Brazil’s Urban Refugees and Autonomous Experiments in Community: São Paulo’s homeless are fighting police brutality and asking for international support
It's a sunny Tuesday afternoon in São Paulo and I'm being detained by military police near the Se Metro Station downtown. I can feel myself becoming increasingly anxious. Brazilian police are notorious for corruption so I try to make myself small and non-threatening. I speak softly, explaining, no, I'm not part of any organized group trying to disrupt activities by law enforcement, I was just taking some photos.
Prior to being accosted by police, I had been walking to an activist meeting at the radical homeless encampment São Martinho when I noticed about four dozen people lined up with their hands on their heads. The police were aggressively questioning them while onlookers watched with concern. I began to take pictures (in Brazil, like most places in the United States, it is perfectly legal to film police but, like many places in the United States, the police don't love to be filmed). I snapped photos moving through the crowd when I was stopped by a military police officer with an assault rifle who demanded to know if I worked for the media. One officer began to search my bag while another methodically erased all photos stored in my camera.
Angering the police by documenting their behaviors is not a new experience for me. Working with the anti-police brutality movement in the United States through Idriss Stelley Foundation, I often encourage young activists to film cops, both because it documents human rights violations and because it may discourage police from breaking the law if a civilian is watching. While filming, I remind myself, it is rarely more dangerous to film than to be the one in handcuffs. The man that filmed the NYPD's murder of Eric Garner is now in jail but at least he's alive. The Brazilian police yelled a little and attempted to give me a scare but, in the end, I was allowed to leave, albeit with all evidence of our interaction or any of their activities at the metro station erased from my camera's memory.
Once I left, I headed to my meeting which coincidently was concerning police altercations with populations in need of stable housing in São Paulo's metropolitan areas. My meeting was at a homeless encampment that deals with Brazilian police brutality almost daily.
A quarter of a mile walk from Belem metro station in São Paulo, you will reach a homeless encampment named São Martinho. At first glance you may not notice anything special about this homeless encampment. In fact, it looks like many homeless encampments throughout the world--within enclaves underneath bridges, alongside overpasses, and in squatted buildings that have been unclaimed or abandoned. To people who have been pushed out of the economy and out of society, homeless encampments can provide respite when there's nowhere else to turn and offer a chance to create a tiny safer space in a little pocket within a huge city. Homeless encampments can work as crucial survival networks for women, men, and children seeking refuge from a global capitalist economy that has forced them into the periphery.
Inside Sao Martinho’s many sleeping areas
But the São Martinho encampment is not simply a survival network. Residents of São Martinho refer to themselves as “refugiados urbanas,” or urban refugees, and they are working together with local priests who practice liberation theology and anti-authoritarian collectives to create a political housing project for residents who have been displaced by city development. A few months ago, São Martinho residents christened their home the "Autonomous Republic of the People of the Streets." These are the Brazilians you didn't see in the media's frenzied Olympics coverage; these are the Brazilians living precarious lives in the shadow of Brazil's famed beaches and Samba culture.
The São Martinho encampment is moving to become somewhat of an urban resistance zone by hosting cultural events and political development classes. They hold weekly meetings where they discuss action items such as allowing women with children and the elderly to eat first at meal time and how to share cleaning chores. They explore ways to hold each other accountable to making the encampment a safe and radical space.
Outside of the encampment, safety is an even dire issue. Incidents of police killings, in particular of Brazilians of African descent, have sky-rocketed. The New York Times reports that in just the past five years, Brazilian police have killed more people than police in the U.S. have killed in the last three decades. The situation is so severe that Boston's chapter of Black Lives Matters sent a coalition of activists to network with Brazilian organizers in preparation for the upsurge of police presence in Rio during the 2016 Olympics games. The Black movement in Brazil has been militant and vibrant for decades in response to police terrorism, the most recent reincarnation of which, Reaja ou Sera Morto--React of Die--has been growing in Salvador for ten years amongst extreme state repression. madamenoire.com reports that protests have recently drawn thousands of Brazilians who are demanding an end to the global genocide of Black people by police and military forces. These protests frequently share the common thread of feminism--protests are usually led by women and messaging critically engages how women of color are daily victims of state violence and repression.
Simonekelly Silva, who lives at São Martinho encampment with her small child and the child's father, spoke with me about the upsurge in police violence and the city health service's effort to deny encampment residents access to adequate reproductive healthcare. Silva noted that encampment residents have to be cautious with not just police, but also city social services that target poor women. She tells me of a city health worker that had been visiting homeless encampments in São Paulo, offering to provide the hormonal birth control implant, NORPLANT, for free, while promising residents it had few side effects and was in general an effective, although expensive, method they should be thankful to not pay for. Many women opted to get the implant inserted into their arms, as it was promoted as a means of empowerment. However, in the following weeks, residents began to get sick, vomiting profusely, and experiencing extreme mood swings. They went to the city health clinic and the hospital to get the implants taken out only to have doctors refuse to remove them. Silva became so desperate she cut the implant out of her own arm. She attempted to help other encampment residents remove NORPLANT but it had grown into their muscle tissue.
