Written on the Walls

We’re no strangers to police violence here in the United States. It doesn’t affect us all equally—people of color are more likely to be victims of it and certain police departments, especially in major cities like New York, are infamous for their harsh retributions against civilians, particularly against people of colour.[1] Growing up African American in a Midwestern suburb, I received mixed messages about the police: in school, we were taught to respect and trust the police while my family made sure to warn me that our racial background put us at risk for harsher punishment from them than a white person might experience. It’s important to note that despite the advances of the 1960s US Civil Rights Movement and the resulting legislative protections against racist policies, African Americans and other people of color continue to experience racism because it is entrenched in the systems and structures of our society. By warning me about the police, my parents were ensuring that I would be able to confront and navigate the realities of a racist American society from an early age.

I never directly felt threatened because of my race until the series of high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans that occurred during the past year and a half, including but not limited to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. These deaths made personal for me the very real, and often deadly, problem of racially discriminatory, militarized departments across the United States. Because of these homicides, I see clearly that my race does put me at risk of police brutality and that my nation will continue to suffer while the broken relationships between the police and people of color remain. In what has been a worrying time for me, the best way to keep my fear in check has been to focus on how people of color around the world resist the forces that try to oppress them.


Race in Brazil: An Incredibly Short Introduction

In my academic life, I study the experiences of marginalized groups and so far, I’ve concentrated on racially-marginalized groups in Brazil. There, race is based more on skin color and other physical characteristics than on ancestry. The official racial categories are: preto (black), pardo (mixed-race), branco (white), amarelo (Asian), and indígena (indigenous). According to the 2010 census, white Brazilians are the most populous racial group but only make up 47.5% of the total population; hence, Brazil is a majority non-white nation. Following white Brazilians, mixed-race and black Brazilians are the next largest racial groups and comprise 43.4% and 7.5% of the population, respectively. Asians are a small yet significant part of the population at 1.1% and indigenous people are the least numerous at 0.4%.[2] Despite these official racial categories, your average Brazilian is more likely to describe herself as, for example, “clar[a] com cabelos crispos” (light-brown skin with tightly curled hair) than as a member of a particular race. Brazilians who are proud of the nation’s multiracial legacy embrace this racial ambiguity and it has come to define Brazil’s national identity.

Racial ambiguity is at the heart of racial democracy, which is the belief that Brazil’s mixed-race majority makes racism impossible despite its history of African enslavement and indigenous subjugation. The theory of racial democracy was popularized by Brazilian social theorist Gilberto Freyre in his 1933 book, Casa grande e senzala that was later translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves.[3] Freyre asserted that as majority mixed-race country, Brazil harmonized the best of Portuguese, indigenous Brazilian, and African cultures. Furthermore, he championed branqueamento, or the gradual racial whitening of Brazilian society through interracial sex, as a way to integrate the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous populations. The ideal of racial democracy was so enticing that in the 1950s, UNESCO sponsored a study of the country in order to discover the secrets to achieving racial harmony.[4] Instead, anthropologists and sociologists discovered that racial inequality (regardless of popular denials) does exist. Since then, plenty of studies have debunked the myth of racial democracy and yet the idea persists in the Brazilian consciousness.[5] When I first began studying Brazil, I believed in racial democracy and in the promise that someone like me could find refuge from racism in Brazil. Once I learned that racial democracy never existed and that race relations in Brazil are just as complex and problematic as they are in the US, I dedicated myself to learning how racially marginalized people in Brazil resist and transcend racism.


Aldeia Maracanã and Police Violence in the Brazilian City

Figure 1
“Olho grandes pessem no futuro do Aldeia Maracanã [Big eyes ponder the future of Aldeia Maracanã]. ” Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and translations into English are my own.
A common obstacle to achieving racial equality in Brazil and the US is racialized police violence. Like the US, Brazil’s police forces are known for their violence against people of color.[6] Brazil is notorious for its policía militar (military police), who occasionally engage in “pacification” (pacificação), which is when the policía militar (PM for short) occupy certain favelas, or shantytowns, in order to drive out gangs and prevent gang-related crime. In practice, pacification exacerbates the criminalization of youth and poverty in the favelas, since the majority of those who are targeted by the police are young, poor males of African descent. Ultimately, through pacification the State seeks to destroy favelas because of its belief that they betray Brazil as a still-developing nation not quite on par with other Western powers.[7] 

The State’s deadly displays of force are a constant threat for people who live in favelas. So too are forced evictions. Evictions and housing insecurity also affect urban indigenous people, who are an often overlooked demographic of Brazilian cities even though 39.2% of the indigenous population lives in cities. Last year in April 2014, I investigated police violence in Brazil and the dispossession of indigenous squatters known as Aldeia Maracanã.

