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Tales from the Sambodian Militarized Zone

I read it first in the Jornal Hoje.

Two girls, ages 11 and 14, were shot by a military police trooper in the Southern Zone of São Paulo. One was struck in the eye and the other in the nose. The two girls were standing with two friends outside of a store.

Versions of the story according to local press are subject to the Rashomon Effect. From what I can gather, police say the girls were lightly wounded, by accident, as they fired at a fleeing pair of suspects.

According to Agora SP, and other sources, the girls were struck with rubber bullets. One risks losing an eye and the other has a broken nose as well as damage to one eye as well, by this account.

This account would be consistent with what have observed ourselves: the state PMs tend to headhunt with aimed blasts instead of firing organized vollies which bounce the rounds into the shins of a group of people.

So, yes, there are more dramatic cases of poster children for police ultraviolence — the NYPD wound up producing 9  bystander casualties in the Empire State incident only recently — but the press has been sensitive to these cases recently, amid evidence of escalating violence between the PCC criminal faction and the São Paulo state military police. 

The military police troopers approached the girls and ordered them all to stand facing the wall. When the 11-year-old opened the door to buy detergent for her mother [sic] one of the troopers opened fire.

This is confusing: was the girl entering the store or leaving it?

“I said to him, sir, I just came out, and he said, come here, then.  When I took the first step, another policeman came over and shot us,” the girl said.

Along with this girl, who was shot in the eye, a 14-year-old was grazed by a bullet on her nose. The mother of one of the girls described what she witnessed: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the girls had been shot and the policeman with his pistol in hand aiming at me, like I was a bandit. I put my hands up, I was afraid of being shot myself.”

The girls say they were taken to the hospital in the police car, without their parents. “Inside the car, I was saying, Where is my mother? I want my mother.Why did you hurt us, we didn’t do anything, we are innocent.”The man said, Shut up, you were only grazed, this situation is under control. … Nothing will happen to you. We are just going to the hospital to make sure you are all right,”the victim said.

The  Polícia Militar refused comment but released a statement lamenting the incident and saying that the policemen were after two suspects on a motorcycle when they fired in their direction. According to the note, the girls were hit by shrapnel.

Globo public safety consultant Diógenes Lucca arrived at a different conclusion. “Their actions were improper and inadequate. Before a policeman opens fire he needs to be very certain of his target. He must identify it precisely and take into account the risk of hitting innocent bystanders,” Lucca said.

Pedro Estevam of Carta Capital used the incident to once more call upon the government to transition from the present bipartite system of military and civil police, putting an end to civil impunity and liability by the state troopers, who are subject to a separate system of military justice. This would require a Constitutional amendment.

I will translate his essay, below.

In a recent conference in Geneva on public safety and human rights, Brazil turned down the suggestion that the traditional separation be dismantled in favor of an all-civilian police force — the only UN recommendation it opposed.

During a meeting in May in Geneva, a number of European nations openly criticized the violence perpetrated by the Polícia Militar and expressed concern about the number of persons killed during its operations. Brazil’s response was unequivocal: “Brazil does not support this recommendation, given that its Constitution provides for the existence of both legislative (civilian) and military police.”

“The Policia Civil are responsible for judicial policing and criminal investigations, except for military offenses. Military police are responsible for patrol and the preservation of public order.”

Pedro Estevam is an attorney and professor of constitutional law at PUC-SP. He writes,

The military police have never adapted to the post-1988 democratic regime.

Two girls, ages 11 and 14, were recently shot by a military police trooper in the southern zone of São Paulo.

The most alarming aspect of this type of violence is that what should be a shocking news event is treated as a matter of course by the press.

Again, there are worse cases than an accidental grazing. Much worse.

This is without a doubt one of the most serious social pathologies of our historical present. In this case, there was an obvious tactical error by the trooper involved, an error that led to irreparable consequences. The State should be made responsible for the damages suffered by the victims, and the police trooper should be held liable, civilly and criminally, as the law demands.

On the other hand, there is no need to demonize the trooper involved. Of humble origins, poorly trained and even more poorly paid, he provides a service that entails risking his life on a daily basis. This individual cannot bear the entire brunt for the failures of the system of public safety as a whole.

It makes absolutely no sense to continue using a military force for law enforcement and public safety.

A product of the dictatorship, this system is completely unsuited to the democratic rule of law.

Though it may be true that the proposal to replace the military police with a Civil Guard would not in itself reduce abuses, there is no denying that the role of the military police is conceived of as an occupation of enemy territory and the exercise of violent political control over the poorest members of society.

The military police is not a public safety agency submitted to the rule of law; it is  equipped and organized for war and not for protection and service; it operates in a legal void, a state of exception. It does not acknowledge the poorest citizens as bearers of civil rights, but only of civil obligations.

In a world of global capitalism lacking armies of reserve labor, the majority of the population is destined for social exclusion.

As Agamben says, this broad and impoverished contingent of the global population is endowed with mere “bare existence” — or more precisely, “bare life” — stripped of minimal political rights, including even the right of survival. The military police have killed more persons per year in Brazil than have most of the wars around the world in recent decades.

This does not mean, however, as conservative opinion would have it, that there is a war on between the state and the poor. What there is is a race-based, regional and social genocide.

In the name of combating crime, which continues to grow despite police violence — an indication, at the very least, of a lack of efficiency — impoverished workers are routinely targeted in their moral and physical integrity, when they are not being killed outright with a cruelty fully supported by right-thinking citizens of European descent in São Paulo’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

The fetish of the Police State, an authoritarian regime that uses punishment to contain violence, continues to seduce most of our middle classes, in spite of the rational and historical evidence.

A human being who lacks the sense of being loved, protected and welcomed by his or her family and social environment is a being that runs the constant risk of reduction to mere animalism — Agamben’s zoe.

This being robs and kills because punishment, even death, is no longer a deterrent, because its life is already stripped of a minimum of the physical and emotional dignity proper to what we call a human being. Nothing is left for this being except the experience of intense situations, which make him feel alive.

So long as we persist in treating poverty with the nightstick rather than the helping hand of solidarity, so long as we focus on the violence the poor commit against us without acknowledging the violence we perpetrate against them on a daily basis, we will remain hostage, paying the price at our crosswalks and intersections even when these are protected by tanks.

The solution to these problems is complex, but in our view the reform of the public safety sector begins with a policy that would transform the military police into a civilian Guarda Civil, symbolizing a democratic order that, unlike the dictatorship, has no need to declare war on its own impoverished population …