Police Kill 6 Youth in a Week: Favelas Respond to Rio Governor Blaming ‘Human Rights’ #VoicesFromSocialMedia

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This article is part of RioOnWatch’s #VoicesFromSocialMedia series, which compiles perspectives posted on social media by favela residents and activists about events and societal themes that arise. It is also the first article in a year-long partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University to produce monthly favela-sourced human rights reporting from Rio de Janeiro on RioOnWatch.

On Friday, August 16, Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, following the death of six youths in a single week of police operations around the state, declared that “human rights” were to blame for the loss of life. Speaking alongside police in the Baixada Fluminense city of Nova Iguaçu, the former federal judge called activists “pseudo-defenders of human rights,” saying “they don’t want police to kill people carrying rifles. So it’s on your hands, human rights defenders. The bodies of these youths are not on my hands. They’re on yours.”

The six, Gabriel Pereira Alves, age 18, Lucas Monteiro dos Santos Costa, 21, Tiago Freitas, 21, Dyogo Costa Xavier de Brito, 16, Henrico de Jesus Viegas de Menezes Júnior, 19, and Margareth Teixeira, 17, were each caught by stray bullets or direct fire, the majority during police operations in or around Rio favelas.

Alves, a student at Herbert de Souza High School, was hit by a stray bullet on his way to school from his home in the favela of Borel, on the outskirts of Tijuca Forest when a police operation began on August 9. Santos Costa and Freitas, both members of the army’s infantry parachute brigade were found dead after a firefight broke out at a party on August 10 in the North Zone neighborhood of Encantado. Brito, an aspiring soccer player, was found shot in the back after a police operation in Niteroi’s Grota favela on August 12. Menezes Junior, a supermarket clerk, was caught by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and drug traffickers in Magé, in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense, also on August 12. Teixeira, hit during an August 13 police operation in Bangu, in Rio’s West Zone, died with her toddler son in her arms

Stunned at the governor’s allegation that human rights defenders deserved blame for the bloodshed, Rio civil society struck back. Community activists from around the city organized a tweetstorm, using the hashtag #ACulpaÉDoWitzel (#BlameItOnWitzel) to call attention to State responsibility for deaths resulting from police action. The hashtag soon jumped to the number two trending spot on Brazilian Twitter, reflecting wide-spread outrage at the governor’s words.

Above, Raull Santiago, an activist at Coletivo Papo Reto from the favelas of Complexo do Alemão in the city’s North Zone, portrays the despair of his children at the all-too-common firefight going on, writing “Hey @wilsonwitzel. This here is my house, my sons and daughter lying on the ground, while the helicopter passed by shooting, just like you did in another favela. At this moment, at this exact hopeless moment, you are only stoking fear. #BlameItOnWitzel.”

Other parents protested similarly. Camila Santos, also of Coletivo Papo Reto, posted a poem written by one of her daughters, writing “This is not fake. Children really feel this. My daughter wrote this last year. #BlameItOnWitzel.” Santos’ daughter Leticia parodies MC Bob Rum’s funk anthem “Rap do Silva” in her poem “Everyone Should Pay Attention,” writing:

Everyone should pay attention to this story,
Because there are many children
Going to school to study
To find a decent life maybe
Play a little
Who knows change their lives
Before someone kills it

He is just one more Silva
Whose star does not shine

Whom his family took care of with too much
Love to be crying now

He is just one more Silva whose star
Does not shine today but one family has lost all its happiness

-Leticia Guimarães

Maré Vive, a human rights group from the favelas of Complexo da Maré, located near Rio’s international airport, also posted in protest, sharing a cover from the Extra newspaper questioning the lack of strategy and its effects on the lives of innocent residents. The group wrote “The blame for these deaths lies with you, @wilsonwitzel, and with your Politics of Death the genocide of our youth continues to grow. #BlameItOnWitzel.”

The cartoonist Carlos Latuff contributed to the online protest with an image reflecting on the use of helicopters in Rio favelas and contemplating the role of those that denounce State violence in the favelas. “NO! The blame for the killings in Rio favelas does not fall on those who denounce it!” Latuff tweeted. “It isn’t human rights defenders that fire from helicopters and armored vehicles! #BlameItOnWitzel who not only gave the police carte blanche, but also incentivizes slaughter!”

Even after the tweetstorm ended, activists, primarily those most impacted by Witzel’s declarations and those from favelas where the six youths were killed, continued to use the hashtag. Such was the case of Patrick Melo, a resident of Borel, who took to the streets following the death of Gabriel Pereira Alves.  

Tweeting a photo of Borel protesters marching through the neighborhood of Tijuca, Melo wrote: “The residents of Borel hill have come back down. Back down for Gabriel, who was executed on his way to school. Back down for the 5 youths that died in 80 hours. For the 881 deaths carried out by the state of Rio in 6 months [new figures show 1075 were killed by police between January and July]. All this to say: #BlameItOnWitzel #BlackAndFavelaLivesMatter.” 

This is the first article in a year-long partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University to produce monthly favela-sourced human rights reporting from Rio de Janeiro on RioOnWatch.