Building Grassroots Politics in Militia Territories in Brazil
An Abolitionist Perspective
August 19, 2022
The Brazilian prison and police abolition movement is growing by the day. What can we learn from the struggle against the brutal state violence experienced by Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people in Brazil? In this series, we’ll let the people building abolition in Brazil answer that. The many fronts of the struggle, the diverse character of the movement, from the local to the national and the international: this is the Brazilian movement for prison and police abolition.
The first installment in the series begins in 1974, when Louis X, an inmate at Parchman Prison Camp, Mississippi, said “the [prison] administrators are charged with committing genocide.” That’s also the charge the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative brings against the Brazilian state. Based in Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro, the organization fights alongside families and victims of state violence for their right to memory. With a body of members from different fields of knowledge, the Initiative’s social analysis is centered on the issue of structural racism and its connections to capitalism. This analysis allows the group to produce counter-narratives on state violence and antiracist struggle, guiding the group’s activism for racial justice.
Translated by Amós Caldeira and Margarida Nogueira
Before thinking about building grassroots politics in territories dominated by militias1Translator’s Note (TN): Militia are paramilitary groups formed by current and former police officers, military firefighter officers, politicians and other people with close links to state functions. These groups control specific territories, usually in the favela regions of big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, exploiting the local populations by providing illegal services (TV, internet, electricity) and carrying out a number of other illegal activities. Their close tie with the state and access to state resources helps them to control territories and to bring down drug gangs, but only to reinforce a more repressive, deadly, militarized and racist control of such territories.—like the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro—we need to establish what we understand as the state and public policy.
The Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative shares a radical theory of the state; we have a clear political stake in the uncompromising defense of the working-class aspirations for social emancipation. We’re clearly part of a class, we have gender, we live in a specific territory, we’re people of color; it’s this consciousness of who we are and where we stand that guides us through the construction and execution of our grassroots, anti-racist, feminist, and anti-capitalist political project.
We need to understand that the modern state is a machine of violations shaped by class struggles, by the never-ending internal disputes of distinct class fractions that try to set the tone and pace of the state machinery.
In this case, we highlight that the “state” does not represent society in its entirety. Actually, it represents the groups that hold political power to influence the government’s guidelines. The state is not a deliberative institution above society, devoid of particular interests or motivations. The state forges and consolidates itself by preserving and protecting the inviolable right to private propriety; it was never meant to ensure social goods and the defense of the interests of society. Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, advanced the thesis that the main public policy of the Liberal state is to “preserve private property.”
As Poulantzas shows in his final work, State, Power, Socialism, the state is a way to moderate the struggle between antagonistic classes, preserving the domination of one class over another. From this point of view, it becomes clear that we can’t understand public policies simply as ways to correct the “mistakes” of capitalism; nor can we believe that the establishment of general social policies can transform the structure of this murderous and unequal mode of production of life.
Public policies, at their core, are not just the outcome of the intentions of working-class movements; they also articulate the very logic of capitalist accumulation. For example, consider the issue of the monetization of social policies, in which the state transfers the function of providing basic social rights to the private sector. So, the access to social policies remains in the sphere of capital, especially in the financial circuit. There are some emblematic cases of the Privatization of Social Policies, the incentives of the ProUni2TN: The University for All Program (ProUni) is a public policy created to provide more access to higher education. The program offers scholarships in private institutions for people who have low income. In exchange, the Government offers tax exemptions for these private Universities. policy instead of the improvement of free and good public universities. The case of private health care plans and the dismantling of the public health system are also important to note, as well as the concession of urban transportation services to large cartels.
Therefore, to put public policies exclusively as a mechanism to promote equality for all is to attempt to humanize a mode of production of life programmed to create misery.
In Baixada, the organization of public policies were always mediated by colonization. This colonization process was once carried out by the “coronéis,”3TN: Coronéis, from “Coronelism.” Coronelism was the main political force of the Brazilian Old Republic (1889–1930), also known as the “rule of the colonels,” responsible for the centralization of the political power in the hands of a locally dominant oligarch, known as a colonel. then by the military, and now by the militias.
It’s undeniable that Brazil is historically forged by innumerous violations that are updated at every historical moment, but it is important to highlight that state institutions are the organizers of the methods through which those violations can occur in a naturalized way.
In the living conditions of Black people in the favelas and suburbs, this idea of rights is something estranged from everyday life, an almost unreachable sphere due to the demands of practical and material life.
An example that illustrates the vast process of negation/non-access to social rights in Baixada is how public facilities are perceived. Hospitals, legal assistance centers, courts, and police stations are identified as places of great psychic suffering because of the ways that they deal with the public.
The public spaces, squares, markets, and streets are abandoned with little structure and maintenance. Cultural facilities, public schools, and community centers exist in minimal functional conditions and, in most cases, are located only in the commercial centers. That scenario makes us consider the actions planned by the state for Baixada Fluminense.
The culture and recreation policies do not reach favela and peripheral territories, social assistance is completely dismantled and, with respect to the law enforcement policies for predominantly Black territories, the political choice of the state is to execute a confrontational policy, with armed conflicts in streets and alleys.
