Our Fire this Time! The Favela As Zone Of Death And Insurgent Spatiality


What is a favela? Answering this question is answering five hundred years of an ugly history. The favela is a spatial metaphor for understanding the Brazilian national project. And yet, although much has been written about the favela, it remains a troubling conceptual and political category. If in the sociological/anthropological imagination of Brazilian academic elite it continues a contested signifier (the debate favela vs. periphery, class vs. race is all but one dimension of the scholarly debate), for those inhabiting such space it does not require too much to understand its place in the Brazilian racial imagination. As a Black spatiality, it is a signifier of violence, crime and disorder and its residents are cast as a permanent threat to urban life. In a structural antagonism to what city life entails, the favela is the negative reference to which legality, state protection, civil life and the very right to the city is defined. The favelado occupies, if the reader wills, a geography of social and physical death. Such ontologico-spatial position is not more pronounced than in the visceral making of the city of São Paulo as an anti-Black societal space. Brazil’s financial center (the city alone represents respectively 10% of the Brazilian GDP) brings in its flag, in its historic monuments and in the names of its streets, the history of antiblackness. The city’s motto itself, “Non ducor, duco” (I lead, I am not led), illustrates the arrogance and geographic totality of a city born out of Black slavery. From São Paulo, in the 16th and 17th centuries departed the expeditions by the so-called bandeirantes to “conquer” indigenous and Black territories in Central Brazil. Nowadays, the myth of bandeirantes as the brave paulistan men who expanded civilization to the countryside is alive in the monuments, streets and in the antagonist views the city’s paulistanos bear against the predominantly Black and indigenous immigrants from the north and northeast parts of Brazil. Within the Brazilian geography of race and poverty, São Paulo is the center of prosperity made possible by the industrious and laborious work of European immigrants and endangered first by former slaves and then by those running away from hunger and draught and now by those descendants of both groups living in the city’s sprawling favelas.

And still, São Paulo’s history of spatial violence is not unique to this city. This space-based subjugation is a fundamental aspect of urban modernity in Brazil. In the national narratives of progress, to be modern and civilized, Brazil would have to resemble Europe in its cities and population. In the Brazilian racialized regime of citizenship, the city is a text through which one can read my country’s ugly colonial history and its afterlife. In the post-slavery context, Brazilian cities incorporated such whitening ideology through state hygienist policies that aimed at “civilizing” the country, a racially-coded word for criminalizing Black urban life. In São Paulo’s wake of the slavery abolition in 1888, as the paulistan coffee-based aristocracy mourned the loss of slaved-labor and feared a Black freed urban population, the downtown area was redesigned by European architects to create spatial strategies of Black contention. As Brazilian geographer Raquel Rolnik has shown in her work, the new urban order was an ideological artifact for whitening São Paulo. How? Through urban zoning that favored European immigrants access to land, by crack downing on Black collective houses known as cortiços, and through the criminalization of Black urban survival — the newly freed slaves were submitted to harsher penal code against vagrancy and street-vending. These policies also comprised a new zoning code that facilitated white immigrant’s access to land and demolished Black housing.

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Brazilian military in Favela do Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro on September 22, 2017. / Photograph by Fernando Frasão (Agência Brasil).

Now, the spatial history of Brazilian major cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro seem reenacted once again with the ongoing processes of racial displacement. While in Rio de Janeiro the Brazilian army has been used to expel the undesired population, boosting real estate market and reshaping the geography of security and tourism, in São Paulo it is the troubling practice of setting favelas on fire what seems to be a new method for dealing with the inconvenient presence of Black and Brown bodies in higher-valued real estate areas of the city. Take the example of Favela do Moinho, a predominantly Black space bordering the wealthy neighborhood of Campos Eliseus, one of the white spaces born out of the European architectural intervention by the end of 19th century. As Brazil celebrates in 2018 the 130th year of its abolition of slavery, fire replaces vagrancy codes, explicit hygienist policies in reasserting the Brazilian urban racial project: it prevents the reproduction of Black urban life by biologically — some have died, and many have been hospitalized with chronic respiratory problems — economically — they cannot afford to pay for rent in downtown or afford the bus fare in commuting from the periphery — and geographically — the hyper-segregated periphery is also the result of state policies — asphyxiating Black city life.

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(1&2) Favela do Moinho in São Paulo after a fire on January 3, 2012. (3&4) Favela do Corujão in São Paulo after a fire on February 5, 2012. / All photographs by Zé Carlos Barretta.

