 1,075 people to have fallen at the hands of police officers in Rio since the start of 2019. Official data for 2018 reveals that there was an 18% increase in police lethality compared to the previous year in all of Brazil, a total of 6,160 citizens killed by their own state. Difficulties in categorizing violent deaths and transparently accounting for all state killings indicate that the real number of victims of state violence are in fact much higher.
While the killing in Rio-Niteroi was celebrated as the vindication of a legal authority, it merely reflected how the state, like the ‘bandits’ from whom it seeks to differentiate itself, operates on the margins of legality, and regularly exceeds its parameters to mediate social disputes. The language used by Governor Witzel to subsequently justify the killing on the Rio-Niteroi bridge resembles that of a butcher, using terms like abatido (slaughter, widely understood in the context of abattoirs) to describe William’s death. In this sense, language represents a kind of slow violence, continuing the criminal proclivities of the state through other means. Bolsonaro’s election, and the simultaneous ascension of radically conservative state governors like Witzel, has shed any recalcitrance that previously existed amongst “law and order” politicians. Calls for further police killings of marginais by the highest public figures in the country has become banal, barely figuring amongst prominent headlines.
The widespread adoption of this bellicose discourse facilitates the perpetuation of unrestrained violent policing. The use of armored helicopters, through which snipers are deployed and grenades are launched into residential areas has become a frequent occurrence in police operations in Rio’s favelas. And while US and European news outlets limit themselves to deeming Bolsonaro a folkloric, ‘tropical’ version of Trump, the terror of the Brazilian state is escalating.
As sociologist Michel Misse (2019) recently remarked, the affirmation of a democratic society in Brazil is increasingly vulnerable to the collective panic surrounding violence. Violence and the fear of violence intervene in the very essence of social relations in Brazil, determining how people behave in public and delineating the urban spaces that are deemed to be safely navigable. Fear of crime and its accompanying legitimation of lethal policing also help to mark anyone who is young and black as potential targets of state violence. Evidently, Brazil’s warzone-level of violence not only corrodes democratic discourse but envelops its political subjects in a vicious cycle of fear, panic and legitimation of state terror. The killing in Rio-Niteroi, yet another justification of state lethality under the rubric of an emergency situation, will soon pale into significance as the headcount of the state increases every day.
Alessi, Gil. “Homem armado faz reféns em ônibus na ponte Rio-Niterói e é morto por snipers”. El Pais Brasil. August 20, 2019. Retrieved from https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/08/20/politica/1566297269_483814.html
Beato, Claudio. (2019). O rebanho de Hobbes. Estudos Avançados, 33(96), 39-52. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/s0103-4014.2019.3396.0004
Betim, Felipe. “As cartas das crianças da Maré: “Não gosto do helicóptero porque ele atira e as pessoas morrem”. El Pais Brasil. August 15, 2019. Retrieved from https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/08/14/politica/1565803890_702531.html
G1.com. “Sequestrador de ônibus é morto por atirador de elite na Ponte Rio-Niterói; os 37 reféns passam bem”. G1 Rio. August 20, 2019. Retrieved from
Misse, Michel. (2019). Alguns aspectos analíticos nas pesquisas da violência na América Latina. Estudos Avançados, 33(96), 23-38. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/s0103-4014.2019.3396.0003
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