The absence of public policies is also a political choice of the state; it is not a mistake, an error, or something random. For example, the law enforcement policy of Baixada Fluminense is one of militialization. The militias act under the state’s veil of legality and take advantage of the legislation that legitimizes and exempts police abuse. They also take advantage of the public law enforcement apparatus in order to profit, dominate, murder, and rape bodies—primarily Black bodies. Furthermore, they use the symbolic and material power of the police to guarantee impunity.
Facing this scenario, to believe that it is possible to build public policies in territories dominated by militias without having direct relations with the corrupt political and militia groups themselves is pure naivete—since the distinct factions of militias occupy the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches in all municipalities of the Baixada Fluminense.
We don’t conceive of the militia as a single homogeneous group; on the contrary, there are different fractions of power disputing territories that are highly profitable. In areas ruled by the militia, everything from the distribution of the apartments4TN: In English, My House, My Life. It was the first Brazilian national program for public housing. to the supply of gas, TV, stores, parking lots, and so-called “private security” are executed by different militia fractions that dispute the political control of the territory—making these territories an additional space for the accumulation of profits, since these services did not previously cost any money. Besides the extortion of store owners and provision of loan sharking services, these groups exploit illegal TV and internet signals, alternative transportation, and even the control of public services such as social assistance, housing, and health care.
We face a scenario of consolidation of the militia as a political state project for suburban, favela, and peripheral areas. The management and organization of social policies in these predominantly Black and poor territories are carried out by these political organizations that operate within the state.
Therefore, the civil society’s participation in the elaboration of municipal public policy plans and the spaces for participation and social control are shared with the leaderships of militia fractions and death squads.
Do you think it’s right and responsible to share spaces with these militia groups to discuss municipal planning and share spaces like community councils to debate issues of public safety in Baixada Fluminense?
Let’s recall that Brazil is the country in Latin America where human rights activists are most frequently threatened and killed, and unfortunately the culture of protection is still a challenge for our society.
Is Grassroots Participation in Community Councils a Way Out?
The Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative believes in the construction of “politics with a capital P.” That’s why we initiate dialogue on a daily basis with our people in the territories for the construction of an emancipatory and autonomous political project, where we will be the protagonists. It is evident that such a political project will be built over the long term. However, we feel sorry that some social movements and prefer to prioritize political construction (primarily through state institutions) for the sake of visibility and micropower disputes in the arena of public policy.
This is a type of construction that doesn’t address the need for structural changes and that is rapidly co-opted by neoliberalism and conservatism. Not to mention the exposure and vulnerability of historically oppressed bodies to the machine that violates rights called the state.
Blueprints for municipal plans in territories dominated by militias don’t make sense because they only expose and make activists, social movements, and organizations vulnerable. The proposed actions will only be carried out if the militia fractions and death squads that control the state authorize them first.
According to our surveys, militia members are the main managers of the public policies of housing, health care, and social assistance in Baixada Fluminense.
It’s the militia members that select who will be part of the family healthcare and other social policies teams, and the implementation of the policy guidelines of the Municipal Secretariats.
In this scenario of intense violence, young Black men are killed daily. Institutional racism operates by physically and symbolically eliminating the Black population on a daily basis. However, even when presenting data and analysis, the phenomenon of violence and racial injustices, in general, are met with little awareness in society.
In this context, we think it’s necessary to point out the state as responsible for the brutal urban violence. The fight for social rights and promotion of citizenship always finds a barrier in the state, which clearly has no interest in guaranteeing access for the majority of the population.
Because of that, it is not exclusively through the creation of public policies that the problem of public safety will be solved, given the intimate relationship between organizations that command urban violence and the internal structures of the state.
Creating Grassroots Resistance in Territories Dominated by Militias
We believe in the construction of memory devices and legacies of our resistances, as well as in the cooperation with strategic actors, using whiteness so that we can put their privileged white bodies in the containment of this political project of militialization, constantly aiming at a higher horizon of human emancipation, completely outside the framework of capital.
Therefore, the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative fosters actions of harm reduction and works in collaboration with other organizations and groups with the goal of alleviating daily violence promoted by the state in favelas and in more peripheral areas. One example is the ADPF 6355TN: Also known as ADPF Favelas Case. For a short introduction, we recommend the piece “ADPF Favelas Case: understand, in 5 points, the case in the Supreme Court to reduce police lethality in Rio de Janeiro.”, a policy of constraint and control of law enforcement in the state of Rio de Janeiro. It is worth mentioning that we made history by reaching the Supreme Federal Court as amicus curiae, as the first organization from the Baixada to reach the Supreme Federal Court to discuss public safety policy. We were not alone, but with a massive coalition of organizations and social movements.
Another experience is the production of reports that are sent to international human rights platforms, such as the Inter-American Human Rights System/IACHR and the United Nations—as well as the promotion of a statewide Coalition for the Protection of Human Rights Activists. After all, it is essential to minimize threats in the face of this adverse political situation, always looking after care and protection in the construction of mobilization, political advocacy and political interventions in the territory.