At the Camara dos Deputados

I had a great meeting at the architecturally stunning Camara dos Deputados (the Brazilian equivalent of the British House of Commons or the House of Representatives in the USA), which almost made up for the fact that it was the only one of the three scheduled interviews that I had arranged that actually went ahead… it really does look like I will have to come back.

The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Depuados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the left.
The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Deputados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the right.

This meeting took place in the Comissao de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities) and was with Federal Deputy and committee member, Pompeo de Mattos, the secretary of the Commission, Marcio Marques de Araujo, and Hebe Guimareas-Dalgaard, who works in the International Relations office and who served as translator.

The meeting covered all sorts of background issues around security in Brazil, and concentrated on Deputado de Mattos’s specialities in this area, which are in justice and drug-trafficking issues. Again, I won’t do more than summarize a few immediately important things here. There was a lot of talk of police corruption and some hair-raising stories of the ways in which military police officers in particular has become involved in selling equipment and ammunition, and of course the autodefesas communitarias that I have mentioned before. Interestingly though, it was the deputy’s opinion that the military police, despite having a ‘culture of violence’ inherited from their role as enforcers of the military dictatorship, were less corrupt (in an everyday way) than the civil police. The latter are even lower down the police food-chain and correspondingly more poorly paid and equipped.

The inadequacies of the civil police has led many Mayors of larger towns and cities to introduce so-called ‘Municipal Guards’ – basically private security given some official status. They have few powers but are basically there to increase the visibility of security, a kind of prophylactic community policing. The problem is however that the official police and the massive private security sector are thoroughly intermixed already. Many officers moonlight as private security guards, which leads to all kinds of conflicts of interest.

Deputado de Mattos was certainly not obsessed with the inadequacies of the police however. Serious and organized crime associated with drug-trafficking paralyzes the everyday life of poorer areas of large cities in Brazil. Despite the fears of the rich over crime, it is the poorest that suffer most. He described the drug gangs as being the major obstacle to any positive change in Brazilian cities. However he didn’t see any militaristic solution – fighting a war against the drug gangs would only lead to more violence. The only solution to the problems of both crime and the poverty from which it emerges is social inclusion. The favelados must be provided with the same opportunities and infrastructure as everyone else. The need schools, hospitals, transport, and so on. Programs like Bolsa Familia, however well-intentioned, make no fundamental difference, he argued – contradicting, as most people with whom I have talked have done, the assessment of external organisations like the World Bank.

However providing such opportunities is not easy, and not just because of the costs. The drug-gangs actively resist any attempt by the state to introduce services, to the extent of intimidating or even killing construction workers. And this shouldn’t be in any way romanticized as some kind of popular resistance of the poor to the imposition of unwanted state interference – this is an attempt to maintain the rule of fear and violence. Somehow, one can never get away from the security issue in Brazil.

Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.
Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.

(Thanks to Deputado Pompeo de Mattos, who as you will see if you check out his website is quite a character. He is fiercely proud of his southern ‘gaucho’ roots, and writes poetry to that effect. He is also – and I don’t say this very often of politicians – a genuinely nice guy. Thanks also to Marcio Marques de Araujo and to Hebe Guimares-Dalgaard without whom the meeting would have been impossible).

CCTV watches (and catches) the watchman

surveillance can be a weapon of the weak and perhaps right wrongs committed by representatives of the state…

Sometimes surveillance ends up rebounding on those who are usually on the other side of the camera. Videos from citizens can hold violent officers to account, as in the Rodney King incident. But occasionally, CCTV cameras themselves will catch a violent cop out, as is alleged to have happened in New York in the case of Officer David London’s arrest of Robert Morgenthau, a Iraq-war veteran suffering from PTSD. According to the New York Times, video footage from a CCTV system in the building where the arrest occurred shows Officer London repeatedly beating and kicking Mr Morgenthau.

Ironically, London’s lawyer claims that “oftentimes the videotape is the beginning of the story, not the end.” This isn’t usually the attitude that the police have to CCTV footage of a crime!

Now of course, this kind of thing is also sightly uncomfortable for anti-CCTV activists too. In some ways, it shows CCTV failing of course (it didn’t deter Officer London from assaulting Mr Morgenthau), but it also shows that surveillance, and not particularly countersurveillance or sousveillance just surveillance, can be a weapon of the weak and perhaps right wrongs committed by representatives of the state. We shouldn’t forget that surveillance, whether we object to it generally or in particular cases, is not always about repression; it often has caring intent and can result in the right thing being done.