“I will give the police carte blanche to kill.” “Let’s clog up the prisons with criminals.” “Police that kill thugs will be decorated.” These are all campaign trail statements from Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Brazilian presidential candidate who will likely win second round elections on October 28. A cornerstone of his platform, his hard-line public security proposals include legalizing mass arrest warrants, permitting police to shoot without warning or prior engagement, building more prisons, allowing minors to be tried as adults, and easing restrictions on gun ownership for “good citizens.”
In an extremely violent, unequal, and racist society such as Brazil, where militarized policing of poor communities of mostly black and brown people is already the norm, it’s unsurprising that conservative, white elites would agree with these ideas. Bolsonaro’s support is strongest among men, whites, evangelicals, the wealthiest, and the most educated.
However, that’s not the whole story. In the most recent polling, 47 percent of self-defined black and brown voters support Bolsonaro. That’s 6 percentage points more than his opponent, the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad, whose traditional base is among the poor. Bolsonaro has 38 percent support among voters who make minimum wage or less ($3,090 per year) and 48 percent among voters who make between $3,090 and $6,180. These numbers are consequential and, at first glance, perplexing: If police violence and abuse is endemic in Brazil, why would the principal victims of this problem support a candidate who wants those same police to be more violent and abusive? My field research as a social scientist offers some insight.
Maycon, 23, is a young black man from a poor neighborhood in Brazil. He has a brother in jail, dreams of being a police officer, and strongly defends implementing the death penalty, which he sees as the population’s defense against what he calls “homie rights,” a play on human rights. An ardent supporter of imprisoned ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party, he would also like to see stricter laws for “bandits,” a central position of far-right candidates like Bolsonaro.
In the conversations I have had with teenagers from the poor outskirts of Brazil’s major cities, Bolsonaro voters follow the same punitive orientation and show solidarity with the police, who, they believe, should have the right to kill. Paradoxically, these same boys report daily humiliations at the hands of abusive police officers. “If I am not dressed as a humble worker and do not lower my head … I mean if I hold my head up high and with a name-brand hat, it makes me look like a thug to them, so they stop me, beat me up, and throw me on the floor,” said Pepe, 17.
The number of deaths with police involvement has increased dramatically in Brazil. So far this year in Rio de Janeiro, police have killed nearly 128 people per month, nearly triple the rate from five years ago. Across the country, 4,424 people were executed by police in 2016, according to the latest edition of the Atlas of Violence. This is a marked increase. If 71.5 percent of homicide victims are black or brown, and young men and the poor are drastically overrepresented, you can safely hypothesize that the same dynamic plays out among victims of police violence, despite the lack of available data.
With this in mind, Maycon and Pepe’s conservatism doesn’t appear to make sense. All it takes is one cop making the wrong split-second judgement — perhaps mistaking the umbrella in their hand for a rifle — and they could be the next casualty.
First, it must be pointed out that the degree of solidarity with the police varies according to the context. The situation is exceptional in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, which are characterized by genocidal police action, and in most of the poor neighborhoods of São Paulo, where one-fifth of police killings occur. As a reaction to this, particularly strong citizen activism exists in both cities.
Maycon and Pepe, however, are from the outskirts of the southern city of Porto Alegre. Beyond the city’s activist and hip-hop circles, their views are quite common. By talking with public school teachers in the northeastern city of Fortaleza and reading Juliano Spyer’s book “Social Media in Emergent Brazil,” about an impoverished region of the northeastern state of Bahia, I increasingly have the feeling that, throughout the country’s urban poor and working-class neighborhoods and deep into the heartland, this apparent contradiction is much more prevalent than outsiders may have previously imagined.
Since colonial times, our collective consciousness has erected an imaginary partition, dividing the country into two separate Brazils: one white, civilized, and secure, and another black, barbaric, and dangerous. With the feminist theorist bell hooks and the researcher Teresa Caldeira, we learned that our dominant mythologies understand danger as “the other,” something from the outside. But Brazilian social thought theory warns that the construction of “marginality” — rife with projections of fear and risk — produces a central figure in our imaginations: that of the “vagabond” or “thug,” deviant and destabilizing to social order and therefore criminalized and dehumanized.