The American Civil Liberties Union reports that when NORPLANT was first introduced, several U.S. judges pushed to force women convicted of crimes to choose between NORPLANT and incarceration. For more than 25 years, activists have warned that NORPLANT could be used coercively by governments to chip away at the reproductive autonomy of poor and immigrant women. Some suspect that policy makers in São Paulo are using the Zika virus pandemic, which is thought to cause birth defects, as a precursor to deny reproductive freedom to homeless and criminalized women.
A local anti-authoritarian collective that has been allied with the encampment-- CATSO (Coletivo Autonomo Dos Trabalhadores Sociais/Collective of Autonomous Social Workers), has begun to co-facilitate a women's caucus at the encampment to discuss ways women can build with each other and to spread knowledge of the different methods the city uses to target families. CATSO members, like others at São Martinho, speak often about how important it is to draw commonalities beyond national boundaries, as the same controlling processes of oppression have no borders. In a recent discussion with Mesha Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley who was killed by San Francisco, California police in 2001 and founder of Idriss Stelley Foundation, Irizarry stressed to me the importance of connecting international projects that both document police violence and develop social programs as alternatives to the police.
"A community without police is like a fish without a bicycle....Police are not relevant to peace in the hood since communities can serve and protect each other as we have seen in different transformative justice approaches in the Caracas barrio in Venezuela, the Marseilles Algerian quarter, and even here in the California Bay Area at Poor Magazines's land justice project 'Homefulness'" Irizarry explained. In coalition with Idriss Stelley Foundation, Poor Magazine recently hosted a "How Not To Call The Police Ever Workshop" in San Francisco.
Irizarry is an openly queer feminist immigrant who has been engaged in the anti-police movement since her son, a Black 23-year-old man, was shot more than 40 times when police were called after he suffered a mental health crisis in the Sony Metreon Theater. At the time of her son's passing, Irizarry was a revered domestic violence program director and immediately began to speak out against the excessive funding of police departments while services for homelessness and mental illness rapidly decline. Her own project, the Idriss Stelley Foundation, bridges the gap between building a movement to combat police terrorism and to provide basic services for families who have lost loved ones to the police or individuals who have been victimized themselves. Combining direct social services and militant anti-police organizing may conjure memories of the Black Panthers but it is a common method politicized groups utilize to sustain the movement, in the thinking that if oppressed communities' basic needs are not covered, their participation plummets.
The São Martinho encampment is taking on this challenge and seeks to build a militant social work hub from the ground up. São Martinho understands that poverty, like police violence, is an act--a relationship--poverty is something someone is actively doing to someone else, both on the interpersonal level between worker and boss but also between rich communities and poor communities, rich nations and poor nations, and, of course, the Global North and the Global South. If we understand poverty as an action, we can better understand how to hold those in power responsible for that action. For São Martinho, politicizing the homeless as urban refugees communicates that they are being forcefully pushed out. It communicates that they are fleeing a volatile situation, and, what's more is that their numbers are increasing. In fact, São Martinho is just one in a cluster of encampments in São Paulo that aspire to create sustainable movement resources as the homeless population surges. Some of the other encampments have libraries and graffiti art days. There is even hope to provide childcare.
In the coming weeks, together with community activists, the São Martinho encampment plans to launch an ambitious campaign to document police violence targeting urban refugee populations in São Paulo, the eleventh largest city in the world. Martinho's residents are making the unprecedented move to open a "Center of Defense" where militant social workers will collect demographics on Brazil's most vulnerable communities so that they can better understand how the city's militarized police force interacts with Afro-Brazilians, immigrants, transgender and gender non-conforming residents, women, and the poor. CATSO, which counts many of the encampment residents as active members, plans to help staff the Center of Defense and will use this data when leading anti-oppression education sessions.
The São Martinho encampment views itself as part of larger global movements to address the ways in which gentrification, racism, capitalism, and gendered violence intersect on the micro level so city residents can create systems where communities do not depend on police for a (false) sense of safety. The Center of Defense could not be created at more crucial time.
All São Martinho residents contribute financially to the space to keep it up and running, but it's a challenge. As resources ware thin, the Center of Defense seems father away. They have just begun to take online donations from organizations and individuals in other countries to support the cause. In exchange, they have developed a website where they can update their progress on the Center and the encampment so that they may build global solidarity networks.
On the wall of the encampment-- “no family without house, no peasant without land, no worker without rights”
All and all, my time in Brazil learning about different grassroots social justice movements has lead me to want more and more to facilitate cross-border alliances with projects in the Global South that face some of the same challenges we face here in the United States, especially in regards to state violence. At the time of this publication, the Brazilian Real is equal to .31 US Dollars which means your donation will go along way to help secure funding for the Center of Defense to get up and running. You can go here to show your support: http://centrodarua.com/en
If you or your organization would like to create a more formal relationship with the Center, feel free to message them through the website. They are eager to connect.
*Rebecca Ruiz Sunwoo is an organizer and writer raised in the SF Bay Area. She is a board member of Idriss Stelley Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org