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  • Mirna Wabi-Sabi

The Inefficiencies of Democracy and Police Operations in Favelas

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Originally published at
Photos by Fabio Teixeira. July 21st, Alemão Complex.
To Instrumentalize [Verb]: to give instruments or conditions for something to happen.
Instrumental [Noun]: which serves as an instrument; which helps the action.

There has been another massacre in a Brazilian favela. Nearly 20 people were killed in a shoot-out between the military police and alleged drug traffickers in a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro called Alemão Complex. A recent report by the federal university of Niterói (UFF), financed by a German political foundation called Heinrich Böll, states that between 2007 and 2021, “17,929 operations were carried out by police in Rio de Janeiro. Of this total, 593 police operations resulted in massacres, totaling 2374 deaths.” These deaths are not inevitable, which is why the report also proposes a solution—to further develop a “democratic regime”, in order to legally limit the actions of law enforcement. This solution, however, fails to consider that, though avoidable, these casualties are not unintended, and are precisely through the democratic system that these extermination policies and impunity schemes have been put in place.

Since the 60s, Brazil has lived in a dichotomy between Military Dictatorship and Democracy. We went from a right-wing US-backed regime to a charismatic leftist party leader of a working-class background, who was oppressed by that very dictatorial regime. Now, to the astonishment of those who subscribed to this binary political approach, it was the democratic system which gave voice to and elected supporters of the dictatorship. Nowadays, believing a “stronger” democracy is the solution to police violence is like believing taller buildings is the solution to rising sea levels. Do we really want to grow a structure without addressing the foundational issues of racism, classism, and blatant disregard for human life when it doesn’t benefit capitalism?

The inefficiencies of Democracy have been discussed since its inception in Ancient Greece. And it would also be safe to say that the philosophical exercise around “democracy” has been a Western endeavor. One of my favorite quotes about this is, "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality). These endless footnotes are an enduring effort to put European values, such as Democracy, at the forefront of any reading of the human condition.

In academia, to speak of philosophy is really to refer to a specific group of thinkers, from a specific era—white men from the 19th century. Of the demographic of thinkers which are best equipped to theorize about the sociopolitical conditions favela residents are subjected to, these 19-century-European men are towards the bottom of the list. And the reality is that the demographic which is at the top of this list is exactly the one ending up in body-bags, victim to police violence. This is not by coincidence.

Marielle Franco, a queer black woman from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, was a political theorist active in government. She was assassinated in 2018. Her college thesis at the federal university of Niterói (UFF) was about police violence in favelas and how their operations don’t work. The solution presented under the chapter “Popular organization and possible resistances” includes the word “instrumentalization”. Specifically, to render favela residents instrumental. According to Franco, the solution to combatting police violence in the favelas lies in the strengthening of the consciousness that “the favela must be respected” by the government and its “security agents”. Not the consciousness of these agents and government officials, though—the consciousness of the residents.

It’s not in the best interest of those in power (government and those financing it) to have marginalized peoples (favela residents) becoming instrumental in society by pursuing their own aims and influencing policy. The established order, which in Brazil today is some type of Democracy, is better off massacring rather than instrumentalizing the favela. It costs less to kill than to restructure society to eradicate misery, poverty, racism, and exploitation. The only ‘justification’ for this slaughter is that these people ‘deserved’ to die because they were either criminals or at the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously, that’s unacceptable.

One of the most unacceptable things about Democracy, though, is when it serves as a means for an instrumentalized segment of the population to pursue the extermination of ‘the other’. The overrepresented use their power to eradicate the underrepresented, igniting a vicious democratic cycle where in each election the opposition gets smaller and is buried deeper. And one thing is for sure, the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship did not mean the end of militarization of Brazilian society. This is because, according to Marielle Franco, militarization is representative of how making money is still more important than protecting human lives.

“The fight for demilitarization of society, of the State […] became a priority for those who dream of a world where life is above profit.” (UPP, page 135, n-1 edition, 2018).

The 2022 report on police massacres argues that the “volume and a way of carrying out slaughters points to a horizon contrary to democratization.” However, nothing about Democracy “points towards a horizon opposite” to militarization. In fact, militarization has been carried out by the United States in the name “Democracy” for nearly a century. Could it be that Democracy is just a new word for the reign of capitalist profit?

It isn’t only in the public security sector that vestiges of the Military Dictatorship can be seen. For as long as capitalist values endure in society, so will the need for militarization—to carry out the extermination of an ‘unprofitable’ segment of the population. Moreover, so will these values be represented by the ballot. Profit as a general concept wouldn’t have to be demonized if it didn’t so often come at the expense of people’s lives, and I’m not convinced Democratic elections are equipped or designed to prevent this from happening. More importantly, will it be through the vote that we can guarantee dignity to everyone? Will there be one politician who will do what needs to be done to guarantee every person has a roof over their head, food in their bellies, and the strengthened consciousness to become “instrumental” in society? When that happens, the role of the politician will be utterly obsolete.


Photos by Fabio Teixeira. July 21st, Alemão Complex, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


Written by Mirna Wabi-Sabi
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