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Buba Aguiar. (Photo: Matias Maxx)

Rio de Janeiro's Favelas Were Already Facing More Police Violence Than Ever. Then Coronavirus Hit

VICE talked to Buba Aguiar, one of the leading voices of Brazil's youth activism community, about police violence, racism, and how coronavirus has strained favelas already falling apart at the seams.
August 6, 2020, 6:54pm

In 2016, Buba Aguiar was kidnapped for hours and threatened with death by officers of the Military Police in Brazil. She had reported violent behavior by members of the 41º Battalion of Military Police, which according to an Amnesty International study, is the police force that kills the most civilians in Rio de Janeiro. "I changed my entire routine, I lived in different places, my wardrobe was two suitcases always ready, in case I had to suddenly move," recalls the sociologist, who at 28 is one of the most important voices of Brazilian youth from the slums.

Fear knocked on Buba's door again when councilor Marielle Franco was murdered in 2018. A former Military Police officer was arrested for the crime; however, the case has not yet been solved. Franco’s last posts on social media were complaints about the 41º Battalion, made at Buba's request. The sociologist was forced to leave her home in the Acari neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, and stayed away for months.

Staying at home nowadays is not an option for her and her colleagues at the Coletivo Fala Akari (Speak Up Akari Collective). Located 18 miles from Copabacana beach, Acari is a typical Brazilian neighborhood, where the structure of the State fails and problems pile up. Its 28,000 inhabitants live, to a large extent, with no water supply or sewerage. Since the pandemic settled in the city in March, 1,200 vulnerable families have received donations of food, face masks, and personal hygiene products thanks to the collective’s youth activism.

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Members of the Coletivo Fala Akari putting donation kits together for children in the Acari favela. Photo: Matias Maxx

Not only did COVID-19 and its economic consequences devastate Acari this year, but police violence worsened. In the first five months of 2020, Rio de Janeiro reported 741 deaths as a result of police activities, the highest number in 22 years.

On May 18, when the city confirmed 2,852 COVID-19 fatalities, a 21-year-old Black man was tortured and shot to death by police officers who later removed the body from the favela. Iago César dos Reis Gonzaga's family had to go looking for him to bring him to his funeral.

Iago was not the only young Black man who lost his life that day in Rio. In São Gonçalo, another municipality located in Rio de Janeiros, 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos Pinho was murdered inside his aunt's house. Police officers shot 70 times at the home, where João was living with his family.

Following that bloodbath, the Supreme Court banned police activities in favelas during the pandemic. Buba's account of what happened in Acari the day of Iago's death influenced that decision. “It was a very violent police operation. We have received some messages reporting home invasions and physical attacks on inhabitants of the favela,” she wrote on Twitter, where 24,000 people follow her.

Along with other young activists, Buba organized two demonstrations, on May 31 and June 7, against police violence. Echoing the international movement "Black Lives Matter,” the slogan "Favela Lives Matter" has been added in Brazil.

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Buba Aguiar walking towards the Coletivo Fala Akari's cultural space, next to an open sewer. Photo: Matias Maxx

VICE visited Buba on the eve of her 28th birthday, at the headquarters of the Coletivo Fala Akari. The shed is next to an open sewer. It served as a cultural space in pre-pandemic times; now it is used to store and organize donations for those most in need. Buba spoke about the difficulties of surviving amid continuous death threats –both the virus and police violence – and, like anyone her age, she regretted not being able to celebrate her birthday with a big party.

VICE: Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police reached its murder record this year. How is the situation in Acari today?

Buba Aguiar: Acari was the favela with the highest number of people killed by the police at the beginning of the pandemic. While in other favelas the number dropped in March, here it has increased. We had a conversation with the Police Ombudsman Office. There is also a concern with our team which is out on the streets all day distributing donations, working with the people. Non-official police operations have taken us by surprise more than once, but they became formal after we exposed the situation. The battalion operating in our area is very problematic, it has always been very lethal.

This area is called “Comlurb da PM” (Military Police Dumpsters) because police officers who committed serious failures were suspended and then sent to work here. In 2018 and 2019 the death toll dropped, but we saw an increase in police activities again. They come at any time (sometimes even as the school day ends), always driving a Caveirão (a dreaded armored police vehicle, which originally had a printed skull, the insignia of the Special Police Operations Battalion) and start shooting at random. These operations are currently on pause by decision of the Supreme Court, so people are able to work more calmly. But as soon as the pandemic is over and that decision is no longer in force, a new fight will begin, because I think they will return much worse than before.

What justifies the high number of police activities?

There is no admissible justification. When we contacted the Military Police command, they replied that police operations did not exist. Only when these operations appeared in the mainstream media did they present a justification: they had been attacked at the entrance of the favela or that they had seen a car driving at high speed and that was the reason they went out to find out. We know that this does not happen, that they were non-official operations and that they tried to "formalize" them later.

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Buba Aguiar before turning 28, after an evening of volunteer work in the Coletivo Fala Akari's cultural space. Photo: Matias Maxx

You are part of a group that organized two "Black Lives Matter" events. Although you had strong popular support, there were some who criticized the organization of events during the pandemic and who tried to dismiss them by saying that they were events influenced solely by what happened in the United States.

The comparison with the protests in the United States is inevitable, and yeah, there was a little inspiration. Especially in the thinking modus operandi about the health issue, distancing and everything else. However, we have been on the streets for a very long time. I also collaborated with a Black Lives Matter and a Favela Lives Matter demonstration two years ago.

