Written on the walls

Jennifer Chisholm
December 15, 2015
Police-erected barriers outside the Aldeia Maracanã. Courtesy of the author.

We’re no strangers to police violence here in the United States. It doesn’t affect us all equally—people of color are more likely to be victims of it and certain police departments, especially in major cities like New York, are infamous for their harsh retributions against civilians, particularly against people of colour.[1] Growing  up African American in a Midwestern suburb, I received mixed messages  about the police: in school, we were taught to respect and trust the  police while my family made sure to warn me that our racial background  put us at risk for harsher punishment from them than a white person  might experience. It’s important to note that despite the advances of  the 1960s US Civil Rights Movement and the resulting legislative  protections against racist policies, African Americans and other people  of color continue to experience racism because it is entrenched in the  systems and structures of our society. By warning me about the police,  my parents were ensuring that I would be able to confront and navigate  the realities of a racist American society from an early age.

I never directly felt threatened because of my race until the series  of high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans that  occurred during the past year and a half, including but not limited to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. These deaths made personal for me the very real, and often deadly, problem of racially discriminatory, militarized departments  across the United States. Because of these homicides, I see clearly  that my race does put me at risk of police brutality and that my nation  will continue to suffer while the broken relationships between the  police and people of color remain. In what has been a worrying time for  me, the best way to keep my fear in check has been to focus on how  people of color around the world resist the forces that try to oppress  them.

Race in Brazil: An Incredibly Short Introduction

In my academic life, I study the experiences of marginalized groups  and so far, I’ve concentrated on racially-marginalized groups in Brazil.  There, race is based more on skin color and other physical  characteristics than on ancestry. The official racial categories are: preto (black), pardo (mixed-race), branco (white), amarelo (Asian), and indígena  (indigenous). According to the 2010 census, white Brazilians are the  most populous racial group but only make up 47.5% of the total  population; hence, Brazil is a majority non-white nation. Following  white Brazilians, mixed-race and black Brazilians are the next largest  racial groups and comprise 43.4% and 7.5% of the population,  respectively. Asians are a small yet significant part of the population  at 1.1% and indigenous people are the least numerous at 0.4%.[2] Despite these official racial categories, your average Brazilian is more likely to describe herself as, for example, “clar[a] com cabelos crispos” (light-brown  skin with tightly curled hair) than as a member of a particular race.  Brazilians who are proud of the nation’s multiracial legacy embrace this  racial ambiguity and it has come to define Brazil’s national identity.

Racial ambiguity is at the heart of racial democracy, which is the  belief that Brazil’s mixed-race majority makes racism impossible despite  its history of African enslavement and indigenous subjugation. The  theory of racial democracy was popularized by Brazilian social theorist Gilberto Freyre in his 1933 book, Casa grande e senzala that was later translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves.[3] Freyre  asserted that as majority mixed-race country, Brazil harmonized the  best of Portuguese, indigenous Brazilian, and African cultures.  Furthermore, he championed branqueamento,  or the gradual racial whitening of Brazilian society through  interracial sex, as a way to integrate the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous  populations. The ideal of racial democracy was so enticing that in the  1950s, UNESCO sponsored a study of the country in order to discover the  secrets to achieving racial harmony.[4] Instead,  anthropologists and sociologists discovered that racial inequality  (regardless of popular denials) does exist. Since then, plenty of  studies have debunked the myth of racial democracy and yet the idea  persists in the Brazilian consciousness.[5] When  I first began studying Brazil, I believed in racial democracy and in  the promise that someone like me could find refuge from racism in  Brazil. Once I learned that racial democracy never existed and that race  relations in Brazil are just as complex and problematic as they are in  the US, I dedicated myself to learning how racially marginalized people  in Brazil resist and transcend racism.

Aldeia Maracanã and Police Violence in the Brazilian City

A common  obstacle to achieving racial equality in Brazil and the US is racialized  police violence. Like the US, Brazil’s police forces are known for  their violence against people of color.[6] Brazil  is notorious for its policía militar (military police), who  occasionally engage in “pacification” (pacificação), which is when the  policía militar (PM for short) occupy certain favelas, or shantytowns,  in order to drive out gangs and prevent gang-related crime. In practice,  pacification exacerbates the criminalization of youth and poverty in  the favelas, since the majority of those who are targeted by the police  are young, poor males of African descent. Ultimately, through  pacification the State seeks to destroy favelas because of its belief  that they betray Brazil as a still-developing nation not quite on par  with other Western powers.[7]  

The State’s deadly displays of force are a constant threat for people  who live in favelas. So too are forced evictions. Evictions and housing  insecurity also affect urban indigenous people, who are an often  overlooked demographic of Brazilian cities even though 39.2% of the  indigenous population lives in cities. Last year in April 2014, I  investigated police violence in Brazil and the dispossession of  indigenous squatters known as Aldeia Maracanã.