In the case of Favela do Moinho, while its residents continue to be harassed by the city government and urban developers, constant fires have left some dead and several others homeless. Although a 2012 city council investigation found no evidence of a deliberate criminal act of setting favelas on fire, the disturbingly recurrent fires that stubbornly target mainly favelas in coveted areas of the city has made residents and human rights activists to denounce what they name as a deliberate politic of urban cleaning, or, as denounced in the very title of 2014 a documentary by Conrado Ferrato, “cleaning with fire.” This is not an overstatement. There are serious reasons to believe fire has been used as yet another delinquent practice of the familiar criminal activities of state agents, urban neoliberal developers and business owners. From vigilantes killing street-children by smashing their heads while sleeping, to city government’s cannons of water to remove them from public parks, and then deliberately setting shacks on fire… no surprise. The economic rationality is self-evident. Newspaper The Guardian has revealed that the land value of favelas struck by fire is much higher (£68/sq m) than the average (£36)/sq m for the city (“Revealed: fires in São Paulo favelas more likely on higher-value land,” November 2017). Also, the same report shows that while favelas in prime-areas of São Paulo represent less than 10% of the city’s 1,700 favelas, fire in this particular region accounts for 29% of all occurrences in a given year. Cleaning with fire or burning shacks and bodies are yet another dimension of the necropolitical logics of urban capitalism in dealing with the city’s Black surplus populations.

The Favela as a Carceral Geography ///

In the city’s racial division of labor, the favelas that are not set of fire are integrated into the economy through the cheap labor of domestic servants, doorperson, trash-collectors, bus-drivers, or in countless call-centers that have become the symbol of labor precarity in urban Brazil. As São Paulo moves quickly from industrial to a service-based economy, these job positions become the few possibilities for urban survival. According to a recently released report by DIEESE (Inter-Trade Union Department of Economic Statistics), in 2016 unemployment rate among the Black population in the metropolitan region of São Paulo was 4.2% higher than among non-Blacks. Among Black women, the unemployment rate reached the mark of 20.9% while among whites and other non-Black people the rate was 15.2%. When employed, dark-skinned individuals make in general 67% of the income a light-skin person even if performing the same duties. The familiar everyday image of a Black woman taking a crowded bus at 5am from a favela in the edges of the city to work as a maid in the house of a white family in the city’s prime areas give us a way to think how the extraction of plus-value from the favelado is the other side of the process of devaluing Black lives through historic processes of displacement, criminalization and policing. Such injustices, are obviously not merely a byproduct of economic exploitation as many Brazilian scholars and news commentators have made us to believe, but also and more importantly, they are part of a national, racial project of governance that grants legal entitlements to citizenship rights to some and condemns others to permanent zones of (social) death.

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Eviction of 800 families by the police in the Favela do Capão Redondo in São Paulo on August 24, 2009. / Photograph by Cátia Toffoletto.

Devalued Black lives and pained bodies are political symbols of the Brazilian urban history of spatial violence. That this mode of spatial subjugation is a-temporal is something obvious in the contemporary work of state terror in enforcing geographies of privilege and social suffering in the Brazilian neoliberal polity. Policing and prison appear as state practices that create spatial captivities and conditions of placelessness from the city and from the world of citizenship. The placeless Black subject of the neoliberal state is held captive in the hyper-segregated periphery. For many Black youth, for instance, moving around the city is not an option. Bus fare is too expensive; taking a little stroll in the city’s prime areas quite often result in harassment if not prison and death. Caging outside (or doing time together as the mothers of Black youth inmates refer to their conditions) renders functional to the project of city/order making. In the same ways that prison becomes a “spatial fix” — in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s reference of yet another context — for the problems created by thug capitalism, caging escalating surplus Black population in the favelas advances urban governance: further devaluing labor, vanishing bodies from the white city, letting die… Indeed, these dynamics have been intensified exponentially in the last two decades with a local version of the US “war on drugs,” the broken window policing, and aggressive urban development. In its ambition to become a global city for foreign investment and tourism, São Paulo not only embraced the war on drugs and quality of life panacea of Uncle Sam turning favelas into prisons, but it actually exceeded Rudolph Giuliani’s brutal war on Black and Brown youth as stated in an internal memorandum by the São Paulo Military Police: “São Paulo’s effort to reduce homicides is evident when comparing the results of the city with the ones obtained by the known New York ‘zero tolerance’ program. The fall in the percentage of homicides in the third trimester of the last seven years (1999 to 2006) was 64.14%, overcoming the percentage achieved by New York during Rudolph W. Giuliani’s term (1993 to 2000).” What is not addressed in the memorandum is the human cost of “securing” São Paulo to urban capitalism. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, from 1995 to 2016 the state population has increased from 64,000 to nearly 200,000 individuals, and at least 56% of them are Black youth arrested for minor crimes and drug-related offenses. Black women, in particular, are the fast-growing incarcerated group in the leading Brazilian state in incarceration. As the state and city economy shrink and the government pushes forward its option to “govern through crime,” more impoverished favelada Black women have their lives police, encaged, and devoured by the Brazilian prison industrial complex. Within this sinister economy of hyper-punitiveness, superfluous Black bodies become a medium for connecting dispersed geographies of social suffering through what can be appropriately named as the favela-prison pipeline. That is to say, while the neoliberal state fragments and confines communities through segregation, policing and poverty, these geographies are uncannily reconnected by the state in its practice of caging bodies kidnapped from distinct favelas and bounded together in concrete boxes elsewhere. Plantation, favela, prison, etc.

