With the extreme right rising in Brazil, the right to life may lose its current status as a relative guarantee to become the main asset of social inequality
By Evandro Cruz Silva.*
Social Scientist at Universidade Estadual de Campinas.
The sociologist Mitchell Duneier tells in his book “Ghetto: the invention of place, the history a idea” the story of how the word “ghetto” was incorporated to the vocabulary of the black poor in the United States of America: the term was appropriated by American soldiers during World War II, while invading Nazi Germany. The soldiers, many of them blacks, observed the living conditions of Jews in miserable neighborhoods and confinement areas, and associated them with the poor American neighborhoods from which they came from. In Nazi Germany, the areas where the Jew population were largely concentrated were called “Jhetos”, Balkan-Jewish word for
“neighborhood”. Black Americans, exposed to the search for the pure Aryan race through isolation and Jewish extermination, saw great similarities with the search for purity carried out by their Caucasian compatriots, through the isolation and extermination of black people in the peripheries of America.[i].
That history is a good example of how words and their senses travel through different populations and regions when they produce crossed identifications. In the case of the transformation of “jheto” in “ghetto”, it was the cumplicity identified in correlated feelings of oppression that made the term move from the Nazi confinement camps to the poor and black neighborhoods in the United States.
In the last two decades, Brazilian social movements composed of people who are black, poor, and urban periphery dwellers are increasingly using the term “genocide”[ii]. The term, which also arises during World War II, is the criminal offense classification for the systematic attempt of certain government to exterminate a group of people defined by race, ethnicity, color, class, religious faith or political alignment. Therefore, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that, in Brazil, some groups of people feel more threatened by the government than others.
Between 2016 and 2017, Brazil has a record of 63 thousand homicides; 5 thousand of them were committed by police officers.[iii]. In comparison with the United States of America, a country which is also marked by debates about police lethality, the number of people murdered by the police during 2017 was 976, five times smaller than the number of murders perpetrated by the Brazilian police.[iv]. The victims’ profile of police lethality in Brazil is mainly black, poor and masculine, and its spatial distribution prioritizes impoverished urban agglomerations. These numbers show how the right to life, understood as the right to live under a government that will not violate your physical integrity, is far from being a presupposition in Brazil. It is, at most, a relative guarantee: some groups are sure they will not be murdered by the State, others are not. If the numbers of the present and the recent past indicate a big civilizational tragedy, the signs of the future seem even worse.
Alarming statistics that paint a scenario with hundreds of thousands of lives, families and networks of affection being destroyed by police action are accompanied by a political reaction that seems to endorse them. If, some time ago[V2], an electoral year preceded by a spectacular number of police murders would put the reduction of such deaths as the main agenda, in the Brazil of 2018, political popularity embraced the candidates that promised to increase the extermination.
The candidate elected to the government of São Paulo, the largest Electoral College in the country, said during a campaign that in his government the “police will shoot to kill”[v]. In the same state, a military police officer who ran as a candidate for the legislature used in her political propaganda a video[V3] of her assassinating a person who practiced an assault; through a voice over narration she says: “I did it and I would do it again”[vi]. In Rio de Janeiro, the country’s third largest electoral college, the elected Governor announced, as a safety measure, the hiring of snipers to shoot down armed people in the favelas[vii]. In addition to the use of murders committed by police officers as a piece of political propaganda, the three figures cited also coincide with explicit support for the elected President Mr. Jair Messias Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro, beyond advertising within battalions of the police[viii], announced, during his campaign, two proposals for public safety: arming the civilians[ix] and decriminalizing the killings by law enforcement officers[x]. By putting more guns in circulation and encouraging cops to kill, the far-right candidates[V4] apparently see no problem in the current number of deaths in the country. On the contrary, it seems want to increase it.
Assuming that these people actually regard such measures as tools to ensure security in Brazil, it can be understood that, for these rulers, the lives of certain groups of people are not rights, but obstacles to the construction of a better society. It seems reasonable to say that every time governments considered certain types of life as a barrier to be overcome for the benefit of society, the result was the practice of genocide.
The final piece of the forthcoming and ongoing tragedy for the lives of black and poor urban youths in Brazil comes into play when we observe the popular endorsement for the propaganda of their deaths. All of the candidates cited in this text were elected by expressive numbers of votes and they all show no signs of retreating from or rethinking their proposals.
It is in this junction between political propaganda of extermination and popular endorsement of authoritarian practices that lies one of the factors of the rise of the extreme right in Brazil: the idea that the right to life is not and should not be a universal guarantee. We thus seem to be moving towards a society that will expand its inequalities to the level of paroxysm: if to date the Brazilian governments have produced social inequalities by explicitly separating the rights to education, health, security and freedom for certain groups to the detriment of others; what seems to be coming is a state that will govern by separating those who should or should not die. Our path will thus lead towards a death government, reflected in a society in which the mere fact of being alive in adulthood will no longer be a likely event, but a strong factor of social ascension.
*A special thanks to Glória Goulart for the invitation to write for Knowmad and to Vanessa
Sander and Lohayne Oliveira for the inspired help in the process of creating this article.
Translated from original in Portuguese by Claudio Garcia de Araujo (Social scientist and
Psychologist; Knowmad Institut; HU-Berlin) and Gloria Goulart (Social scientist; Knowmad
Evandro Cruz Silva is a social scientist, currently working on his PhD at UNICAMP
(Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brasil). With an M.A. in Sociology by the UFSCAR
(University of São Carlos, Brasil), he is a researcher from Namargem (Núcleo de
Pesquisas Urbanas, CEM/CEBRAP) and a collaborator of Knowmad Institut. Evandro
works with urban sciences, ethnographies, moralities and urban conflict management.
[i] DUNEIER, Mitchel. Ghetto: the invention of a place, the history of a idea. Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 320p, 2017.
[ii] “Existe genocídio negro no Brasil?” Jornal Alma Preta, link:
[iii] Anuário de Segurança Pública no Brasil, link:
[iv] Police use of deadly force in the United States:
[v] “A partir de janeiro, polícia vai atirar para matar”
[vi] “Policial que matou ladrão é eleita deputada federal em São Paulo”
[vii] “Witzel já procura atiradores de elite para “abater” bandidos de fuzil”
[viii] “ Bolsonaro visita Bope no Rio de Janeiro e diz a policiais que é preciso ‘acreditar e
[ix] “A arma garante a nossa liberdade”
[x] “ O plano de Bolsonaro para o excludente de ilicitude”