‘You, You, and You—Get Off Now’: The Diary of a Black Youth Living in a Rio Favela [OPINION]

Clique aqui para Português

For the original article in Portuguese by Bruno Sousa published by The Intercept Brasil click here.

A Professional Suspect with a Graduate Degree in Being Harassed by the Police: The Diary of a Black Youth Living in a Rio Favela

“But if you put yourself in my place and suppose that / In the 21st century, a black youth dies every 23 minutes / And you’re black like me, a black boy, oh / Wouldn’t you be worried?”

This is a verse from the song “Favela Vive 3” by the rapper Djonga. It raises an alarm that has haunted me since childhood: the fear of dying at the hands of the police.

It’s no novelty that Rio de Janeiro’s police are among those who both kill and die the most in Brazil. For every 100 deaths in Brazil, 71 of the victims are black.

The police violence that many read about in the newspaper and the militarization that many ask for—Rio’s public security was under federal military intervention until December 2018, with the Brazilian Army heading the State Secretary of Public Security—is part of my everyday life as a resident of a favela in Rio’s North Zone.

September 20, 2018

Getting Things Off My Chest

I’m going to tell you how racism made me cry today, with two incidents in less than ten minutes. It was a police operation day—when the police or the army enter the favela shooting from all sides, supposedly going after drugs and criminals. Those are the worst days. Businesses don’t open their doors until the operation is over. The Internet cuts out—electricity too, sometimes. Children don’t go to school and adults aren’t able to go to work—which isn’t the worst thing when you’re at home hiding under the bed and could still get shot by a stray bullet.

The operation started in the early hours of the morning. At around 4am, I woke up to the sound of gunshots and already thought that it would be a lost workday. By 9am, the gunshots had subsided and I decided to leave the house. The police were still inside the favela, with the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) of the Military Police searching through everything with their cars, dogs, and officers—who look more like Transformers, big and robot-like. They were all looking for drug dealers. I passed by them, but soon thereafter—still in the favela—I was stopped by army soldiers standing next to a sort of war tank parked near the railway. They ordered me to “lean against the wall.” The soldiers all appeared to be no more than 25 years old and they were all black. They seemed startled, or at least uncomfortable, to be stopping me to search me. They’re definitely favela residents like me, and, when they’re not in uniform, they’re probably also stopped and searched just like I was. During the search, I called the soldiers “bro.” It was automatic. They seemed like my friends—people who I would greet on my way home from work or at funk dances. I was released and continued to the metro station thinking about how wrong that was in many ways. The government makes it so that young black men die on both sides of a war that they didn’t start.

“The government makes it so that young black men die on both sides of a war that they didn’t start.”

I was already getting close to the metro station, a trip that usually takes ten minutes by foot, when I saw a Military Police car slowly approaching in my direction. I was on the sidewalk outside of a supermarket, which also functions as a parking lot, so they couldn’t get close to me with the car—there was nowhere for them to stop. They passed by. I thought they were gone when the car turned around and drove up a small cross-street that bisects Avenida Dom Hélder Câmara, the main road in the neighborhood, which leads to the Maria da Graça metro station—where I was planning to get on. I thought, “They’re doing this to corner me on the street where the metro station is so that I have no way of escaping.” Not that I was planning to run, but even those who don’t need to be are still afraid. The four policemen got out of the car with all of the courtesy that black people deserve in a stop-and-search: pointing a rifle and a pistol at my head. The officer pointing the pistol was the same one who had stopped me earlier in the week, also near the metro. He ordered me to lean against the wall, place my feet apart, and open my bag. He asked me about forty times where I was going and if I had been arrested before. He laughed each time I said I was a college student.

“Even those who don’t need to be are still afraid.”

Lots of people passed in the street and none of them were stopped. I answered harshly—I was very angry, this same guy had already stopped me two days ago—and they kept mocking me, saying that it was for my own safety. When I said that I was a journalist, they laughed. “You’re still in college. You’re nothing. You’re a nobody.” I responded, saying that I wasn’t a criminal. “If you were a criminal, you would already be dead, lying face down,” replied the officer who had pointed the pistol at me.

They let me go, dropped my bag on the floor, and told me to keep moving. “Go on, journalist, go write an article about us today,” they shouted as I walked away. “I’d love for a journalist to take a ride with us today, don’t you want to go, journalist?” They carried on shouting as they got into the car. I put my headphones on and continued listening to Racionais. This wasn’t the worst stop-and-search that I’d experienced, but it was the first time that I remember that made me cry.