Indigenous female activist with child. Red text: “Luto contra o estado [I fight against the State]”. Bottom right text: “ocupar, resistir [occupy, resist]” around symbol for squatters’ rights. Courtesy of the author.

Aldeia Maracanã is a multiethnic community of indigenous people  living in Rio de Janeiro. Indigenous people traveling to Rio to speak  with politicians about the needs of their villages found themselves in  need of housing, so they began to occupy an old mansion across the  street from the Maracanã soccer stadium in the early 2000s.[8] On  October 20, 2006, the Aldeia became a permanent settlement of more than  seventy people from seventeen different tribes, including the Pataxó,  Tukano, Guajajara, and Apurinã, who moved there to be closer to the  health and educational resources of the city. It also functioned as a  community center where people could discuss issues relevant to  indigenous people inside and outside of the city.[9]

The settlement became permanent through the efforts of the  Movimento Tamoio dos Povos Originários (Tamoio Movement of Original  Peoples), a name that evokes the Confederação dos Tamoios (Confederation  of Tamoios), which was an alliance among Tupí tribes against Brazil’s  Portuguese colonizers. This movement predates the Aldeia Maracanã  community who chose the building for its historic relation to native  issues and for being the site of historic exchanges between Tupí tribes  and the Portuguese. In this sense, they saw occupying the building as a  way to reclaim the land of their ancestors.

This building, which came to be known as Aldeia Maracanã, was built  in 1862 and was originally the residence of Duque Saxe. In 1889, the new  republican Brazilian government acquired the building and turned it  into the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, and Trade. Later,  in 1910 it became the first institute in Brazil dedicated to research  about indigenous people and then the headquarters of FUNAI,  the National Indian Foundation. When FUNAI (the federal bureau in  charge of indigenous affairs) moved to Brazil’s capital, Brasília, the  antique mansion was repurposed again into the first Museu do Índio in  1953, founded by acclaimed Brazilian anthropologist and indigenous  advocate, Darcy Ribeiro.  Once the Museu do Índio was moved to a more centrally located building  in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood in 1977, it remained empty until members  of the Aldeia Maracanã settled there thirty years later.

After years of largely being left to their own devices, Aldeia  Maracanã and the eponymous community faced eviction due to construction  projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Sérgio  Cabral (the state governor of Rio de Janeiro at the time), pushed for  the expulsion of the community in order to expand the Maracanã stadium  complex and envisioned demolishing the old Museu do Índio as well as a  neighboring school, aquatic sports center, and stadium among other  buildings.  In their place, he proposed the creation of a massive  parking lot for 2,000 cars, a mall, and a soccer museum. This project  was estimated to cost R$ 800 million, or £260 million. Pushbacks against  this plan were severe and the Aldeia’s imminent expulsion drew the  attention of domestic and international supporters including Brazilian  celebrities Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso, Raquel  Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing during the time  of the 2014 World Cup, and scores of academics, students, and other  human rights activists.[10] Moreover,  Amnesty International started the Enough Forced Evictions campaign in  response to the generally high rate of forced evictions in Rio—more than  19,000 families between 2009 and 2013.

Mega-events like the World Cup and Olympic Games have the potential  to rejuvenate cities through urban renewal projects. Unfortunately,  urban redevelopment normally takes the form of destroying housing in  favor of building new infrastructure, eradicating homeless people from  the streets, and other infringements on human rights.[11] To  my knowledge, no proponent of Aldeia Maracanã’s eviction cited concerns  over the suitability of the building for housing, but it is a common  argument for the removal of favelas and other informally settled  communities in Latin America where the housing is largely makeshift.  In Aldeia Maracana’s case, however, eviction proposals were mainly  opportunistic and in anticipation of the Olympics and World Cup.