The Favela Is a Foreign Country ///

“The favela is a modern-day plantation, and the police is the slave-catcher.” Reiterated again and again by Black activists, this racial truth may help us to delve into these questions: what authorizes the police to kill in the favela? What is that that turns the body of the favelado and the favela into a visual, physical and ontological cartography of social death? What sense of orientation, belonging and affirmation such cartography offers to the favela’s opposite geography, the city and its inhabitants? The favela is a foreign country. The favelados are foreign enemies. This enmity is a fundamental aspect of their relation to the city because as enemies they provide the political resource to this legal imagined community. As a foreign land, the favela is not a place subjected to law but rather to terror. It is a territory that must be invaded and tamed. The invasion of Rio de Janeiro’s hillside communities by the Brazilian army during the preparation of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, and the less spectacular (and yet mundane) invasion of urban peripheries throughout the country by military-fashioned police forces in armored vehicles called “big skull” (caveirão), is indicative of the terrocratic regime of rights that informs the ways the nation and its citizens are imagined.

Astonishing levels of killings by the police and the nightmares they generate in the terrorized communities turn this very text you are reading obsolete and irrelevant. Pause, please! Another person may have just been killed by a rotten police force that produces seven dead bodies every day in Brazil. This is the body-counting for a single state: between 2004 and 2014, the state of São Paulo police force killed 6,807 individuals. The profile of the dead: predominantly Black, young, man, favela residents. The figure above shows the dynamics of killings by the police in ten years. It is worth noting that although not all deaths are concentrated in the city of São Paulo, an investigation by Ponte Jornalismo reveals that the favelas in the city and metropolitan region house an average of 50% of killings by the police. The favelas that comprise urban sprawl in the south and east sides are the main places where these deaths consistently take place. By killings, police produce a macabre spatiality, one that enables the biopolis (the legal city) come into being as a white, non-Black, legal space for one’s exercise of his/her personhood.
In the Brazilian juridical order, this statement is coded in color-blinded words as “thugs,” “dealers,” “delinquents,” and “favelados.” They provide moral and legal justification for judges to issue collective warrants to whole communities, authorizing police officers to kick doors in search for “suspects,” to seize or destroy electronics when residents fail to show receipts, to arrest youth for “further identification,” and to literally make those who have a criminal record disappear. No mercy, no legal boundaries, no justice.

Favela as an Insurgent Spatiality ///

Within such context, the ethical question ultimately becomes, how to respond to police terror within a regime of law in which Blacks are always and already seen as enemies? How does one make Black voices heard in a civil society which very right to the city depends on Black blood? While I am not in a position to answer these challenging questions — my reformist place in the academy and my law-abidingness make me a suspicious participant in the structure of privilege that requires others to be placed in these conditions — the fact is that there is an underground form of insurgency in Brazil that places the favela at the center of radical urban politics. In their attempt to challenge the anti-Black urban order, the favelado challenges the hegemonic spatial script of the favela as a-political, outlaw and hopeless place. Vibrant Black youth initiatives in hip-hop and popular education projects, self-built houses that challenge government’s attempts to spatially discipline them, anti-police violence forums… these are just a few examples of the political life of the oppressed in the racially hostile city. Other individuals have embraced transgressive spatial practices such as dealing, stealing from the houses of the elite, participating in gang retaliatory violence against the police and so on as a way to redraw the city’s spatial and ontological limits. While the first set of politics are easily acknowledged as part of a tradition of urban resistance in most of the world, we still need to pay attention to the political message of those inhabiting “the world of crime.” Truly revolutionary urban politics must attend to the rebellious and undomesticated urban “thug” that spikes fear in the (white) civil society. I sympathetically regard their practices as insurgent urban politics not by turning a blind eye to the controversial and limited scope of their protest, but because they unapologetically question the political order that turns their presence in the city as superfluous. Beyond fruitless debates, whether their crimes are politically motivated or selfish acts to meet their immediate needs, their spatial praxis may be read as an attempt to decolonize the city of men. Fire, prison and death become, then, the raw material to create “ungovernable” spatial subjectivities, or, in the words of Frantz Fanon, “a world of complete disorder.”

