The Violence in Sao Paulo

The violence of Sao Paulo is both
frightening and saddening. Violence seems to be as Brazilian to our southern
neighbors as it is to us in the U.S.

The man holding a gun to my face was drunk, angry and shouting at me in Portuguese. He stood between me and a way out of a plot of wet, red clay that was the front yard of a shanty cobbled together from tin cans and scrap metal in a favela, a shanty town, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The barrel of the old gun looked enormous. His red face was contorted and his voice was raspy and sharp. The young man interpreting for me was calm and soothing. The man’s wife stood by with terror in her face. A flock of little children looked up at us intently.

I had completed interviewing his wife, Maria, about the difficulties of rearing children and living under impoverished conditions. Their son had fled violence at home for the streets where he shined shoes and struggled to survive in a wider world of violence.

I was in San Bernardo de Compo, a suburb of Sao Paulo, where a few months earlier six street children sleeping in a “safe house” were slaughtered by “justicerios”–vigilantes who take justice into their own hands–who were purportedly off-duty police officers hired to kill street children.

It was the second time I had faced down a gun. Earlier as our video crew interviewed street boys under a bridge that served as their home, a policeman appeared and menacingly held a rifle to my face and advised me to leave and not return. His actions confirmed the claims of the street boys who told us they frequently had guns pointed at them or held closely to their heads as they were taunted by the police.

These events happened slightly more than a decade ago, long enough for the street boys I knew to grow up and join gangs, like the gangs that have sparked riots in prisons and armed assaults on police stations in Sao Paulo this past week.

I’m no expert on violence and its causes. And I make no claim to comprehend Brazilian society. I’m merely a casual observer who stumbled into it. But I do know that some people who feel they have nothing to lose are less constrained and more likely to pull out all the stops when given the chance, and the violence in Sao Paulo this past week is rooted in a social context that has left many people out. I suspect the seeds for this violence have been growing in the favelas and on the streets and under the bridges for more than a generation.

I also know that brutality leads to brutality because it destroys both the brutalized and the one doing the brutalizing. It’s biblical to understand that violence begets violence.

And I know that poverty and hunger breed social instability because people want a modicum of dignity, and poverty and injustice offer none. Jesus said we are measured by our compassion and our commitment to justice. He did not say we are measured by the size of the barrels of our guns.

If we want real security we will address needs the human family has for justice, food, health care, jobs, education, clothing and shelter. Without these, we will stumble from one confrontation to another, pointing our guns at each other and shouting in words that make no sense.

In the favela the angry man began to calm and after several terrifying minutes we were allowed to leave. That evening we went to a Methodist college for a meeting with the street boys we were working with and learned that one was in police custody. He had brought a handgun on campus and held it menacingly in the face of a school official. The cycle had come full circle.

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