September 21, 2018

Them Again

9:30am. I wrote about what happened on Facebook and it went viral. After I published the post, my wife felt very nervous. Despite knowing about the routine abuses committed by the Military Police—she too had already suffered various stop-and-search encounters when she was with me—she decided to take me to the metro, thinking that her presence would prevent me from being stopped again. She was wrong. Before even arriving at the SuperMarket—a grocery store close to the metro station—as we approached Cidade da Polícia, the city’s police operations center for specialized units, we saw a car coming in our direction. Several people were taking the same route to the metro, but only the two of us were stopped by the police. They were the same officers who had stopped me the day before; the driver prepared to stop me for the third time in the same week. They came over with a mocking expression, ordering me to lift my shirt and open my backpack. They asked me where I was going—the right to come and go doesn’t exist if you’re a black favela resident—and I replied: “I’m going to work, man. You stopped me yesterday and the day before yesterday for the same thing. I’m in the same clothes, it’s the same backpack. Take a look, I have the same lunchbox. Take a look at my ID.” The officer who had stopped me three times laughed and went back to the car. The other said, “Oh really, man? I don’t remember,” and laughed.  

September 22, 2018

Come and Go?

6pm. On the weekends at around 4pm, the Military Police often set up a checkpoint on Avenida Dom Hélder Câmara and stop a good number of vehicles passing through the area. They always close the lane that’s bound for the Del Castilho neighborhood, in the North Zone, aiming to stop people who are leaving Jacarezinho, Manguinhos, Arará, and other nearby favelas. My wife and I got a bus to Casacadura, in the North Zone, where her mother lives. As soon as we approached the checkpoint, our bus was stopped. Two police officers got on the bus and started pointing at people who they deemed to be suspects. “You, you, you, and you—get off now.” No surprise, I was among those chosen to get off. Five more young people got off the bus with me—three men and two women, all of whom were black. My wife was not told to get off, but feeling scared, she got off as well to try to guarantee my safety.

Everyone already knows the drill: hands against the wall, legs apart, look down. The other men and I stayed in the same position for nearly ten minutes while they searched our bags and used psychological terror on the women since there were no female officers to search them. I didn’t hear because I was further away but my wife said that they kept calling them liars—that they would take them all to the Bangu prison for drug dealing, reminding them of all the horrible things that happen to women in prison… They tried everything to intimidate me. They called me a liar and said that I was hiding my drugs on my wife; she had tears on her face when we were finally “released.” The others who had been told to get off the bus with me kept their hands on the wall and their heads down.

“They called me a liar and said that I was hiding my drugs on my wife.”

We missed the bus. We didn’t get our bus fare back, nor were we allowed to board another one. We returned to the bus stop just before the checkpoint. When we finally got on another bus, we were stopped again. “You, you and you.” I was chosen again. Before I could react, the police officer remembered that he had just made me get off the bus and said: “Ahh no, I already searched you—stay there,” signaling that I had already been searched and therefore could stay on the bus. A trip that usually takes twenty minutes lasted two hours. We arrived in Cascadura shaken. It was a rough week.

“We missed the bus. We didn’t get our bus fare back, nor were we allowed to board another one.”

September 25, 2018

The Preview

10pm. Returning from the university, I got off at the Maria de Graça metro station and started walking in the direction of Jacarezinho. In front of the Cidade da Polícia police operations center, officers were stopping cars and pedestrians headed towards Jacarezinho. When I got close, they greeted me with their typical warm welcoming, with a gun pointed at my head followed by the order, “Lift up your shirt, fast!” and an interrogation. “Where are you going? Where do you live? Have you been arrested before?” I answered them. They repeated the questions: “Where do you study? Where do you work?” They use this strategy believing that if you give a different answer for the same question under stress, you’re lying. I was too tired to talk back—I just wanted to go home—so like usual, I gave one-word answers: “Yes,” “No,” and whatever it took to be released as quickly as possible.

September 26, 2018

The Result

8am. The police stop was a preview of the operation that began at dawn the following day. At 4am, many gunshots could be heard in the community. By 8am, the gunshots had apparently stopped so I left the house to go to work. I thought that the police had already left the favela but I was mistaken. Cars and agents from the Civil Police’s Special Resources Coordination (CORE) and from BOPE—as well as a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) tank—were everywhere. The agents wore ninja masks with the ghost and skeleton faces. When I neared the entrance to the favela I was approached by a group of four UPP officers who were already searching two guys—as always, black youth. Again, I was monosyllabic. They searched my bag and my whole body and let me go. The guys that were there when I was stopped didn’t have the same “luck”— they continued being questioned and abused—I mean, “searched.”

