Paulista policing – how political?

Last Sunday’s (4 September) protest in favour of Diretas Ja! (general elections now) went better than expected with around 100,000 on the streets, before it was needlessly attacked by Military Police after the manifestation had finished. How political are the police’s actions?

‘Police tend to repress left-wing demonstrations’ is hardly a novel insight. So maybe the better question is ‘what do we mean by “politically motivated”?’

Anti-Coup Protest: The return of Diretas Já 4/9/2016 from Brasil Wire on Vimeo.

The short film above by colleagues at Brasil Wire depicts videographically what I would expend far too many words describing, so let’s skip to the politics of the matter.

If there were any doubt about the police’s malevolence, the justifications given for attacking the demonstrations were self-contradictory, effectively proving they were lying. Buzzfeed Brasil [in Portuguese but worth a click for the photos and videos] has a neat account of the shifting explanations. It follows the classic Freudian ‘kettle logic’: ‘I returned the kettle to you unbroken; it was already broken when you lent it to me; I never borrowed the kettle.’

That one might mistrust a police service that also kills 500-odd people in the city each year is unsurprising – though as is often the case, police truculence only makes the headlines when middle-class people in the city core are hurt. What is less widely known is that the military police (‘PM’) is a state-, not federal-, controlled organ. That means in São Paulo it is in the hands of governor Geraldo Alckmin of the centre-right PSDB.

Has the past week’s repression been given force by the impeachment of Dilma? Has Temer ordered this himself? The latter is not technically possible. But the new justice minister, Alexandre de Moraes, is notoriously authoritarian and belongs to the PSDB, rather than Temer’s PMDB. Might he have signalled to his fellow tucano that repression would be tolerated, even if central government did not officially order it?

In response to this line of argument, some will point that there is no proof for the latter. Fair enough. Others will allege hypocrisy: Dilma didn’t stop police actions against anti-government protests while she was in power. It is worth pointing out that her justice minister was critical of São Paulo PM’s ‘extreme violence’ back in June 2013 at the start of the wave of popular manifestation that continues to this day, little good though that it did. But once protests had been channelled rightwards by August 2013, police repression actually eased off anyway. There was no repression against the right that Dilma could have pronounced herself against, so the question is moot.

To her credit – or Temer’s discredit – Dilma exemplified a more democratic attitude to protest than her successor

Dilma’s protest and policing balance sheet, beyond the rhetorical, is mixed. She signed into law the widely-criticised ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation that made it far easier to criminalise protest. But PT lawmakers repeatedly tried to reform the police, most recently through a 2013 constitutional amendment, PEC-51, to demilitarise police services. It was voted down by the congressional right.

More immediately, though, in a federal system there is little that can be done through central, executive power. In the United States, Obama eventually was critical of policing over Black Lives Matter protests – not nearly critical enough, one could argue – which landed him in a row with the Texas lieutenant governor. In the US, there is even less that can be done about policing as it is controlled at more molecular jurisdictional levels than it is in Brazil. Without constitutional change, the president’s role is a moral one. Do you give license to repression or not? Do you defend the right to protest or call for its quelling – or go for the mealy-mouthed cliché and ‘appeal for restraint from all sides’?

The Temer government has done nothing to impede police aggression, and may have given the forces moral license to do so. He has certainly sought to minimise protests, calling them ‘…small groups, not popular movements of any size’ and ‘not representative.’ Such is his right.

But what is the strategic objective of all this from the police’s point of view? In 2013, it was police actions that set off much larger movements. At the time it was by no means certain that this would end up being anti-Dilma (much less right-wing and dominated by the middle- and upper-classes). Do the police not fear lighting the match again?

Perhaps it is the case that the PM believe they can be relatively indiscriminate in their repression – even with a crowd of 50-100 thousand and not just a hard-core of 2,000 activists – because, unlike in 2013, Brazil is highly polarised.

Anger will be stoked amongst the left, but there is no question of it winning sympathy from the middle- and upper-classes. Nor from the big media: in June 2013, major newspapers called for repression, until one of their journalists was injured by rubber bullets, upon which their tune changed. I personally struggle to see same turnaround happening in late 2016. It will take much more significant mass mobilisation to deviate from the past week’s cycle of left protest and politicised police repression.

As an addendum and to illustrate partisan policing, the video below shows a few people in a bar – nearly 1km away from where Sunday’s protest ended  – jokingly chanting ‘não vai ter selfie‘ (‘there will be no selfies’ – a reference to innumerable cases of anti-Dilma protesters gleefully taking snaps with military police on Avenida Paulista during manifestations). PM passing by took a dislike to this and sprayed teargas into the bar.

[Unfortunately the only embeddable video of the episode I found was posted by a right-wing troll and supporter of Jair Bolsonaro. I guess this backs up my point somewhat.]



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