Pressure from the Aldeia’s allies compelled the city government to  pass “Law Project no.1536” on September 20, 2012, which upheld Aldeia  Maracanã’s right to occupy the building and the land surrounding it,  citing “cultural, historical, and architectural” importance. The bill  further promised to renovate the building into a cultural center that  would be called “Centro Cultural Indígena da Aldeia Maracanã [Aldeia  Maracanã Indigenous Cultural Center]”. Despite the law recognizing their  right to occupy the museum, on March 22, 2013, 200 police officers  forcibly entered Aldeia Maracanã, using tear gas and pepper spray, to  force the twenty remaining indigenous people and 100 of their supporters  to leave. In the spirit of compromise, some members of the community  agreed to stay in a former leper colony on the periphery of Rio and were  recently moved to newly constructed social housing apartments funded  through the federal housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida.  Currently, the community is working with state and municipal  governments to redesign and repurpose the former museum into an  indigenous cultural center and learning space.

When I arrived at Aldeia Maracanã with an American friend that I’d  met in Rio, the old museum was cordoned off by Military Police who had  used large black slabs of wood to obscure the view of the building and  prevent entry. It struck me as an excessive measure and seemed as if the  police’s symbolic show of strength was more important than adequately  responding to the benign threat of trespassing. The building was heavily  guarded and once we entered through an opening in the black barricade,  we were quickly intercepted by an officer who asked us about our  intentions. Secondhand experience had given me a healthy fear of the PM,  so I strategically explained that we were American tourists who had  heard about Aldeia Maracanã and wanted to take pictures. My hope was  that our foreignness would help us appear innocuous. Prepared to be  ordered away and anxious about our safety, I was surprised when after  consulting with his partner, the officer agreed to let us in and  eventually gave us a tour of the grounds and the inside of the building.

As might be expected of a dilapidated building in the middle of a  tropical urban forest, the inside of Aldeia Maracanã was dank, moldy,  and dark. There was a small entryway that opened into a large living and  working space. Garbage heaps spanned the length of the room and were  mostly made of clothes, other personal items, and some upturned  furniture. I was shocked to see the place so unkempt and chaotic, since I  couldn’t imagine anyone being able to live in those conditions. I soon  realized that I wasn’t looking at a room preserving the daily life of  Aldeia Maracanã, I was looking at a breached fortress: a room that had  witnessed the violent removal of its inhabitants by the police. Once  conscious of this, the remnants of those turbulent last days were  evident everywhere.

Graffiti: Transnational Indigenous Solidarities and Symbolic Power

The outside of Aldeia Maracanã is covered in graffiti which serves as  an artistic representation of the community’s political ethos and  cultural philosophies. Unsurprisingly much of the graffiti is  anti-government and anti-police. Upon making it into the complex and  reading the messages inscribed on the building, the black fence  surrounding the complex suddenly took on new meaning: yet another  attempt to silence the discourse of indigenous people.

Graffiti  also covers the inside of Aldeia Maracanã, helping to define the space  as a radical, indigenous one. Interestingly, much of this graffiti  connects the members of Aldeia Maracanã with transnational,  pan-indigenous movements in Latin America. Indigenous  female activist with child. Red text: “Luto contra o estado [I fight  against the State]”. Bottom right text: “ocupar, resistir [occupy,  resist]” around symbol for squatters’ rights.For example, one depiction of a female, indigenous activist is reminiscent of the bandana-clad indigenous women fighters in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation  (EZLN) who are engaged in a struggle for indigenous and peasant land  rights in Chiapas, Mexico. EZLN’s “Women’s Revolutionary Law” has helped  to promote gender equality in Zapatista-controlled areas within the  state of Chiapas and has led to an increase in influential roles for  women in the Zapatista land rights movement. “Abya Ayala”

In a similar vein, the wall off the main chamber reads, “Não queremos sobreviver! Queremos bem-viver! [We don’t want to survive! We want to live well!]” In the far right corner, someone has written “abya ayala”. Abya ayala, or abya yala,  is the name for the American continent used by the Kuna tribe who are  indigenous to Panama and Colombia. This strategic use of “abya ayala”  invokes a broader, pan-indigenous linguistic protest against the  hegemony the language of the colonizers.[12]

On yet another wall, the sense of transnational, trans-tribal  solidarity was made clear by the slogan “Hopi Mohawk’s Punx” scrawled  around the symbol for anarchism. The Hopi and the Mohawk refer to two  different Native American tribes and I wondered if this graffiti was  evidence that representatives of these tribes had visited Aldeia  Maracanã at some point, or if members of Aldeia Maracanã were trying to  evoke the “warrior spirit” ideal commonly associated with native North  Americans. The Mohawk more so than the Hopi are renowned for being  fierce warriors and are the inspiration behind the “Mohawk” hairstyle  that has become a symbol of punk culture. Punks and indigenous land  rights activists generally share an affinity for the principles of  anarchism.