September 30, 2018

No Heroes

After the 26th, I started taking alternative routes and leaving at different times of day to go to university and to work in order to reduce the number of stop-and-search encounters. My wife and my family began pressuring me to leave Jacarezinho. It’s complicated: I love this place more than anywhere else in the city, but they were right about the violence that I was exposing myself to—mainly after telling the police that I’m a journalist. My wife suffers from anxiety and depression and her crises were worsening, primarily when I would arrive home late. We began looking for houses outside of the favela. I’m not the hero who is going to change the course of history in the favela just by staying there—and here in Rio, they kill heroes. Marielle Franco is proof of this. I think that the time has come for me to say goodbye to the favela.

October 2, 2018

No Warning

5pm. At around 5pm, my wife sent me a dozen messages. She couldn’t get home because of an operation that had started in the mid-afternoon—a time when everyone is out in the streets shopping at local businesses and kids are on their way home from school. She was very scared and didn’t know where to go. She called me immediately and went to the university, where she could wait for the dust to settle before returning. I was at work when I got the call. I tried to calm her down and went to meet her so that she wouldn’t have to go back alone. We didn’t get home until about 8pm.

October 10, 2018

War Tank of Peace

11am. I also work at the Favelas Observatory. I was at the bus stop to go to Maré—another favela in Rio’s North Zone, where the Favelas Observatory office is located—when a police car drove by and stopped. Of the four police officers, three were black—but they carry out the search just like white police officers do. “Do you have bus fare? Where are you going? What are you going to do in Maré?” They took my ID and looked at something on their cell phones. I think that it was something to verify that I don’t have a record. They let me go. My bus arrived, but all it took was one stop—Avenida Democráticos—before we were intercepted by a UPP tank. It’s the same as the BOPE tank, but it’s white with the UPP logo. The police officers who had searched me were standing near the tank talking to other officers. I felt stressed, already thinking about how I was going to get home. There would definitely be an operation.

December 9, 2018

Revenge Operation

9am. The favela endured the second of three consecutive days of police operations. A resident was shot on his way to work. A street dog was also shot and made the headlines—the state of the resident’s health is still unknown. The Military Police’s BOPE and the Shock forces carried out a revenge operation after UPP police officers were shot while patrolling the upper part of the favela.

This happens fairly often. The Comando Vermelho (“Red Command,” or CV) drug trafficking gang controls the lower part of the favela, while the “the small hill” is the UPP’s territory. There are always confrontations when the CV tries to take control of the upper part of the favela. It was around 9am when I heard footsteps in the alleyway outside my house. Using rifles and ninja masks, two agents opened the window of my house. I was in bed, lying down with my wife. I quickly got up and approached the window with my hands in the air so that they wouldn’t suspect any movement and shoot at me. With the rifle still pointed at me, I opened the door and asked them to just wait for my wife to get dressed before coming inside.

“I woke up on Sunday to two agents with rifles and ninja masks opening the window of my house.”

After, they searched the two rooms in the house and looked inside and behind the refrigerator several times. Normally it’s worse. On this day, they only threw the clothes on the floor to look inside the dresser. It is a horrible feeling that I can’t quite explain: it’s the realization that favela residents have no rights. I gave them all of my documents and when I said that I’m a journalist, they asked what type of journalism and if I’m a crime reporter. I told them that the newspaper covers politics, which they accepted. As they were leaving, they told us to take advantage of the operation to stay home and clean up the house “because it’s a mess.” We stayed home for the rest of the day. The next day, Monday, there was another operation—another lost day stuck inside.

January 12, 2019

Goodbye and the Routine

2pm. After several months of looking for a house outside of the favela, I finally managed to move. To not distance myself too much from my friends, I moved to a nearby neighborhood. The military intervention ended at the start of the new year, but the routine is the same. On January 12, I returned to Jacarezinho to clean the house and hand my keys over to the landlord. The same week, the favela experienced an entire week of “revenge operations” owing to the death of another police officer. When I arrived, I was greeted by the next-door neighbor, Branca, a 60-something-year-old lady from Brazil’s Northeast who has lived in the favela since she moved to Rio. She told me a story. I don’t know if it made me happy for not having experienced it myself or sad about the situation facing others who still live there. “Neighbor, you’re not missing anything by leaving here. I would like to go. They came into the house again, fired fifteen shots at the streetlight, and won’t let Light [Rio’s electric utility] enter the favela. Everyone’s power is out. Mine has been out for three days. Everything that was in the fridge went bad and in this heat, I can’t even turn on the fan.” I’m not religious but I pray for some entity to look out for these people because the government’s hand is going to increasingly hang heavy over them.