Figure 2
Aldeia Marcana, Source: Vice.com.

Aldeia Maracanã is a multiethnic community of indigenous people living in Rio de Janeiro. Indigenous people traveling to Rio to speak with politicians about the needs of their villages found themselves in need of housing, so they began to occupy an old mansion across the street from the Maracanã soccer stadium in the early 2000s.[8] On October 20, 2006, the Aldeia became a permanent settlement of more than seventy people from seventeen different tribes, including the Pataxó, Tukano, Guajajara, and Apurinã, who moved there to be closer to the health and educational resources of the city. It also functioned as a community center where people could discuss issues relevant to indigenous people inside and outside of the city.[9]

The settlement became permanent through the efforts of the Movimento Tamoio dos Povos Originários (Tamoio Movement of Original Peoples), a name that evokes the Confederação dos Tamoios (Confederation of Tamoios), which was an alliance among Tupí tribes against Brazil’s Portuguese colonizers. This movement predates the Aldeia Maracanã community who chose the building for its historic relation to native issues and for being the site of historic exchanges between Tupí tribes and the Portuguese. In this sense, they saw occupying the building as a way to reclaim the land of their ancestors.

This building, which came to be known as Aldeia Maracanã, was built in 1862 and was originally the residence of Duque Saxe. In 1889, the new republican Brazilian government acquired the building and turned it into the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, and Trade. Later, in 1910 it became the first institute in Brazil dedicated to research about indigenous people and then the headquarters of FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. When FUNAI (the federal bureau in charge of indigenous affairs) moved to Brazil’s capital, Brasília, the antique mansion was repurposed again into the first Museu do Índio in 1953, founded by acclaimed Brazilian anthropologist and indigenous advocate, Darcy Ribeiro. Once the Museu do Índio was moved to a more centrally located building in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood in 1977, it remained empty until members of the Aldeia Maracanã settled there thirty years later.

After years of largely being left to their own devices, Aldeia Maracanã and the eponymous community faced eviction due to construction projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Sérgio Cabral (the state governor of Rio de Janeiro at the time), pushed for the expulsion of the community in order to expand the Maracanã stadium complex and envisioned demolishing the old Museu do Índio as well as a neighboring school, aquatic sports center, and stadium among other buildings.  In their place, he proposed the creation of a massive parking lot for 2,000 cars, a mall, and a soccer museum. This project was estimated to cost R$ 800 million, or £260 million. Pushbacks against this plan were severe and the Aldeia’s imminent expulsion drew the attention of domestic and international supporters including Brazilian celebrities Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso, Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing during the time of the 2014 World Cup, and scores of academics, students, and other human rights activists.[10] Moreover, Amnesty International started the Enough Forced Evictions campaign in response to the generally high rate of forced evictions in Rio—more than 19,000 families between 2009 and 2013.

Mega-events like the World Cup and Olympic Games have the potential to rejuvenate cities through urban renewal projects. Unfortunately, urban redevelopment normally takes the form of destroying housing in favor of building new infrastructure, eradicating homeless people from the streets, and other infringements on human rights.[11] To my knowledge, no proponent of Aldeia Maracanã’s eviction cited concerns over the suitability of the building for housing, but it is a common argument for the removal of favelas and other informally settled communities in Latin America where the housing is largely makeshift. In Aldeia Maracana’s case, however, eviction proposals were mainly opportunistic and in anticipation of the Olympics and World Cup.

Pressure from the Aldeia’s allies compelled the city government to pass “Law Project no.1536” on September 20, 2012, which upheld Aldeia Maracanã’s right to occupy the building and the land surrounding it, citing “cultural, historical, and architectural” importance. The bill further promised to renovate the building into a cultural center that would be called “Centro Cultural Indígena da Aldeia Maracanã [Aldeia Maracanã Indigenous Cultural Center]”. Despite the law recognizing their right to occupy the museum, on March 22, 2013, 200 police officers forcibly entered Aldeia Maracanã, using tear gas and pepper spray, to force the twenty remaining indigenous people and 100 of their supporters to leave. In the spirit of compromise, some members of the community agreed to stay in a former leper colony on the periphery of Rio and were recently moved to newly constructed social housing apartments funded through the federal housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida. Currently, the community is working with state and municipal governments to redesign and repurpose the former museum into an indigenous cultural center and learning space.

