In Brazil, police officers are rarely held accountable for murderous attacks on citizens. Whenever a member of the police shoots someone, the agent responsible can easily claim that he was counteracting resistance. An “act of resistance” is then written and immediately filed. This institutional and legal justification — which needs only to be unilaterally asserted by the agent — automatically exempts the police from any kind of formal responsibility, ultimately limiting the possibility of an official investigation.
The fact that these acts of resistance most often concern a specific population — black poor youth from peripheral areas who are nevertheless formally protected by civil rights — poses the question of how control and repression of different people within the homogenous category of citizenship can vary. Even though they are fully recognized as Brazilian citizens, and thus entitled to all rights formally guaranteed by the state, these black youth can still be legally killed without further consequence.
The formal protection conceded in an institutional framework of citizenship is evidently unable not only to guarantee any possibility of resistance that does not lead to the physical elimination of those who dissent, but also to elaborate on the possibilities of resistance beyond and against the state. The latter is especially central because democracy must be construed more as a process to which dissent is inherent than as a form of government. Through the concrete democratic process of resistance, the condition of precariousness can be overcome, as the engaging practices of political action may prove fertile ground for the emergence of a deeply politicized subject capable of struggling for the material conditions of an emancipated existence.
Acts of resistance are deeply rooted in the National Security doctrine that was implemented by the Brazilian military dictatorship. According to this doctrine, Brazilian society has enemies that must be defeated at any cost. The militarized police — perhaps the most malign heritage from the military dictatorship — thus enforce a warlike approach to citizens, selecting its enemies and exterminating them.
Though created during the Brazilian military dictatorship, acts of resistance were subsequently enforced by the federal government to fill an interpretative gap in the most significant piece of legislation regarding the procedures of the criminal justice system: the Brazilian Code of Criminal Procedure (BCCP). This code was promulgated during a subsequent civil dictatorship, and until recently, it had remained largely unchanged. Even though the BCCP is enforceable only in the State of Rio de Janeiro, it provides the legal frame for every criminal investigation on Brazilian territory. In this separation between enforcement and legality lies the interpretative gap.
According to BCCP articles 284 and 292, a competent authority may resort to any means necessary to enforce arrest. The vague and flimsy wording of this law allows for zero accountability whenever police kill citizens. Under the term “necessary measures,” a police agent may justify his on-duty actions simply by stating that he was counteracting resistance. Because no other legislation clarifies or describes what these necessary measures might be, all other states have aped Rio de Janeiro’s modus operandi of filing an “act of resistance,” thereby barring any further investigation into the circumstances and conditions surrounding a killing by police.
Concretely, lethal use of police force loosely designated as “resistance to arrest followed by death” or “acts of resistance” corresponds to cases not submitted to either formal investigation or due process. Legally underpinning this measure is the premise that a police agent would never kill someone if it were not necessary, which encloses the argumentation cycle within a brutal tautology: the police officer killed someone because it was necessary and it was necessary to kill someone because that was what the police officer did. Thus the possibility of murder or of summary executions is seldom seriously considered or effectively investigated. The official version is always the one told by the police officer, who holds a priori truth. As a result, the victim is blamed for his own death.
To grasp the material consequences of this situation, let us look at some data:
- Every day in Rio de Janeiro, 3 people have their deaths filed under acts of resistance (Legislative Council of the State of Rio de Janeiro).
- Between 2001 and 2011, more than 10,000 Brazilian citizens were killed during confrontations with the state’s police (Institute of Public Security, an organ from the Secretary of Security of the State of Rio de Janeiro).
- On average, Brazilian police kill 6 citizens per day, every day (NGO Brazilian Forum of Public Security).
- Between 2009 and 2013, Brazilian police killed at least 11,197 citizens, more than had been killed by American police in over 30 years.
- Of the 510 acts of resistance filed in 2015, pertaining to 707 deaths, only 3 were actually prosecuted (Center for Studies on Citizenship, Conflict and Urban Violence, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro).
- In 2013, Brazilian police killed 1,259 citizens; in contrast, 316 active-duty police officers were killed (BBC Brazil).
According to these data, one police officer is killed for every four citizens killed by police. Given such numbers, the supposed casualties of conflicts between police officers and citizens may instead be the result of an institutionalized practice of manhunts and summary executions considered legal and legitimate within the democratic Brazilian state. Challenging this legitimacy, a 2010 report by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions from the United Nations Humans Rights Council stated that the current practice of classifying police killings as “acts of resistance” or “resistance followed by death” provides a carte blanche for police killing and must be abolished.
Through discourses about order such as the war on drugs or the “pacification” of poor communities, the police are granted a license to kill the state’s enemies. Created through these discourses and buttressed by systemic racism, these enemies have a specific color and class:
- Of the youth killed in Brazil, 77% are black.
- Although the general number of youth homicides has not changed in the past decade, homicides of black youths has increased 32.4%, while homicides of white youth has declined 32.3%.
- From 2002 to 2012, there has been a 111% increase in the victimization of black youth, which has been supported by the normalization of police brutality and public security policies that legitimize summary killings (Amnesty International).
From the Brazilian experience of these acts of resistance, we can shed light on the relations among citizenship, democracy, and exclusion. When poor black citizens face a military police that is legally authorized and socially legitimized to kill them, how can those inside this so-called democratic order resist? Because legal abstract citizenship does nothing concretely, besides create a kind of rights surplus for those who are not concretely oppressed, the struggles must be concentrated at the borders, which in Brazil are traced between the rich white urban neighborhoods and the poor black peripheral areas. It is not fortuitous how the state has transformed these borders into the most militarized spaces within the city.
The poor black youth from the peripheral areas of the city are formally recognized as citizens, but this fact means nothing concretely: their race and their class suspend any rights supposedly inherent with citizenship. It seems evident that precariousness coexists with citizenship and that the contradictions of citizenship are contradictions not of citizenship per se, but of the capitalist system in which citizenship is inscribed. Thus, the institutionalization of citizenship remains highly dangerous, because it promises equal rights, homogenizes subjects, and disguises inequality and oppression.
Citizenship must then be rediscovered outside the capitalist state as a potential alternative against the system. Nonetheless, if the precarious citizens living in Brazilian favelas are to become full citizens, thereby overcoming power asymmetry and political domination, the material forces that are now violently controlling and killing them must be addressed. After all, understanding democracy as the power of all people also demands the development of strategies to concretize democratic practices. Claiming that a political subject creates the space for contestation should not result in romanticizing this difficult position, despite the possibility of politicizing these precarious citizens. Although citizenship has an equalizing aspect, it also represses other forms of belonging such as class, race, and, especially, ethnicity. The more people are given formal equalities and rights, the more unequal they become concretely, because class division and racism can be concealed under formal equalities.
The persistence of administrative measures and official practices of the military dictatorship within Brazilian democracy reveals how formal democratic governments may be willing to cope with violence and state brutality to control their citizens. Grasping how acts of resistance are deployed to legalize and legitimize police lethality enforced against poor black youth, who are nonetheless protected by all formal rights granted to citizens, may help us understand how citizenship is not a uniform category. On the contrary, equality before the law, so precious to the modern democratic imaginary, conceals state practices that in fact transform some people into “lesser citizens” than others. Thus, any attempt to work with the category of citizenship that fails to problematize either race or class will fail to understand how states repress and control precarious lives, thus restraining the performance of radical democratic politics.