There are many ways that the vagabond figure perpetuates itself. Popular, sensationalist afternoon crime shows like “Urgent Brasil” do this with their strong, pro-police bias, but that hardly compares to the new genre of violent spectacle that has taken root: home videos that circulate on WhatsApp among lower and working-class communities. As Spyer explains, it is a separate universe, a class indicator in which real-life blood, brutal sex, gunshots, and stabbing are turned into brutal spectacle: an ostentation of violence, filmed and gossiped about in communities.
As I choose the words to write, I’m trembling as I remember the tightness in my chest and the sick feeling I had after watching a video that was sent to me of a man’s coldblooded execution, shot 29 times by drug traffickers. Then I received another, this time of drug dealers firing rifles into the air.
As Spyer notes, these images circulate as an expression of indignation with impunity, but also as a disciplining and moralizing power. It is also worth noting that the execution videos are almost always of cavalier and audacious traffickers operating within a lawless, Wild West environment. Executions by police, by contrast, are rarely filmed (for obvious reasons) and therefore less present in the popular imagination.
This type of ordinary violence creates a sense of impunity and insecurity that affects the poorest, who run the daily risk of losing what little they have managed to scrape together.
Beto, an Uber driver and passionate Bolsonaro voter, saw half of his teenage friends die at the hands of traffickers or the police. Recently, while driving a passenger, he was held up at gunpoint. The robber took not only his money and cellphone, but also his dignity, forcing him to get down on all fours and beg for his life. He showed me and my research partner, Lúcia Scalco, a video of his “mooch” cousin in prison: He was playing soccer and watching Netflix. “He’s better off than I am: He’s got food and TV shows.” Stories like this of bad guys who have it easy in jail and then return to the streets to rob and steal are always circulating. “Is it fair that I work 15 hours a day and these bums have everything handed to them?” he asked.
Beto’s feeling of injustice makes logical sense when we remember that a youth from a marginalized community who manages to study and has a decent job is a person who managed to overcome a series of obstacles, through great individual effort and the help of family support networks, plus some luck. They had to face down the appeal of drug trafficking on the one hand, and absolute state neglect on the other. To build your personal narrative as an “honest, law-abiding person” in this context is a radical tale of survival.
It is therefore not at all exceptional that many marginalized people reproduce unpopular ideologies to be accepted socially. It is extremely useful for them to blame the bad guys to justify their own predicament in life.
For intellectuals from W.E.B. Du Bois to Cornel West, the notion of “double consciousness” attempts to account for a conflicting identity of (black) subjects who suffer from prejudice, but seek to fit into the norm. Young men who back more hard-line policing live this existential dilemma: They know they may be the next victims, but they deny the statistics of mass incarceration and police brutality.
Most of our research participants have attempted a military career. Many do not pass and follow other paths, such as Maycon, who is now taking a course to become a private security guard and dreams of the day he receives his permit to carry a firearm (a privilege that is tightly restricted at the moment, but which Bolsonaro wants to loosen). In this universe of multiple violences, having a weapon means “not having to get on all fours.” It’s the promise of being able to defend yourself. In the daily struggle of life, death is always more present than for his more privileged peers. Guns are a language learned from childhood in games of traffickers and robbers that simulate bloody executions. Guns also represent virility: Those rifles raised high by drug dealers are there, phallic, to reassert male power.
Before we reproduce biases about the “right-wing poor,” we should make the effort to put things in perspective and remember that, in most cases, protection comes only from religion, family, collective action, and social movements — rarely from the state. For many, their entire lived experience is marked by violence, from the beating they received from their father to the regular, humiliating encounters they endure from the police. It’s hardly the most fertile soil to sprout democratic and defiant souls.
If we elect a fascist president and if part of that vote comes from the popular classes, the responsibility for this lies, firstly, in class hatred, racism, and decades of state neglect. Those who are beaten by the real police, but cheer for the ideal police, are only expressing the very contradictions of the Brazilian nation as it has always existed.
Bolsonaro speaks to the core of a part of popular and masculine culture. When the candidate says live on the evening news that if “thugs” have rifles, then policemen and good citizens need even bigger ones and “not flowers,” the call for increased violence shocks some viewers, but not all. For many, he is speaking directly to their deepest fears and desires. They have experienced violence and demand that violence be inflicted upon others in equal measure.