A year after the coup in Brazil: Urban violence by the state and the market
FASE’s second editorial on the coup discusses the impacts of attacks on democracy and social rights in urban territories
The rupture with democracy after a coup d’état put Michel Temer in power has intensified a long-standing but equivocal arrangement, whereby the state is a weak defender of people’s rights and a strong agent of private interests to the detriment of collective needs, as it represses and excludes growing segments of the population. The reign of corporate power is visible in various dimensions, such as the organization of mega-sporting events and mega-development projects in ports, dams, oil and gas operations, mining, agribusiness and other sectors.
Most of the population, of course, has been excluded from political decision making since well before the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. During the years leading up to the coup, conflicts had already heated up around social, environmental, economic and cultural impacts in a variety of territories. The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, for example, evicted entire neighborhoods, increased militarization in the host cities and caused a spike in real-estate speculation, more environmental destruction, embezzlement of public funds, public indebtedness and other actions that commodify life.
We must recognize the ties linking the promotion of those mega-events and mega-projects to the governability pact underpinning even progressive governments. Human rights violations and environmental abuses led to resistance struggles that questioned the development model, often in urban territories. Those struggles were always repressed and criminalized. One dramatic expression of militarization disguised as “peace making” was the installation of Police Pacification Units (UPPs) in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and urban periphery. Indeed, that approach (a violent and segregationist failure from its very beginning) was turned into a national electoral campaign platform, before it was unmasked, and was showcased as a model for “public safety” to be reproduced nationwide.
It is relevant here that a nationwide wave of demonstrations in 2013 expressed strong repudiation of racist, violent actions by the military police. That memorable movement took place a year before the World Cup as a massive statement of social discontent that exposed the limits of the governability pact and the consumption-based approach to social inclusion promoted by PT governments. The June Movement’s demands were varied, but with recurring issues: better public services, like education, transportation and health; much criticism of day-to-day violence against young people, especially blacks; rejection of corruption in the country; and an intense crisis of representation in the National Congress.
That wave of protests, however, was captured by the corporate media and transmuted into a single, conservative and generic version, with no reference to its origins or the nuances of events that spread throughout the country. The media coverage diluted the demonstrations’ potential for transformation and ended up feeding nationalistic and even fascist rhetoric. Progressives and conservatives were so intolerant of each other that their debates obscured many underlying causes. Issues were hotly discussed in all spheres of social life, from homes to workplaces, schools, social networks, neighborhoods and institutions such as churches and universities. The country was swept by an unbearable polarization that colored the 2014 presidential election campaign.
The coup that overthrew President Dilma has deepened a process that is privatizing life. Its many effects, intensely felt in the cities, include growing unemployment, more people living (and frequently harassed) in the streets and the collapse of underfunded public services such as health and education. More inequalities are apparent in downtown areas, along with more informal work and highly-exploited workers, plus a decline in people’s quality of life when they can no longer afford to pay for housing, food and other basic needs.
This is the context in which a privately-controlled state justifies and imposes its “public-safety policies” against human rights. On the street, there are more hold-ups, conflicts and acts of intolerance. In favelas and peripheral neighborhoods, mass killings abound. Shootouts between rival drug-traffic factions or with the military police issue “stray” bullets whose targets are always the bodies of people impoverished by the system, especially young blacks.
Urban reform policies, such as the “My House, My Life” low-income housing program, has been cut back and nothing done to deal with deep-seated problems such as its divorce from the principles and guidelines of the Cities Statute and its nebulous relations with corporate developers. Its target audience has also shifted away from those who most need housing – the zero-to-three minimum-wage bracket. The My House, My Life for Organizations program on the other hand, despite its low-scale budget, featured some degree of social participation and was quickly and simply shut down by the illegitimate government.
Even in the face of all these brutal situations and attacks on rights, sectors of local communities, especially the young people and women, are still waging significant struggles to defend their right to the city.
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