I Got Beaten Up by Rio's Metro Police
With less than a month before the start of the Olympic Games, a riot in a metro station is symbolic of the desperate state the city is in.
This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil
This past Tuesday, protesters got together in front of the parliament in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. It was July 5th, exactly 30 days before the start of the Olympic Games, and the protests were focused on the human rights violations involved in the games set up and the financial crisis that's hit Brazil in the run up to the Olympics. The state of Rio de Janeiro is facing a devastating recession and recently applied for an emergency bailout of R$ 2,9 billion (about £670 million) for the event. The protest march – which was attended by about 500 people – was escorted by police forces and the whole thing ended rather peacefully.
I had gone to the protest to report on it, and went home after – along with some colleagues. However, as we walked down the stairs into Uruguaiana station, we heard screaming. We ran down and witnessed a fight between subway security guards and a group of protesters who had tried to jump the turnstiles. We immediately drew out our cameras and started recording.
That's when a couple of security guards turned their attention from the protesters to us. They tried to cover our lenses, hit our cameras, screamed at us and demanded us not to film them. When we refused, they started to get violent.
Rio de Janeiro's subway system is exploited by a private company, so while its employees aren't technically civil servants, they have some of the same rights as civil servants. But for the last couple of months, actual civil servants in Rio have been protesting the way they're being treated by the state – there's no budget and thousands of public servants in Rio are living in poverty. Just last week, policemen and fire fighters hung up a banner near the international airport saying "Welcome to hell – policemen and firefighters don't get paid – whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe".
It's not really a new situation, but the issue is becoming pressing given the fact that the Olympics start in less than a month. Rio mayor Eduardo Paes told CNN this week that the Brazilian state was doing "a terrible, horrible job" in regards to safety issues. With police being dissatisfied and private security teams trying to maintain order, it's not surprising to see conflicts between them and the public escalate quickly.
I have not been a stranger to scenes of police brutality in my photojournalistic career, but this was different. The Rio underground security guards had no tactics, no technique to contain the turnstile jumpers – there was nothing progressive about their use of force. It was just blind violence directed at protesters, journalists and bystanders who had nothing to do with the situation.
Guards held reporters in chokehold, while those reporters tried to protect their equipment and their evidence of the assault. I was attacked twice – first by three guards at once, one of whom held me in a chokehold which left me almost unconscious. After I recovered, one of the guards attacked me again, and took me to a small room in the station, where I found one of my colleagues.
I'd seen the Rio riot police use excessive violence against the public, but the underground security guards have a history in that department as well. Buskers, in particular, bear the brunt of their brutality quite often. On August 14th, 2015, musician Carlos Adriano Oliveira was punched in the face, dragged by his feet and almost thrown onto the rails by security in Botafogo. On November 6, 2015, three members of the AME collective were driven out of their underground car and beaten by security guards. On March 18, 2015 a musician was seen being dragged up the stairs of another metro station in Rio de Janeiro in a chokehold. For the record, a chokehold can lead to death if it's done by someone who doesn't exactly know how to do it, or uses excessive force.
While held up in the station's backroom, we asked the guards on what grounds they were detaining us. They didn't have a clear answer. One of them said something about a "anti-terrorist law" because apparently we were terrorising them. He wasn't joking – he was desperate. Three journalists – Roger McNaught from Tribuna da Imprensa Sindical, photojournalist Ellan Lustosa and me – were arrested, along with three protesters and a lady who originally had nothing to do with the whole mess.
Dr. Carlos Martins from the Institute for the Defence of Human Rights – who supported us after our arrest – told me: "The underground security company needs to take responsibility and make adjustments in their private security teams. Their forces unfortunately have a history of violence – it's not the first time they respond to an incident with disproportionate force."
A while later, we were taken to the police station to we give our statements, and were finally allowed to leave. My colleagues and I went to get a medical checkup. The doctor treating me grumbled that "at this time of night I only get prisoners or dead people" and that the country was going to shit. He asked me how I got hurt, and I answered that I was assaulted by a subway security guard. "Why – were you busking?" the doctor joked.
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