As Police Invade Another Favela, Brazil Vents Fury: Dom Phillips

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As many of the homemade videos posted on YouTube show, the invasion of the Pinheirinho favela by some 1,800 police in riot gear -- throwing tear-gas bombs and firing rubber bullets -- left residents frightened, furious and homeless.

But the raid shouldn't have been a surprise. The residents had been illegally squatting on the property in Sao Jose dos Campos, in Sao Paulo state, for about eight years. An order to evict them had been meandering through the courts -- and matters were clearly coming to a head.

On Jan. 13, local paper O Vale had printed pictures of Pinheirinho's "soldiers," male favela residents kitted out to do battle against a police invasion. One widely circulated image -- which made the cover of the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper -- showed hundreds of men armed with clubs and iron bars, wearing crash helmets and clutching shields fashioned out of garbage bins. They looked like medieval soldiers.

So when the police went in, they went in hard. The fear and panic among people fleeing the confusion is palpable in videos on the Internet, as is the anger in the crowd outside an ambulance chanting "murderer" at the police (though none of the early reports of death were confirmed).

People cover their mouths as they retreat from tear gas. Youths wearing flip-flops throw stones at distant police as the sound of rubber bullets being fired resounds. In one photo circulating on Facebook, a policeman appears to fire teargas at a young girl.

And in a shocking video published by the Folha de Sao Paulo, three police officers approach a lone black man who holds up his arms. They beat him, briefly, with their truncheons, and wander on. The police have promised to investigate.

Raquel Rolnik, an urban planner and professor at the University of Sao Paulo, was one of many who linked this incident to other recent heavy-handed police actions -- one at her own university, and one in central Sao Paulo's "Crackland" neighborhood -- and to an increasing militarization in Sao Paulo state.

“What do these three recent and regrettable episodes have in common?” Rolnik asked.

The three events involve conflicts of management and occupation of territory. All three are complex situations, which demanded a conjunction of short, medium and long-term policies be implemented. All three required an enormous effort of mediation and negotiation. Yet, what was the response to this rowdy complexity? Violence, suppression of dialogue, the intensification of the conflict.

The federal government soon aired its disapproval -- and showed its confusion. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said he was “surprised” by the decision to evict residents of Pinheirinho. His office had only found out about the state police action the day it happened, he said.

Minister Gilberto Carvalho, a senior federal official who is close to President Dilma Rousseff, spoke out against the police on Jan. 23:

We think that there was still something that could have been done, above all a negotiated and humane exit for those families, without the need to create a battlefield in the location.

Journalist Reinaldo Azevedo, however, saw it as a clear issue of the rule of law. He argued that the court had been correct in finally ordering the eviction, and that members of the ruling Workers Party -- known as Petistas -- were taking political advantage of an unpopular police action in a state ruled by the opposition PSDB party. On his blog for the news magazine Veja, in all capital letters, he wrote:


Having laid out the legal reasoning that in his view meant the eviction had to go ahead, he argued:

The Sao Paulo government and the military police cannot choose to fulfill or not what is determined by the law. If they could, they would be sovereign entities -- actually, dictatorial. … Soon, the invaders of Pinheirinho would have had to leave. And the military police acted. Within the law.

One subtext to the outrage over the evictions was that many poorer Brazilians don't trust the legal system. They say it benefits the rich and powerful -- who are rarely jailed for long, if at all, be that for political corruption or financial crimes.

That criticism was particularly resonant in this case. Naji Nahas, the Lebanese-born owner of the failed company that claims the land where the Pinheirinho favela stood, had been arrested during a wide-ranging police investigation into financial crimes in 2008, as the magazine Carta Capital pointed out. He was released shortly afterward.

Rodrigo Nunes, a Brazilian philosopher and the editor of the Turbulence blog, noted the inequalities underlying the favela invasion in an article for the Guardian:

Pinheirinho has been squatted for eight years, with no government effort to regularize the area or develop an adequate infrastructure. Home to roughly 6,000 people, the land belongs to a notorious financial-market fraudster arrested in 2008. Spurred by Brazil's property development boom, the local administration has recently become active in pursuing the eviction, aided and abetted by judges who seemed to wish to make that happen as quickly as possible.

Nunes argued that Brazil’s economic boom, plus the country’s role as host for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, meant that many more will be evicted from favelas like Pinheirinho:

A dossier produced by the National Coordination of World Cup Committees estimates that some 170,000 people around the country will be evicted owing to the sporting events (official numbers have never been announced). This ultimately means the state handing public areas -- and those occupied by the poor -- to private developers while taxpayers bankroll the whole process.

The Folha de Sao Paulo said that the police began the invasion without making adequate provisions for the thousands who would lose their homes. Many of those evicted chose to stay in a local church rather than the shelters made available. The overwhelming impression was that whatever the political games and legal battles being played out, a community of poor Brazilians had lost out to very powerful interests.

As the journalism professor Fabio Gomes wrote on his blog:

Six thousand people in the 19th-richest city in the country yesterday morning were brutally kicked out from their homes and shacks, built in an area of ​​1.3 million square meters claimed by the bankrupt company of a speculator convicted of financial crimes ... They have nowhere to go.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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