Many times we take action right after a murder occurs, but that does not mean we are not organized in the safest way possible. Those last two acts happened like this. We were very tired, not only of the actions to fight the pandemic, but tired of being cornered by the police several times during those demonstrations. So we got together and decided that it was not possible to stay at home, we were no longer safe at home, we had to do something. We had to show that even in a pandemic the police are inside our favela and killing our youth, our children, our brothers.

We asked everyone to wear their mask, to avoid contact. In the second demonstration we managed to march maintaining a distance of 4.9 feet between people, it was great. We went to the streets and proved that we have always been here and we will never leave, but also that we are not irresponsible. We are reliable militants. It was all well thought out, there were various meetings and many sleepless nights, a lot of crying. It is difficult to see my friends deteriorating from tiredness and stress from that situation. People complain a lot, it’s either, "Oh, don't do it" or "So, where are you?”

We send a message. The first demonstration was repressed for a reason and in the second one there were 15 police officers for each protester.

All this repression shows structural racism in Brazilian institutions.

Brazil has its own peculiarities when it comes to racism, we have a whole armed system on the slavery system. The economic, cultural, and social system, it is all designed to look at us with prejudice. It is a perspective that constructs us as public enemies. And public enemies have to be killed, no matter what the justification may be. On the drug issue, for example, many times a wealthy white young man can be involved in trafficking and he will be registered as a consumer, while a young Black man could be carrying just one joint and he will be accused of  drug trafficking.

Rights violation by the State is often related to business interests. We have already seen police operations carried out to guarantee the installation of cable television or other private services, for example. How does that happen? Is the business community also responsible for the violation of rights?

People think the lack of supplies and abandonment of public health structures are simply due to an indifference of public power, especially within poor and favela spaces. I do not see it as a simple lack of care, but as a very well-armed project that benefits employers in health services. And the same happens with the commodification of education. Everything is very well planned, even so that people do not rebel: "Oh, that has always been like that"; "It happens, that is so"; "It is the nurse's fault, the doctor's fault." People never think of business owners, who run everything. There is a political-business and media collusion. Rio de Janeiro is a showcase. They sell, for example, violence; they show the world how violent the city is in order to obtain the approval of a security plan that will not fight violence, but promote it. No one talks about what causes urban violence between individuals.

One of our missions is to transmit this to the people of the favelas. It is not a matter of welfare, or just distributing donations. We do it even as a way to create a stronger connection with the people, so in the future we can bring them to our activities, in which we talk about all those topics.

What are the activities of the Coletivo Fala Akari like?

We have a project of cultural excursions, in which we take young people to the cinema, theater, or museum. I always try to talk to them. The idea is to take them to places that help them develop critical thinking skills, so that they see that in those places there are not many people like them, but that does not mean those places were not created for them. The system makes it difficult for them to have access to these places, but we need individuals to break down those barriers. All the different actions that we organize aim to develop critical thinking in the population.

You perform actions together with groups and militants from other favelas, such as Complexo do Alemão, Complexo da Maré, and Cidade de Deus. How do you organize yourselves?

We are in touch with groups from other favelas not only from Rio, but from Brazil. Before the pandemic we were interconnected through the Movimiento Favelas na Luta (Movimento Favelas na Luta). We have already received several gallons of water from the Crisis Cabinet of the Complexo do Alemão (a favela located 6 miles from Acari), we have distributed some to the people and others have been donated to the Family Clinic and the Ronaldo Gazzola Hospital, which at the beginning of the pandemic was the referral hospital for treating seriously ill patients with COVID-19 and they had no water supply.

We have also received soap, vegetables, and organic food from other favela groups, and we have already donated basic foodstuffs to other places. That mutual support is maintained. The favela often operates under self-management. People come together to pave the streets, for example. That shouldn't come from the same people, but if they don't, we do it. The main motto of favela movements is “We see for each other.”

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Cookies, snacks, and chocolate kits donated by local merchants to the people of the Acari neighborhood. Photo: Matias Maxx

How does the donation distribution campaign work during the pandemic?

In our first donations of basic supplies, we made a list of the people who lived close to the cultural center. Then, we went to other in need localities, where the infrastructure of the houses is very precarious, there are no sanitary facilities or water supply - the structure just does not exist or was made by hand by the inhabitants themselves. Houses are made of wood, the floor is made of soil. If a pipe bursts, the street turns into a quagmire. Children walk barefoot. Houses have no address, streets have no name. We went to those places and talked with each one of the inhabitants, we registered how many children were there, if they had managed to receive emergency aid from the government or not…The next morning, we brought the donations. We took everything that was here, in addition to some organic food that we had received from other favela groups. We tried to fully optimize the donations so that they were well distributed.

How do the WHO's basic recommendations, such as washing your hands or staying at home, became a problem in the favela?

Something that the group has highlighted for a long time is the right to decent housing. When we talk about rights violations within the favelas, people automatically think of police operations, but there are other violations. When a person goes to the public health system and is not treated at all, or precariously treated, that is a violation of their rights. Not having sanitation is a violation of human rights. So, during a pandemic, we see that none of the protection or prevention measures for COVID-19 have a place in the favelas, because they are territories where those measures no longer exist.

There was a problem with water contamination in the city in January this year. Many neighborhoods were getting muddy water, and the favelas just didn’t have any water. Are there still regions in Acari without water supply?

Favelas suffer a historical failure when it comes to water supply. I live on a street that rarely runs out of water, but at that time we had no water supply for a few days, we had to buy bottled water. In several localities in the favela, people had to finance the installation of collective water tanks. The favela was organized according to its own need, because the public power was not present to guarantee the rights, only to violate them. It is worth noting that this does not happen out of the blue. We live in an elitist, racist and macho system, and the favela is everything that bothers them. The favela is Black, poor, and has a very large rate of women as heads of household.