Figure 4: Outside of the building with police-erected barriers.
Police-erected barriers outside the Aldeia Maracanã.

When I arrived at Aldeia Maracanã with an American friend that I’d met in Rio, the old museum was cordoned off by Military Police who had used large black slabs of wood to obscure the view of the building and prevent entry. It struck me as an excessive measure and seemed as if the police’s symbolic show of strength was more important than adequately responding to the benign threat of trespassing. The building was heavily guarded and once we entered through an opening in the black barricade, we were quickly intercepted by an officer who asked us about our intentions. Secondhand experience had given me a healthy fear of the PM, so I strategically explained that we were American tourists who had heard about Aldeia Maracanã and wanted to take pictures. My hope was that our foreignness would help us appear innocuous. Prepared to be ordered away and anxious about our safety, I was surprised when after consulting with his partner, the officer agreed to let us in and eventually gave us a tour of the grounds and the inside of the building.

As might be expected of a dilapidated building in the middle of a tropical urban forest, the inside of Aldeia Maracanã was dank, moldy, and dark. There was a small entryway that opened into a large living and working space. Garbage heaps spanned the length of the room and were mostly made of clothes, other personal items, and some upturned furniture. I was shocked to see the place so unkempt and chaotic, since I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to live in those conditions. I soon realized that I wasn’t looking at a room preserving the daily life of Aldeia Maracanã, I was looking at a breached fortress: a room that had witnessed the violent removal of its inhabitants by the police. Once conscious of this, the remnants of those turbulent last days were evident everywhere.

Figure 7
Aftermath of the eviction.


Graffiti: Transnational Indigenous Solidarities and Symbolic Power

The outside of Aldeia Maracanã is covered in graffiti which serves as an artistic representation of the community’s political ethos and cultural philosophies. Unsurprisingly much of the graffiti is anti-government and anti-police. Upon making it into the complex and reading the messages inscribed on the building, the black fence surrounding the complex suddenly took on new meaning: yet another attempt to silence the discourse of indigenous people.

"O estado mata!!" : "the state kills!!"
“O estado mata!! [the state kills!!]”
Graffiti also covers the inside of Aldeia Maracanã, helping to define the space as a radical, indigenous one. Interestingly, much of this graffiti connects the members of Aldeia Maracanã with transnational, pan-indigenous movements in Latin America.

Indigenous female activist with child. Red text: “Luto contra o estado [I fight against the State]”. Bottom right text: “ocupar, resistir [occupy, resist]” around symbol for squatters’ rights.
Indigenous female activist with child. Red text: “Luto contra o estado [I fight against the State]”. Bottom right text: “ocupar, resistir [occupy, resist]” around symbol for squatters’ rights.
For example, one depiction of a female, indigenous activist is reminiscent of the bandana-clad indigenous women fighters in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) who are engaged in a struggle for indigenous and peasant land rights in Chiapas, Mexico. EZLN’s “Women’s Revolutionary Law” has helped to promote gender equality in Zapatista-controlled areas within the state of Chiapas and has led to an increase in influential roles for women in the Zapatista land rights movement.

"Abya Ayala
“Abya Ayala”

In a similar vein, the wall off the main chamber reads, “Não queremos sobreviver! Queremos bem-viver! [We don’t want to survive! We want to live well!]” In the far right corner, someone has written “abya ayala”. Abya ayala, or abya yala, is the name for the American continent used by the Kuna tribe who are indigenous to Panama and Colombia. This strategic use of “abya ayala” invokes a broader, pan-indigenous linguistic protest against the hegemony the language of the colonizers.[12]


"Hopi Mohawk's Punx" : Transnational solidarity with Native North American and anarchist movements.
“Hopi Mohawk’s Punx” : transnational solidarity with Native North American and anarchist movements.

