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Fear and loathing

In Brazil, according to the latest figures on violence, 50,000 people are killed every year. Media reactions to those figures, easily comparable to many international conflicts, have mostly emphasized the high numbers themselves, firmly ensconced within the FEAR YOUR FEAR discourse. A less powerful current, mostly confined to social networks, denounces the racism those numbers barely hide; most victims are black and poor. Neither are incorrect, but I thought to separate a third strand of evidence from the numbers.

The total homicide rating - 25 per 100,000 people per year - is indeed ridiculously high, and growing*. The number of "latrocinia," however - murders following a robbery - is small and stable. 0,9 per 100khab a.a. That's less than Finland's homicide rating (1,6), comparable to the UK's (1). And while every homicide is a tragedy, the kind of homicide that's implicit in the middle class fears stoked by the media is the latrocine. People fear being accosted by an armed stranger on the street and robbed, and it is that fear which fuels the (profitable) transformation of Brazilian cities into so many Oswiecims; high rises and houses alike sporting high walls topped with concertina wire, electric fencing, searchlights, pillboxes, and private guards. For a comparison closer to home, the number of people murdered by robbers is less than a tenth of the number of people killed in acts of traffic-related manslaughter; in other words, by drunk drivers. One should be ten times more afraid of being run over by a drunk motorist than of being accosted by a mean man with a gun, ten times more careful of cars when crossing streets than of odd-looking individuals on the sidewalk. Is there violence, greedy or random, in the streets of Brazilian cities? Sure. But that violence is far less prevalent than the picture in middle-class minds, it is a violence not that different from what can be found in large cities the world over. The true violence, the monstrous civil war responsible for those 50.000 deaths an year, can be found in the favelas and distant peripheries, where police, drug lords, and paramilitary (to be punctilious, parapolice) kill each other and their relatives, and anyone caught in the crossfire. It isn't general, the cancer hasn't gone into metastasis. Murder victims, and future murder victims, in Brazil have a colour, a race, an address, they aren't just anyone. And if you can pay for that electric fence and concertina wire, it's quite likely to be unnecessary; those who live in gated communities and high-rises could probably save the several thousand reais they spend on security without suffering for it - not to mention while making our streets just a bit less Auschwitz-like. The closest to the face of violence middle class Brazilians are likely to see are the central cracklands, where the dredges of society live and die, despite their threatening looks and crazed eyes, without likely ever seriously harming an outsider.

Crackland, circa 1750
That the fearful classes are relatively - statistically - safe, beyond showing that wealthy ghettos are unnecessary, leads to a further conclusion: that Brazil's police, so often called unprepared and incompetent, is on the contrary doing a bang-up job. It is keeping a civil war comparable or worse than the Palestine conflict, a civil war in which assault rifles are the weapon of choice, contained, without spilling over (with the occasional exception) into wealthier areas. And that without the help of a giant wall, as the much-vaunted Israeli Defence Forces thought they needed. To say that Brazilian police aren't doing well their job is only possible if one ignores that yawning gap in violence levels between neighborhoods a stone's cast away from each other. The police are doing very well their job: to isolate from the good people the consequences of inequality and the war on drugs. It is the thin blue line that makes a country in which the middle class enjoys a quasi-European standard of living in a country with less than a fourth of European mean incomes, a country where leftist professors at public universities think they are ill-paid at ten times per capita GDP, and judges bemoan receiving 25 multiples of GDP. They aren't contingently, wilfully murderous; that violence is what's used to keep people in their places.

The alternatives would be either a better distribution of income (including necessarily the reduction of available income for the middle classes), the end of the war on drugs, or the wholesale metamorphosis of the current economic and cultural system. Great disparities of income and status in an urban society where there is no hierarchical ideology to justify those disparities (pace Dumont), are hypercharged by the War on Drugs and the arms and money it brings, but even without the war on drugs, Brecht's river is liable to revolt against the banks which oppress it; the police are a nice concrete carapace on those banks. Thanks to the police, the whole of the swanky neighbourhoods of Rio or São Paulo could be considered, in a way, a wealthy ghetto, a gated community, notwithstanding the occasional breaches of that siege - rare enough to be front-page news. That gated communities are built within those borders is just rank ungratefulness. That someone can wish for a less murderous police without changing any other element from the formula - racial, social, and economic inequality; war on drugs; liberal-capitalist Weltanschauung - is a daydream.

The police, of course, do not see their job in quite so raw a light. They rather see it as keeping order (an order where traditional morals are more important than law) against the chaos represented by "criminals." The word shouldn't be taken as meaning someone who commits a crime: criminals are black, they speak "wrong," they are likely from the favela. It is far from a category used only by the police ,as becomes clear if one reads this news article from Rio's top newspaper, O Globo: "Youngsters who tied up lawbreaker are arrested for drug dealing." The black, poor street urchin and pickpocket who had been tied up to a lamp post a few months earlier by the "youngsters" is called a lawbreaker; the white, middle class drug dealers are called youngsters, not "lawbreakers," still less "criminals." In the article's subtitle, they are "boys." I did say that we don't live in a caste society, but that may be up to discussion... in a sense, that discussion is part of the causes of violence. We live in a society made of castes, but do not really believe those castes to be fair. If poor people would only resign themselves to living in material conditions appropriate to their condition, while constant advertising exhorts all to demonstrate their status through consumption, if they knew their place, a gentleman could once again walk untroubled amongst the favelas, as the dwellers pay him the appropriate reverence. Most do resign themselves to sad fate, or just keep piling on the credit card debt (at usurious rates); those who rise to crime or fall into the gutters are a tiny minority. It is from that tiny minority that the police protect the Brazilian goodfolk, which is exactly as medieval as that sounds. A police officer once told me, in fact, that one of the reasons why the police are so violent when crushing protests is that they see it as their only chance to hit the untouchable, ungrateful middle class.

Since capitalism isn't (I guess) going away anytime soon, since we shouldn't (I believe) let go of liberal and egalitarian ideals, the options are lowering inequality (of income, of race, of status) and ending the war on drugs. We might be able to do those. The alternative is tens of thousands of corpses an year.

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