After almost 30 years after the return to democracy in the South American country, the government of São Paulo State, ruled by a social democrat party since the country’s independence, decided it will employ all police forces to protect citizens’ rights throughout the State, beginning the unusual experience in the capital, São Paulo. In Brazil, States are responsible for public order and cities count only on a small Municipal Guard. In all States, police forces are hosted in two institutions: the Civil Police, responsible for investigations and extortions, and the Military Police, historically connected to the army but today mostly responsible for urban policing and indiscriminate violence against the population, mostly but not only towards disadvantaged groups.
The reason for the change lies on recent urban protests, in which the Military Police attacked both peaceful demonstrators and masked youth who destroyed property and posed risk to passersby. Governor Geraldo Alckmin, sources say, had an epiphanic moment after seeing TV Globo’s footage that clearly portrayed the police treating as scum both law abiding citizens and out of control vandals. Mr. Alckmin is in the middle of his 9th mandate as governor, having failed in municipal and presidential elections. “When I was a child, I never really got the ‘Free Belly Law’ [that made all newborns free under the law before the Abolition of Slavery]. But now I do. It suddenly dawned on me that each person is a different person, and if someone is a slave that doesn’t mean her child has to live on bondage as well. Whatever,” said the usually put together politician at the end of a turbulent meeting with his secretariat, “let’s just protect the people of this State and see how it goes from there.”
Reaction in the country varied. Some said it was just a marketing strategy, but ecologists, recently empowered by the new makeup used by environmental activist Marina Silva, believed this is a move that should be applauded. The federal government, which faces opposition from Alckmin’s PSDB, promised to send troops and make a mess of the experience, so that other states will not even consider emulating São Paulo in what was called in the president’s circles “a typical neoliberal, Washington-consensus strategy to silence social demands”. PSDB itself, the governor’s party, is divided. A senior party operative summarized the division in a statement released for the press: “Making the police protect honest workers living in this state and their right to express their views is something that we should have done a long time ago but we cannot do today. Like anything else in this country, btw.”
Mr. Alckmin urged patience: “The task is not easy; on the one hand, jail those who are committing crimes and [on the other] protect the population” (reader: this is a real quote). Social scientists interviewed for this story all pointed out the obstacles to such action. “No one has ever told the police that that’s what they had to do in a democratic regime and now no one knows how they will behave. Actually, I myself never thought about this funny idea,” said a prominent Brazilian criminologist with stints in UN agencies. Brazilians, like citizens in other countries except Great Britain and Australia, are divided between those who think the police has to just go there and smash everybody’s head, who tend to vote for right-wing to moderate parties, and those who believe that crack addicts, murderers and sentenced white collar criminals should be supported in their endeavors, regardless of the law of the land.