On yet another wall, the sense of transnational, trans-tribal solidarity was made clear by the slogan “Hopi Mohawk’s Punx” scrawled around the symbol for anarchism. The Hopi and the Mohawk refer to two different Native American tribes and I wondered if this graffiti was evidence that representatives of these tribes had visited Aldeia Maracanã at some point, or if members of Aldeia Maracanã were trying to evoke the “warrior spirit” ideal commonly associated with native North Americans. The Mohawk more so than the Hopi are renowned for being fierce warriors and are the inspiration behind the “Mohawk” hairstyle that has become a symbol of punk culture. Punks and indigenous land rights activists generally share an affinity for the principles of anarchism.

As a political philosophy, anarchism is fundamentally anti-State and emphasizes self-determination and autonomy—two key theories that support indigenous arguments for the recognition of native land rights and, by extension, housing and property rights. I was surprised to see how global the influences of Aldeia Maracanã are and was fascinated by their use and re-appropriation of the symbols and language of international radical movements.

Figure 10
“Sábia é a nação que preserva a sabedoria da ancestralidade” [Wise is the nation that preserves the knowledge of its ancestors]”.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of our tour was when we reached one of the large rooms on the first floor that was covered in graffiti. I was nervous reading some of the graffiti that blatantly wished harm to the State, considering that the graffiti on the walls screamed, “Morto ao estado! [Death to the State!]” and “Fogo no estado! [The State in flames!]”. I assumed that the threats would put the officers on edge but as I watched the two men take in the room, I noticed that they seemed more politely amused than offended. It was clear that Aldeia Maracanã’s threats and admonitions weren’t enough to prevent the police (and by proxy, the State) from entering their sacred space. The warnings on the walls seemed empty at that point, and I imagine that it was principally the irony of their presence that most amused the officers.

At the suggestion of one of the officers, we left the building and thanked our hosts. For the rest of the day, I marveled at our fortune of not only avoiding harassment from the police but our ability to enter the building with their help. At the time, I privately wondered if my American friend, who is white, also offered us protection—with me experiencing a kind of second-order white privilege because I was with her. Both officers were brown-skinned and would probably be classified as mixed-race, but even in Brazil, with its non-white majority, white supremacy is systemic and structural such that people from any race can be complicit in its maintenance. It is also possible that we just encountered two decent police officers, but I can’t help but cynically speculate about how we would have been received if we were black men, homeless indigenous Brazilians, or if I had come alone without my white friend.


Understanding Police Violence

There is no singular reason for the high number of cases involving police violence in Brazil. One explanation for police violence may be due to the legacy of the dictatorship. Brazil’s change from a military junta to a democracy occurred relatively recently (only in 1987) and there are still visible remnants of the dictatorship: powerful militarized police forces that target particular factions of Brazilian society:

“There was a Doctrine of National Security which said the enemy must be killed, and that enemy was those who lived in a certain area of the city or who were a certain social class,” said [Adilson Paes de] Souza. “Many important thinkers say we still have that doctrine today.” Police officers often see themselves as at “war” with the drug traffickers that control the favelas. “They felt they were in a battlefield, that they must kill the enemy or be killed themselves,” Souza said of his interviewees.”[13]


In Brazil, this means that anyone existing in the social periphery because of race, class, or housing status is a threat to the Military Police and, in practice, an enemy of the State.

Other explanations include “broken judicial institutions and a lack of funding and training” that have compelled the police to carry out their own form of often-vicious punishment.  In the US, insufficient training is one explanation for the disproportionately high number of cases involving excessive force by police in cities with significant non-white populations. In fact, the US Department of Justice has censured Cleveland, Miami, and Philadelphia among other cities for failing to train their officers adequately. Furthermore, some observers have blamed the dearth of black police officers and the failure of police departments to recruit officers from the neighborhoods in which they serve. Poor training and an “us vs. them” mentality leads police officers in countries like the US and Brazil to enact harsher punishments against people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, who live in spaces deemed dangerous and who, by association and because of racist and/or classist beliefs, are considered dangerous as well.

Last year when I first went to Aldeia Maracanã, I was righteously indignant about their eviction and about the larger issue of police violence against indigenous and Afro-Brazilians living in favelas. It was the kind of righteous indignation you can only feel when you’re not the one being targeted and it isn’t your burden to bear. My indignation betrayed my perception of being in a privileged position that allowed me access Aldeia Maracanã and to witness the consequences of police violence without having to be directly affected or threatened by it. However, current media attention on the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of the police has forced me to understand that in reality, racialized policing and police violence are my burdens too.

