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The Dehumanizing Narrative Around Police Killings in Rio de Janeiro

Trigger warning: violence and death.
Photos by Fabio Teixeira, taken on February 11, 2022 in Vila Cruzeiro, Rio de janeiro.

The content of this photojournalistic series poses an ethical conundrum to me as a writer and is deserving of a stern trigger warning. The term ‘trigger warning’ is often associated with so-called woke culture and “social justice warriors”, but, here, I use it in quite a literal sense. Actual triggers have been pulled, and are you prepared to see photographic evidence of the consequences?

On the one hand, to reproduce these images is, also, to reproduce the barbaric violence depicted in them. On the other hand, perhaps, being exposed to it, as a reader and as a citizen, may provide the dose of reality needed to spark a combative awareness, which can be used to stir real change. Change not only in which triggers are being pulled where and when. Change in how we speak about each other and to each other.

The words used to describe what happened in Rio de Janeiro on February 11th, 2022, have been mostly based on that the Brazilian Military Police had to report. “Criminals” were shot in a favela. They are unidentified, nameless, but there were 8, and they were “marginals”. According to the police’s spokesperson, they were after Chico Bento, a leader of Rio’s largest criminal organization, who got away by using young, poor and black civilians as shields. In other words, the wanted man escaped because the police were aware of the strategy and unwilling to sacrifice innocent lives.

Lives were sacrificed nevertheless, shamelessly and savagely. The remains treated inhumanely, perhaps only as a final reflection of how the bodies were treated when they were alive — and the brutality continues in the dissemination of the rhetoric around who these people were.

In this peace-less rest, not only the dead are victims. A whole community is subjected to the dehumanizing narrative used by the police, and perpetuated by mass media, to justify unjustifiable actions. So, instead of repeating what has already been said about this case — which favela, which gang leader, how many weapons, how many drugs — here we ought to discuss what the consequences of these police operations are.

There is no evidence that Military Police operations or the presence of the Pacifying Police Unit in Rio’s favelas has achieved any success in dwindling the illegal drugs and weapons industry. Marginalized communities are terrorized by the police as much as they are by local traffickers. In fact, marginalized black communities have been terrorized by authorities since before the existence of organized crime, even before the existence of the police or the State which it protects.

What is organized crime? Firstly, there must be the concept of a crime, defined by law, and backed by governmental institutions. And for it to be organized, it must be bigger than a single infraction, big enough to become a parallel and profitable industry. Favelas became organized enough to endure a legacy of terror which has persisted for half a millennium. The police force which execute “pacifying” operations in the favelas was created before the Brazilian State was formed, to hunt down enslaved people who ran away. The policing institution precedes the constitution and the establishing of basic human rights.

What distinguishes organized crime from failed police intelligence operations is the backing of the Authorities, whichever they may be. Throughout history, we have witnessed shifts in institutional authority, from the Monarchy, to the Republic, to a modern constitution. But the Police Force has remained, it commits crimes, it sometimes aids organized criminal organizations, but it has succeeded in controlling the narrative.

The steering of public discourse is the most valuable tool of an institution. Its ability to summon support is the secret to its longevity. When it comes to the police, the narrative that “marginals”, “criminals”, are nothing more than just that has not only maintained but fed a thirst for blood in much of the population. Gun-loving Bolsonaro supporters lust after the brutal punishment of criminals, reveling over robberies-gone-wrong videos online. The slogan from the 80s, created by a Rio de Janeiro Police Chief, is still massively popular: “A good thug is a dead thug” (“Bandido bom é bandido morto”).

There is no doubt Brazil lives under a political strategy of extermination, the question is which narrative a citizen buys into. One which propagates the idea that some people deserve to die because they are nothing more than marginal criminals. And another, which believes all people deserve dignity.

There are no criminals, there are people who commit crimes. There are no marginals, there are people who have been marginalized. There are no slaves, there are people who have been enslaved. When we fail to see the humanity in others, we fail it in our selves. Perhaps, by being confronted with images of dignity being savagely denied to others, we may fight for their dignity as much as we fight for our own.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi is a writer, editor, and translator from Brazil. She is the founder of the Plataforma9 initiative and the author of the bilingual pocket book Anarcho-Transcreation (Anarco-Transcriação).

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