When I did my doctoral research in Brazil during the 1990s there was a pervasive fear of the police. I remember once watching as the police hunted someone who had gone into hiding, while I sat safely in a tram in central Rio de Janeiro. As the police poked into alleys and boxes, the other passengers had a look of disgust on their face, while the people on the street looked terrified. I escaped any serious crime while living in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and 1993. But I knew many people who had stories about carjackings, muggings and worse. When I did fieldwork in Sao Paulo in 2005 for my book in HIV in Latin America, I interviewed drug traffickers and users, most of whom were using crack, although injecting drugs were also common amongst an older generation of drug users. I went into the favelas, many of which were totally under the control of the drug lords at that time. One day I was at an NGO that did harm mitigation work around drugs. We were supposed to work in a favela that afternoon, but then a phone call came. The drug lords had closed the favela to protest some action that the government had taken, and nobody could enter it that day.
A great deal has changed over the last decade. The pacification campaign in the favelas has brought the state into urban areas which the drug lords had long controlled. But there are still many legacies of this period, when people were victimized both by the police and the criminals. This last week 15 military police were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the 1992 Carandiru massacre in Sao Paulo; the verdict created protests by other police who wanted to see them amnestied. While such trials are important, state governments also need to reform the police, as an article in the news magazine Veja pointed out this week. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 1900 people died in Brazil in 2012 because of police brutality. There is a disparity between the formal training that the police receive, and the reality on the streets. Still, if Brazil is to address its serious issues with crime, reforming the police alone will not be enough.
This week, Terrence McCoy had an outstanding article in the Washington Post, which talked about the disturbing findings of a recent survey, which found that almost two thirds of recipients believed that if a woman was dressed suggestively, she deserved to be attacked and raped. More than half of people said that if women knew how to behave appropriately, there would be fewer rapes. Perhaps most troubling of all, McCoy noted that most of the survey takers were women.
The result has been a social campaign, in which Brazilian women are taking pictures of themselves topless, while shielded by signs that say “Nobody deserves to be raped.” The article shows some of these images, in which the women uniformly look determined. McCoy did a good job in the article discussing the historical roots of this violence, even referring to a law from the 1830s that gave sentencing guidelines for rape based on whether the victim was “honest.” These attitudes have deep roots in the nation’s racial hierarchy, patriarchy and inequality. But the “nobody deserves to be raped” campaign has forced Brazil to have a conversation about the deeper social changes both women and men need to overcome crime and oppression. My thanks go out to Gisele, who shared the Washington Post article with me.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University