Writing about resistance helps me come to terms with the frightening actuality of racism, but even though I study race in Brazil and know a bit about racism in the US, I can’t always come to terms with my feelings about racism and certainly don’t have the answers. Nevertheless, I believe it’s crucial for anyone at risk of experiencing prejudiced violence to avoid despairing and feeling victimized. I resist my own victimization by focusing on my responsibilities as a researcher to not only expose and explain life-threatening inequalities, but also to show how people resist those imbalances. Continued resistance is imperative in trying to overcome racism, police brutality, and other monolithic and longstanding social problems but fortunately, our increasingly interconnected world means that we don’t have to fight these injustices anonymously and in isolation.



[1] “People of colour” is an Americanism that refers to anyone who identifies as belonging to a racial group other than white. I use this term in to avoid the more familiar but problematic term “minority”, which in terms of race implies subordination or inferiority in relation to a white majority.

[2]  Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), Censo Demográfico 2010: Características gerais da população, religião e pessoas com deficiência (2010), ftp://ftp.ibge.gov.br/Censos/Censo_Demografico_2010/Caracteristicas_Gerais_Religiao_Deficiencia/caracteristicas_religiao_deficiencia.pdf.

[3] Kia L. Caldwell, Negras in Brazil: re-envisioning black women, citizenship, and the politics of identity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 33.

[4] Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves: A study in the development of Brazilian civilization, trans. Samuel Putnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).

[5] See Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Colour, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001); Thomas E. Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); France Winddance Twine, Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997);  and Jonathan E. Warren, Racial Revolutions: Antiracism and Indian Resurgence in Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) among others.

[6] Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff, “Why Is Blackwater Helping to Train Brazil’s World Cup Security?,” The Nation (blog) (April 25, 2014), http://www.thenation.com/blog/179541/why-blackwater-helping-train-brazils-world-cup-security#Revolution News, “Brazil: FIFA Forces Evictions for World Cup, Police Brutality Rages,” (January 9, 2014),  http://revolution-news.com/brazil-fifa-forces-evictions-for-world-cup-police-brutality-rages/.

[7] Simon Romero and Taylor Barnes, “Police Storm Squatters at Rio Stadium Site,” New York Times (March 22, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/world/americas/brazilian-police-storm-indigenous-squatters-at-maracana.html?_r=1&.

[8] Nayana Fernandez, “Aldeia Maracanã Marks 513 Years of Indigenous Evictions in Brazil,” Latin America Inside Out (blog), Latin American Bureau (March 19, 2013), http://lab.org.uk/aldeia-maracana-rios-urban-indigenous-village-in-danger-as-brazils-world-cup-approaches; Notícias Rio Brasil Editor, “Hospital Côlonia Curupaiti o novo endereço dos índios expulsos da Aldeia Maracanã,” Notícias Rio Brasil (blog) (March 23, 2013),  http://noticiasriobrasil.com.br/?p=5616.

[9] CEDEFES, “Carta aberta à imprensa e a todos que apoiaram à Aldeia Maracanã e o Movimento Tamoio dos Povos Originários,” (March 29, 2013), http://www.cedefes.org.br/index.php?p=indigenas_detalhe&id_afro=10040.; Romero and Barnes; Fernandez.

[10] Fernanda Sánchez, “Forced Eviction of Aldeia Maracanã: How Not to Make a World Cup, ” RioOnWatch (March 23, 2013), http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=7962Jornal do Brasil, “Aldeia Maracanã: Caetano Veloso critica ‘vulgaridade’ da administração estadual,” (January 20, 2013), http://www.jb.com.br/rio/noticias/2013/01/20/aldeia-maracana-caetano-veloso-critica-vulgaridade-da-administracao-estadual/.

[11] United Nations, General Assembly, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Raquel Rolnik [Mega-events], A/HRC/13/20,” (December 18, 2009), http://direitoamoradia.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/G0917613_Megaeventos2.pdf, 4.

[12] NativeWeb, “About Abya Yala Net,” (2002), http://abyayala.nativeweb.org/about.html.

[13]  Miriam Wells, “Why Do Brazilian Police Kill?” InSight Crime (blog), (November 21, 2013), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/why-do-brazilian-police-kill.

Jennifer Chisholm is a sociology PhD student at King's College, Cambridge and an editor for the King's Review. She studies land/housing rights and racial identity politics in Rio de Janeiro.