A year has passed since photographer Sérgio Andrade da Silva lost his left eye.
On June 13 — a night now known as a quinta sangrenta, or “bloody Thursday” — Silva was documenting the fourth in a series of protests that had paralyzed the heart of São Paulo. Protesters blocked thoroughfares and metro stations, demanding that city authorities revoke plans to hike the local bus fare.
The media had labeled the protesters a nuisance, public opinion was turning against them, and the governor of São Paulo, who was traveling in France, called on police to respond with authority.
As 20,000 protesters marched in the streets that Thursday night, the military police met them with force. Officers in riot gear approached a group of protesters on Maria Antônia Avenue shortly after sundown. They offered no warning, no announcement.
Flash grenades and tear gas canisters began to fall and the air grew unbreathable. People cried out as the scene — a peaceful mix of drums and chants only moments earlier — devolved into chaos.
A rubber bullet pierced Silva’s left eye as he tried to escape. He spent two nights in the hospital and endured several surgeries, but the doctors couldn't save it.
“I’m still trying to understand and accept the loss of my vision,” Silva told VICE News. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did.”
He was one of 837 Brazilians who reported injuries in protests last year.
'A recent study revealed that 64 percent of respondents in the military and civil police admitted that they were not adequately trained to handle protests before those of 2013.'
Nearly 700 protests took place in Brazil in 2013. A new generation of protesters was coming of age and taking its politics to the street. What began as a demonstration against São Paulo’s bus fare increase rapidly evolved into an expression of grievances against social inequity, poor public services, political corruption, and excessive spending on construction for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Officials pointed to the protests as proof of a healthy Brazilian democracy where the freedoms of expression and assembly — which the military dictatorship that ruled between 1964 and 1985 had denied citizens — were thriving. But if protests in 2013 highlighted democratic spirit and the demands of an emergent middle class, they also exposed a brutal police apparatus that had failed to evolve at pace.
The military police force is perhaps the most vivid legacy of the dictatorship; the protests revealed its capacity for violence to a swath of the population that had never experienced it before.
“We’ve seen a great increase in the repression of protests over the past year,” Daniela Skromov, a public defender for the state of São Paulo, told VICE News. “Protests are gathering more people than ever. This has revealed patterns of police abuse that, up until now, had never targeted protesters.”
An estimated 2,608 protesters, journalists, and bystanders were arbitrarily detained or imprisoned in 2013 — many under false or unlikely charges, such as participation in organized crime. They were all released after the civil police, which oversees criminal investigations in Brazil, determined that the charges were unenforceable. Only one person has been convicted to date of a criminal charge relating to last year’s protests, according to Amnesty International.
“In 2013, there was widespread evidence that military police were simply not trained to deal with social movements,” said Camila Marques, a lawyer working for Article 19, an international human rights organization that recently published an exhaustive report about Brazil’s police and demonstrations. “They are trained to act as members of the military, but they end up treating civilians as though we were living in the dictatorship, as though their rights had been suspended.”
A recent study revealed that 64 percent of respondents in the military and civil police admitted that they were not adequately trained to handle protests before those of 2013.
There was also ample evidence that officers were not trained to properly use the “non-lethal” weapons they readily employed against mostly peaceful protesters. According to international protocol, the rubber bullet that struck Silva should have been aimed below the waist.
Three other Brazilians also partially lost their vision as a result of the inappropriate use of non-lethal weapons by the military police in protests last year. Yet Silva was lucky, in a way.
During a hearing on Brazilian police abuse held in March at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a coalition of civil organizations testified that confrontations with security forces during protests had resulted in the deaths of 23 people.
Two protesters died last June after inhaling an excessive amount of tear gas, while another nine were killed during a police operation against a protest in Rio de Janeiro. The following month, a 12-year-old was shot and killed during a protest in Minas Gerais. Even the elderly were caught up in the crackdown, with the deaths of a 66-year-old woman and an 81-year-old man at the hands of police.
Silva and attorneys from the public defender’s office have repeatedly appealed to Fernando Grella Vieira, São Paulo’s secretary of public security, demanding a response to the hundreds of cases of police abuse or misconduct documented during last year’s protests. They haven’t yet received a satisfactory response, and not a single officer involved in these cases has been charged or removed from duty.
“Where are those cases now?” public defender Skmorov asked. “They’re in a drawer somewhere. That’s where they’ll stay, and nothing will be done with them. Impunity remains a huge problem in our justice system.”
For many, the most difficult aspect of police violence in Brazil is the fact that, in the majority of the cases, it’s authorized. The orders against protesters come from ranking officers who legitimize and condone repression.
“They determined that the use of force on June 13 was necessary,” said Silva. “That was really hard to hear. They didn’t go through what I did. They didn’t spend two nights pumped full of morphine in the hospital. They didn’t lose one eye.”
Violent confrontations between protesters and the police have now become routine.
Vinícius Duarte, a 27-year-old chemistry student participating in an anti-World Cup protest in January, had his jaw and nose broken and lost three teeth in beatings dealt by the military police. A 22-year-old named Fabrício Proteus Chaves was shot twice during a protest in February for allegedly attacking military police officers. On May 15, the military police dispersed a peaceful protest with stun grenades that wounded five people and sent three to the hospital with fractures.
A recent Amnesty International report stated that the inadequate training and lack of accountability of police in Brazil “raise serious concerns that the right to protest will be severely undermined during the upcoming World Cup tournament. The country’s planned reliance in some cities on conventional military forces, whose record in carrying out policing duties is poor, exacerbates these concerns.”
As thousands descend on Brazil for the event, some 170,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to the 12 host cities. The government announced earlier this year that it was buying nearly 2,700 additional guns to fire rubber bullets. In total, the budget for World Cup security is nearly $900 million.
In November, the Ministry of Justice announced the creation of “special courts” that would allow for the speedy processing of those who “disrupt order” during the event. The law went into effect in April, but it is still unclear how it will work in practice.
“I’m still uncomfortable,” said Silva, who has launched a campaign to end the use of rubber bullets in protests. “I realize that what happened to me could have happened to anybody. This is part of the everyday violence that we live in.”
Citizens who have lost faith in the state’s ability to protect its citizens have also begun to intervene.
“The state will injure people, but it won’t tend to them,” Alexandro Morgado, the coordinator of the People’s Popular Support Group (GAPP), told VICE News. A group of about 80 nurses, EMTs, and firefighters, GAPP voluntarily accompanies protesters as they march, providing medical services and transportation to those injured during demonstrations.
In protests on May 15, it was GAPP — not an ambulance — that took three protesters who suffered fractures to the hospital. It is one of several groups formed since last June to protect the rights and well-being of protesters.
“We are here to fill the gaps that are left by the state,” Morgado said.
Another is Activist Attorneys, a volunteer group of lawyers in São Paulo that organized last year to provide legal counsel to detained protesters.
“In March, we got 230 of the 260 protesters that were detained out,” an Activist Attorney volunteer named Igor Silva told VICE News, referring to a mass arrest of protesters in February. “They try to round them up and hand them a single charge.”
Rafael Custódio, a legal advisor at the Brazilian human rights group Conectas, told VICE News that he sees the burgeoning protest movement as a steppingstone.
“One of the risks we’re facing in this debate about police violence is that it remains a discussion about violence used against protesters,” Custódio added. “You know what they say: in the outskirts, there are no rubber bullets. We need to be talking about larger issues, too, such as the ideology of the police and the separation of military and police forces.”
Next month, when the World Cup is finished and the thousands of visitors leave Brazil, these issues — as well as the scars of the hundreds injured in protests over the past year — will remain.
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Photo via Flickr