Can Brazil’s Police Keep the Peace?
(originally published at The Vocativ)
Over the past six months, Brazil has seen its share of violent demonstrations. Protesters have accidentally killed a cameraman, set fire to a government building and smashed a large plate over the head of this city’s military police chief.
At a recent demonstration near São Paulo’s Republica Square, however, the protesters were peaceful, as they gathered to demonstrate against the hefty price tag on this summer’s World Cup. This time, the police were a different story. Videos taken from the demonstration show three policemen choking an angry protester and punching a reporter, before smashing his cellphone, which was filming the demonstrations.
By the end of the afternoon, the police had arrested 260 people, but not for attacking banks, defacing public buildings or assaulting policemen. Instead, they were arrested on the vague charge of challenging authority. Many were forced to sign documents admitting to generic accusations such as incitement.
The force’s overwhelming presence—1,000 officers, equal to the number of protestors—and its use of preemptive detention, marked a new phase in the Brazilian government’s attempts to put a lid on dissent before its moment in the spotlight.
When the dust had settled, the São Paulo police hailed the operation as “totally successful.” After all, no one was killed and little public property was damaged—not bad for a city where protesters broke into the governor’s mansion. But at a time when the world is watching and Brazilian support for soccer’s Super Bowl has fallen to 52 percent, questions linger about the ability of the Brazilian police to handle non-violent protests without resorting to random arrests and brutality.
“It is crucial that the state supports high standards,” for the right to free expression, Christof Heyns, a specialist on police violence, said at a recent lecture in Geneva.
A relic of Brazil’s dictatorship, the military police here in Latin America’s largest country have long had a reputation for being violent, corrupt and inept. In the case of the protesters in Republica Square, most of those arrested were accused of chanting “there won’t be a World Cup here,” hardly a serious crime.
One of the main strategies the police have been using is most commonly known as shock and awe. The idea comes from the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu and became popular during the second Iraq War. The central thrust: Don’t give your opponent a chance to fight back.
The other tactic—known as kettling—involves isolating the most active group in a demonstration. If someone leaves the circle to use the bathroom or grab a drink, the police don’t allow them to re-enter. This technique has been used effectively in Madrid, London and New York against the Occupy movement.
Previously, the police would lie in wait until violent groups of protesters—known as Black Blocks—attacked a government building or defaced property. The confrontations could last hours and the levels of violence were often high.
The newer tactics are an improvement, according to José Vicente da Silva, a security expert and former member of the São Paulo police. But as he put it in an interview, “Our officers still have to learn how to treat those who are not violent.”
Renato Sergio de Lima, of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a think tank, agrees. “Our police [are] poorly trained and that also makes protests more violent,” he says. “Our officers have difficulties with such a new situation and many just think the problem is that they haven’t used force enough.”
If that’s the case, perhaps the Brazilian police force needs to use a bit of shock and awe on its own ranks.