July 13, 2014. The FIFA World Cup Finals will be played at Maracanã today. Significantly, it is not the Brazilian squad but their arch rivals Argentina who will be facing off against Germany in the final, after the Brazilian team was annihilated 7-1 in the semi-final in what was the most embarrassing loss in the history of the World Cup. Nothing could be more apparent than FIFA’s “state of exception” today. Rio is seeing one of the largest mobilizations of military and police forces since the end of the dictatorship. It isn’t Brazilian citizens the police are here to protect. It’s clear that they are protecting FIFA and the associated global capital interests. The police have been sent to the streets to brutally repress and censor any dissidents who might spoil the party.
And so it was in this context that I was savagely beaten by a group of military police. There was nothing particularly special about my case. I had witnessed many such unprovoked attacks by the police at protests before; however, on this occasion, it was a privileged “gringo” who had been attacked, and the story made international headlines. While the police have been beating, torturing and disappearing poor “favelados” for a long time, they had overstepped their duty and swung their batons at me, one of the international visitors they were tasked much international media attention is emblematic of precisely the inequalities Brazilians were protesting against in the streets that day: the transformation of the urban landscape in Rio and throughout Brazil to serve people like me, international tourists and capital, at the expense of the people who actually live here.
While I have no personal footage recording the moment of the attack as my memory card had just filled up and my GoPro stolen, the incident was partially captured by my team, who quickly gathered all of the citizen footage. They performed a frame-by-frame forensic analysis, identifying two of the aggressors and breaking the story online, publishing their profiles in close-up photos captured at earlier moments in the day. The offending military police were arrested within hours of breaking the story and have since been removed from active duty while they await trial. The arrests were truly extraordinary given the culture of absolute impunity amidst Brazilian police, and was surely a public relations move prompted by this major embarrassment coinciding with the World Cup finals. This marked an important moment: my own beating filmed by my collaborators turning their cameras back on me, citizen security provided by the citizens themselves. While it was a small victory for justice, for Brazilians, the incident only adds insult to injury. When a foreigner suffers a relatively minor attack, there is accountability, while summary executions and disappearances at the hands of the police continue on a regular basis with complete impunity.
As most of the world watched the World Cup finals from the comfort of their homes, bars and restaurants in cities and towns across the globe, we should not forget the financial and social costs of creating this spectacle. Brazilians will be coping with the legacy of this event for years to come. While it’s easy to dismiss my experience as an unfortunate incident perpetrated by a handful of “bad apples,” we should take pause and consider the systemic context wherein the police are themselves victims of Brazil’s oppressive political system under global capitalism. Most police are themselves favela dwellers who are poorly paid and trained. They are (in most cases) pursuing a career in policing due to lack of other opportunities, much like African-Americans in the United States, who are represented twice as much in the military as they are in the U.S. population. This is not to dismiss the egregious violence perpetrated by a handful of the police, but amongst any mass harvest (the “thousands of new jobs created by the World Cup”), there are bound to be more than a few bad apples.
The police that were sent to the streets in Brazil for the World Cup and will be again in 2016 for the Olympics are not serving Brazilians. They are serving FIFA and the IOC, serving you, and protecting the status quo from the inevitable resentment that is going to boil up in host countries when the circus comes to town and no one bothers to consult or invite the people hosting the party. The problems run much deeper than the actions of a few bad apples: they are systemic and arise from the inherent dynamics of global capitalism. Events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games exemplify these dynamics. They are multi-billion-dollar commercial bonanzas that actively disenfranchise the majority to the benefit of the few. So much for the notion of fair play! As consumers of these global spectacles, we are all implicated in the story. In 2015, I intend to be back in Brazil documenting the next chapter of this tragic and infuriating narrative.
Friday, January 23 is the final day to contribute to an IndieGoGo campaign to support the completion of Jason O’Hara’s documentary about the injustices surrounding the 2014 World Cup. If you were moved by what O’Hara has shared in this four-part series, please consider contributing.