With the 2014 FIFA World Cup only a week away, Rio de Janeiro’s ‘favela’* communities are making international news headlines daily. Favela residents will tell you that a major challenge they encounter is the stereotypical portrayal of their communities in Brazilian media. They are often presented as spaces of poverty, backwardness and, since the 1980s, drug trafficking. Now, with the heavy media exposure associated with the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, stereotypical portrayals are also being mobilized by the international news media.
Many friends have recently pointed me to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news article depicting military police violence in Rio favelas. The article quite rightly speaks to the difficulties of the military police occupations of Brazil’s low-income communities and denounces the elite who tend to be the sole benefactors of mega-event related infrastructural upgrades. A similar piece by Stephanie Nolen appeared in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago
But I am frustrated with these stories. Frustrated by the frequent reliance on narratives of ‘drug trafficking’, military occupation, and romanticized clichés of favelas. Articles such as these tend to follow a similar formula: they begin with the image of heavy tanks rolling into the favela, followed by a history of the police pacification program, and conclude with one or two quotes from unhappy favela residents.
It’s important to recognize that these stories do indicate a recent shift in discourse: from favelas as spaces of heavy drug trafficking to favelas as spaces of police violence. However, these narratives still paint these communities as inherently violent. We must be aware, though, that here where there is violence, there is also love. There is corruption, but there are also huge networks of support. There are organized criminals who sometimes collude with police, but there are also organized community members who are frustrated and are working together to demand better treatment from the state.
We need to call out state violence. We need to say that Brazil’s impoverished, darker-skinned communities are being heavily militarized and are under constant threat of police violence. We need to say that many military police have historically been unaccountable for their actions. But, it’s also important to recognize that favelas are much more than this police violence. They are networks and circulations of people that are often working together – although, like any community, not in a homogeneous fashion – to mobilize resources, be they cultural, social, financial, or otherwise.
Community groups are deliberating about their needs through meetings, planning public demonstrations, and organizing events. The use of one or two quotes from a representative ‘community member’ does not do justice to the complexity of these communities; such media tactics essentially create favelas as spaces of a few individuals who are disconnected from one another and who might have some individual concerns with the state. If journalists want to cover pacification in favelas, they should spend more time speaking to organizations such as Raizes em Movimento (http://www.raizesemmovimento.org.br), Ocupa Alemao (https://www.facebook.com/OcupaAlemao), and Observatorio de Favelas (http://observatoriodefavelas.org.br/en), to name but a few of the groups doing significant political organizing in the North Zone of Rio. News reporters need to attend protests in and around favelas so that they can adequately understand the differences in police tactics between these and the more privileged protest spaces in Centro (downtown). Journalists should learn some Portuguese so that they can verbally communicate with people who have not had access to hegemonic English language training. Otherwise, through their news stories, reporters are implicated in rhetorically pacifying the voices of those who the military, also in their stories, are often trying to erase.
As any good postcolonial scholar will tell us, the stories journalists and academics choose to tell are inherently mediated by language, race, gender, and class privilege. In other words, who we are affects: who we speak to, the broader ideologies that influence the questions we ask and answers we hear, and the mediums through which we communicate. But we, journalists and academics alike, should be making every effort to constantly reflect upon how we’re speaking about groups of people and representing the spaces they inhabit. I urge all of us to do this difficult work, particularly during these times of intense media coverage and events that sometimes feel like they are spinning out of control. It is so easy to fall back on stereotypes. If we respect the people we’re talking with, we need to make every effort to understand the complexity of their lives.
*’Favela’ is a contested term, in part due to the negative stereotypes often associated with these communities. Moreover, there are no hard or fast definitions of what constitutes a favela. Many commentators will describe favelas as not having access to basic sanitation, water, or electricity; consisting of ‘auto-constructed’ houses, or dwellings built by community members themselves; and having deep community relations partly as a result of histories of exclusion. However, not all of these conditions apply to every space that is considered a favela, particularly as many of these communities are experiencing more and more state interventions to ‘urbanize’/’integrate’ into the ‘formal city’ (itself a fraught concept that I hope to confront in a later post). There has been an increasing tendency in popular discourse to describe favelas as ‘comunidades’ in order to rhetorically distance these spaces from stereotypes of backwardness, poverty, and lack, but many people living in favelas continue to use the older term. For this latter reason, and for the sake of consistency, I use the term ‘favela’ here, but I do so recognizing that it is not a bounded term or space, and I urge readers to critically reflect on stereotypes that are inherently wrapped up in language through the use of words like ‘favela’.