The Debate of Our Times: The Right to Public Coexistence or Barbarism?

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For the original article by Jailson de Souza e Silva* in Portuguese published by Nexo Jornal click here.

Without the guarantee to the right to coexistence we won’t escape the barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg prophesied in 1916.

“He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886.

On April 4, 2016, at 6am, Federal Police agents, CORE–Civil Police elite squad–and Military Police invaded the favela of Acari in Rio’s North Zone in order to enforce an arrest warrant of a local resident, sentenced to eight years for drug trafficking. The result of this action is that five people are dead, two suspects were arrested in connection with drug trafficking, about 800 elementary school students had to miss classes, residents lived another day of armed terror, and the warranted arrest wasn’t carried out.

Still, police affirm that the operation was a success. I have read all the news I could about what happened that day and, essentially, this was the information I could get.

In contrast, on the same subject, an online newspaper in São Paulo and another in Espírito Santo published reports on the residents’ indignation on what was an execution and the fact that one of the dead had worked at a municipal hospital in the Acari neighborhood. In one print newspaper, the report also published residents’ comments and the deceased employee’s name: Sergio Eduardo Fernandes. It was the only one to report that correctly.

On March 22, 2016 the mainstream media highlighted the publication of the IPEA and Public Security Forum survey. Brazil has become a world champion in absolute numbers of murders in 2014, the latest year of systemized data. We reached the number of 59,627 people killed in 2014, which represents 13% of homicides in the world that year. In comparison with Brazil itself, since there is no realistic comparison to be made with countries at the same socio-economic development level: 39,325 murders were reported in 2003 which reduced the number to 37,113 in 2004, apparently due to the Statute of Disarmament coming into force, according to the Map of Violence in Brazil.

However, in the context of the greatest economic and social development of the country in decades, with a significant reduction of poverty and inequality, we have also seen an almost 40% increase in lethal violence. This buries once-and-for-all the myth that poverty is the cause of violence. That’s not the worst of it, the fact is that according to this same publication, 56,337 people were murdered in 2012. That means there has been a systematic, ongoing, worsening of the phenomenon, which can not be reversed with short-term solutions. And poor, black young people from the favelas and peripheries will especially continue to feel its effects.

What is the connection between the Nietzsche quotation above to the news of the Acari deaths and the data on murders in Brazil? My theory is that the “demonization” of the “other,” of the different, is the premise that sustains this naturalization and trivialization of deaths amongst a specific portion of the Brazilian population. When we demonize others, we remove their humanity. We no longer see them as similar to us and want them to leave our environment. Before Nazis started killing Jews, they demonized them, building a representation that obliterated people’s human condition. From the moment you spread this representation on a mass scale, you can start to eliminate the monsters.

In Brazil, the same was done with drug traffickers and those with the same profile. When we take an unnatural look at what we read about the latest massacre in Acari favela–or do we fail to consider five deaths a massacre?–a set of elements makes an impression on us.

First, the small space the media allocates to death. The issue has become so commonplace that it does not gain space on the front pages, nor is it featured on the inside pages. The second element, which further supports the demonization hypothesis is the lack of identification of those who’ve died. We do not know their faces, their ages, their names, their profiles, their stories, their dreams, their habits… all the things the media likes to publish when someone considered to have the right to life dies. The only one who had the right to have his name registered, and nothing more than that, was the “worker.” Sergio has very little chance of becoming a new “Amarildo**,” an anonymous life which became a present and illuminated ghost after his death thanks to social media networks.

The demonization process disseminated in the country is also occurring with the attempted impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Regardless of the positions in question on the issue–and I have a lot of conviction in mine–a significant proportion of the population is using the political dispute as a way to instill hatred, intolerance, contempt and even physical violence against those who think differently.

Transforming one person into “the corrupt one,” on the one hand, or “the fascist,” on the other, stems from the inability to assert the most important right to fight the various forms of barbarism that have dominated the contemporary world in all its latitudes: the right to coexistence, a transmutation for the 21st century of the least valued and recognized motto of the French Revolution triad: fraternity.

And why is it that the French revolutionaries added this third element to the fundamental pillars of the society which they sought? Because reconciling the positions of liberals on individual freedom especially, and of proto democrats, socialists, communists and anarchists in relation to the equality of people could only be mediated if people accept living together, sharing the same space, and having common rules of coexistence, civility, and respect for one other.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious, ethnic, political and socio-economic intolerance are at the root of all conflicts and contemporary violence. And they can only be solved if we build common bases of coexistence. Both in favelas and affluent neighborhoods; both in political and cultural spheres; both in relation to us as in relation to them. Without the guarantee of the right to coexistence, we will not escape the barbarism prophesied by Rosa Luxemburg in 1916. We are already in it. Unlike that which occurred with the Roman Empire, we have become barbarians within our own society. The barbarism is manifested in the genocide of young, black, poor people and in the isolation and insecurity of the wealthy within their increasingly private spaces.

Our differences will continue to exist, there is no utopia to account for this. Fortunately history always continues. But for that, we need to affirm our common humanity above all. And build public policies that allow this right to coexistence. This is a choice we need to know we have to make. And live. Before we collapse completely.

*Jailson de Souza e Silva is founder of the Favelas Observatory (Observatório de Favelas) and author of, among other books, Bruxas e bruxos da cidade: personagens da revolução do contemporâneo (Witches and wizards of the city: characters of the contemporary revolution) published in 2016.

**Amarildo was a bricklayer and resident of Rocinha who was murdered by UPP officers in 2013 and, thanks to immediate and widespread campaigning on social media which set off civil protests, his death was investigated by police, resulting in the arrest of the police officers who tortured him to death. His body was not found.