As a political philosophy, anarchism is fundamentally anti-State and  emphasizes self-determination and autonomy—two key theories that support  indigenous arguments for the recognition of native land rights and, by  extension, housing and property rights. I was surprised to see how  global the influences of Aldeia Maracanã are and was fascinated by their  use and re-appropriation of the symbols and language of international  radical movements.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of our tour was when we reached one  of the large rooms on the first floor that was covered in graffiti. I  was nervous reading some of the graffiti that blatantly wished harm to  the State, considering that the graffiti on the walls screamed, “Morto ao estado! [Death to the State!]” and “Fogo no estado!  [The State in flames!]”. I assumed that the threats would put the  officers on edge but as I watched the two men take in the room, I  noticed that they seemed more politely amused than offended. It was  clear that Aldeia Maracanã’s threats and admonitions weren’t enough to  prevent the police (and by proxy, the State) from entering their sacred  space. The warnings on the walls seemed empty at that point, and I  imagine that it was principally the irony of their presence that most  amused the officers.

At the suggestion of one of the officers, we left the building and  thanked our hosts. For the rest of the day, I marveled at our fortune of  not only avoiding harassment from the police but our ability to enter  the building with their help. At the time, I privately wondered if my  American friend, who is white, also offered us protection—with me  experiencing a kind of second-order white privilege because I was with  her. Both officers were brown-skinned and would probably be classified  as mixed-race, but even in Brazil, with its non-white majority, white  supremacy is systemic and structural such that people from any race can  be complicit in its maintenance. It is also possible that we just  encountered two decent police officers, but I can’t help but cynically  speculate about how we would have been received if we were black men,  homeless indigenous Brazilians, or if I had come alone without my white  friend.

Understanding Police Violence

There is no singular reason for the high number of cases involving  police violence in Brazil. One explanation for police violence may be  due to the legacy of the dictatorship. Brazil’s change from a military  junta to a democracy occurred relatively recently (only in 1987) and  there are still visible remnants of the dictatorship: powerful  militarized police forces that target particular factions of Brazilian  society:

“There was a Doctrine of National Security which said the  enemy must be killed, and that enemy was those who lived in a certain  area of the city or who were a certain social class,” said [Adilson Paes  de] Souza. “Many important thinkers say we still have that doctrine  today.” Police officers often see themselves as at “war” with the drug  traffickers that control the favelas. “They felt they were in a  battlefield, that they must kill the enemy or be killed themselves,”  Souza said of his interviewees.”[13]

In Brazil, this means that anyone existing in the social periphery  because of race, class, or housing status is a threat to the Military  Police and, in practice, an enemy of the State.

Other explanations include “broken judicial institutions and a lack  of funding and training” that have compelled the police to carry out  their own form of often-vicious punishment.  In the US, insufficient  training is one explanation for the disproportionately high number of  cases involving excessive force by police in cities with significant  non-white populations. In fact, the US Department of Justice has  censured Cleveland, Miami, and Philadelphia among other cities for failing to train their officers adequately. Furthermore, some observers have blamed the dearth of black police officers  and the failure of police departments to recruit officers from the  neighborhoods in which they serve. Poor training and an “us vs. them”  mentality leads police officers in countries like the US and Brazil to  enact harsher punishments against people who are socioeconomically  disadvantaged, who live in spaces deemed dangerous and who, by  association and because of racist and/or classist beliefs, are  considered dangerous as well.

Last year when I first went to Aldeia Maracanã, I was righteously  indignant about their eviction and about the larger issue of police  violence against indigenous and Afro-Brazilians living in favelas. It  was the kind of righteous indignation you can only feel when you’re not  the one being targeted and it isn’t your burden to bear. My indignation  betrayed my perception of being in a privileged position that allowed me  access Aldeia Maracanã and to witness the consequences of police  violence without having to be directly affected or threatened by it.  However, current media attention on the deaths of unarmed African  Americans at the hands of the police has forced me to understand that in  reality, racialized policing and police violence are my burdens too.

Writing about resistance helps me come to terms with the frightening  actuality of racism, but even though I study race in Brazil and know a  bit about racism in the US, I can’t always come to terms with my  feelings about racism and certainly don’t have the answers.  Nevertheless, I believe it’s crucial for anyone at risk of experiencing  prejudiced violence to avoid despairing and feeling victimized. I resist  my own victimization by focusing on my responsibilities as a researcher  to not only expose and explain life-threatening inequalities, but also  to show how people resist those imbalances. Continued resistance is  imperative in trying to overcome racism, police brutality, and other  monolithic and longstanding social problems but fortunately, our  increasingly interconnected world means that we don’t have to fight  these injustices anonymously and in isolation.