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Political meeting around local politician Marielle Franco in her home Favela do Maré in Rio de Janeiro on September 3, 2016. / Photograph by Mídia Ninja.

If the favela is a foreign country, why should the favelada being loyal to the state and its regime of law? There are several moments in Brazilian history in which the other of the nation reaffirmed this condition by creating alternative spaces outside the white Brazilian polity. While this rather complex and rich history of popular resistance is beyond the scope of these pages, it is worth highlighting some of them. Between 1895 and 1898, the small town of Canudos, in the Northeastern state of Bahia housed an audacious experiment of urban commons: far away from urban centers, a group of at least 30,000 disenfranchised, “uncivilized” and “backward” individuals created a fortress “republic” in which land, goods and authority were shared. During four years, Canudos resisted several military attacks by the Brazilian army and finally vanished in October 1897 when its last warriors were captured and killed. What motivated landless and racialized peasants to join the spiritual leader Antonio Conselheiro in his refusal to be governed by the Brazilian state and in their attempt to foster a different social order? Historians have occupied themselves with this question with several answers. Some have portrayed the people uprising as revolutionary, controversial, fanatic and so on. What most of them haven’t paid attention however, is to the social experiment Canudos entails in terms of reimagining geographies of citizenship and freedom in response to the Brazilian restrictive regime of citizenship. In opposition to the urban geographies of white privilege, Brown and Black individuals created a Black geography of hope and resistance.

Canudos was not the first and would be not the last attempt to freedom outside state domains. Two hundred years before, runaway slaves founded the Republic of Palmares (1605-1694), the largest maroon community in Brazil. Under the later leadership of former slaves Dandara and Zumbi, Palmares resisted several military operations by Portuguese forces throughout the 17th century until its downfall in 1694. Palmares was defeated by colonial power but its political message reverberates in contemporary forms of Black spatial politics in Brazil. Black activists regard the favela as a quilombo (maroon community). This spatial awareness indicates that Black life is lived not only through spatial relations of domination but also through spatial agency, something geographer Katherine McKittrick has crafted as “a Black sense of place” or an attempt to reconstitute ourselves through oppositional geographies of self-making. Canudos and Palmares were foreign lands, distant from the political (Rio de Janeiro) and financial (São Paulo) capitals of Brazil from where military forces were deployed to restate the spatio-political order. They were also alternative Black geographies created in response to the captive geographies of cargo and sugar plantation. And whilst these two historical moments can be easily accepted as forms of resistance within Brazilian history, why we are usually ambivalent, reticent in regarding contemporary transgressive practices by Black youth in the peripheries of major cities as insurgent politics? Why are we hesitant in considering the spatial praxis of those foreigners whose relation to the city is a relation of enmity do to their racial alterity?

Chaos: in a given day of May 2006, young men from favelas throughout of São Paulo set buses on fire, stormed state facilities and shoot at police stations killing police officers. It was an attack called from prison by São Paulo’s main gang PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) and attended by dispossessed young (predominantly Black) men from the favelas. The city’s middle and up-class were “terrorized” by a rebel youth that having nothing to lose sat the city on fire. In the aftermaths of the attack, the police invaded the favelas and killed at least 505 individuals in what came to be known as “The Crimes of May.” Before the reader takes issue with my portrayal of the PCC’s attacks as spatial agency, let’s admit that PCC has no political purpose other than secure territory for its drug-trafficking activities and to advance its criminal agenda. Let’s also admit that not all members of PCC are Black youth. And yet, let’s also ask ourselves what makes PCC appealing among marginalized urban youth neglected by the state and terrorized by the police. Whilst I do not advocate violence against officers — in Brazil most of them are Black men — and while I am not sympathetic to PCC either, I do invite readers to have an intellectual curiosity to recognize the underground, outlaw and at times not too-coherent politics of space embedded for instance in gang retaliatory violence against state delinquency.

If fire, policing and prison are the technologies of domination the state uses to cage the Black urban subjects in zones of death, can these very sinister tools be used to destabilize such sinister geographies of power? My contention is simple: in the anti-Black city where Black lives do not matter and Black suffering is rendered illegible, to be heard Black protest has to exceed the boundaries of law and legality. That means, any radical urban politics of resistance must be attentive to controversial and everyday acts such as sticking up, dealing, setting buses on fire, storming state facilities, evading bus fare and even retaliatory violence against state aggression as spatial praxis that have the potential of cumulatively destabilize the urban order. Insofar as we continue conceiving urban politics from an idealized Marxist subject of resistance, we miss the opportunity to rethink what political life means for those ontologically displaced from the polis. If state agents and urban developers deploy fire and police violence as a strategy of cleaning the city, why not our fire this time?