[1] “People  Of Colour” Is An Americanism That Refers To Anyone Who Identifies As  Belonging To A Racial Group Other Than White. I Use This Term In To  Avoid The More Familiar But Problematic Term “Minority”, Which In Terms  Of Race Implies Subordination Or Inferiority In Relation To A White  Majority.

[2]  Instituto Brasileiro De Geografia E Estatística (Ibge), Censo Demográfico 2010: Características Gerais Da População, Religião E Pessoas Com Deficiência (2010), Ftp://Ftp.Ibge.Gov.Br/Censos/Censo_demografico_2010/Caracteristicas_gerais_religiao_deficiencia/Caracteristicas_religiao_deficiencia.Pdf.

[3] Kia L. Caldwell, Negras In Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, And The Politics Of Identity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 33.

[4] Gilberto Freyre, The Masters And The Slaves: A Study In The Development Of Brazilian Civilization, Trans. Samuel Putnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).

[5] See Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Colour, Race, And Racism In Urban Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001); Thomas E. Skidmore, Black Into White: Race And Nationality In Brazilian Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); France Winddance Twine, Racism In A Racial Democracy: The Maintenance Of White Supremacy In Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997);  And Jonathan E. Warren, Racial Revolutions: Antiracism And Indian Resurgence In Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) Among Others.

[6] Dave Zirin And Jules Boykoff, “Why Is Blackwater Helping To Train Brazil’s World Cup Security?,” The Nation (Blog) (April 25, 2014), Http://Www.Thenation.Com/Blog/179541/Why-blackwater-helping-train-brazils-world-cup-security#; Revolution News,  “Brazil: Fifa Forces Evictions For World Cup, Police Brutality Rages,”  (January 9, 2014),   Http://Revolution-news.Com/Brazil-fifa-forces-evictions-for-world-cup-police-brutality-rages/.

[7] Simon Romero And Taylor Barnes, “Police Storm Squatters At Rio Stadium Site,” New York Times (March  22,  2013), Http://Www.Nytimes.Com/2013/03/23/World/Americas/Brazilian-police-storm-indigenous-squatters-at-maracana.Html?_r=1&.

[8] Nayana Fernandez, “Aldeia Maracanã Marks 513 Years Of Indigenous Evictions In Brazil,” Latin America Inside Out (Blog), Latin American Bureau (March 19, 2013), Http://Lab.Org.Uk/Aldeia-maracana-rios-urban-indigenous-village-in-danger-as-brazils-world-cup-approaches; Notícias Rio Brasil Editor, “Hospital Côlonia Curupaiti O Novo Endereço Dos Índios Expulsos Da Aldeia Maracanã,” Notícias Rio Brasil (Blog) (March 23, 2013),  Http://Noticiasriobrasil.Com.Br/?P=5616.

[9] Cedefes, “Carta Aberta À Imprensa E A Todos Que Apoiaram À Aldeia Maracanã E O Movimento Tamoio Dos Povos Originários,” (March 29, 2013), Http://Www.Cedefes.Org.Br/Index.Php?P=Indigenas_detalhe&Id_afro=10040.; Romero And Barnes; Fernandez.

[10] Fernanda Sánchez, “Forced Eviction Of Aldeia Maracanã: How Not To Make A World Cup, ” Rioonwatch (March 23, 2013), Http://Www.Rioonwatch.Org/?P=7962; Jornal Do Brasil, “Aldeia Maracanã: Caetano Veloso Critica ‘vulgaridade’ Da Administração Estadual,” (January 20, 2013), Http://Www.Jb.Com.Br/Rio/Noticias/2013/01/20/Aldeia-maracana-caetano-veloso-critica-vulgaridade-da-administracao-estadual/.

[11] United Nations, General Assembly, “Report Of The Special  Rapporteur On Adequate Housing As A Component Of The Right To An  Adequate Standard Of Living, And On The Right To Non-discrimination In  This Context, Raquel Rolnik [Mega-events], A/Hrc/13/20,” (December 18,  2009), Http://Direitoamoradia.Org/Wp-content/Uploads/2012/01/G0917613_megaeventos2.Pdf, 4.

[12] Nativeweb, “About Abya Yala Net,” (2002), Http://Abyayala.Nativeweb.Org/About.Html.

[13]  Miriam Wells, “Why Do Brazilian Police Kill?” Insight  Crime (Blog), (November 21, 2013),  Http://Www.Insightcrime.Org/News-analysis/Why-do-brazilian-police-kill.

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Jennifer Chisholm