Brazil Police Watch was born from our personal tragedy. On May 25, 2007, my nephew Joseph who was living in Rio, was celebrating his 30th birthday. He engaged in a verbal altercation with an off duty policeman. The policeman shot Joseph, who was unarmed, from 16 feet away. Our father, Joe’s grandfather, was a policeman in Worcester, Massachusetts for over 30 years. Because of our very personal connection with law enforcement, we appreciated the complexity of the relationship between police in the United States and those they are charged to protect. Nonetheless we certainly did not expect Joe to die at the hands of a policeman. We soon came to learn that what we thought was a private pain was in fact the result of a chronic and institutionalized problem with the Rio police, which has been well documented, debated and reported on by NGOs and the United Nations.
Hear about Joe’s journey home, from “Kind World” weekly audio stories and regular posts that celebrate the effect random acts of kindness can have on another. Curated and produced by Nate Goldman. An online experiment presented by 90.9 WBUR radio Boston
IN THE NEWS
FIFA awards Brazil the 2014 World Cup
United Nations report to the Human Rights Council on extrajudicial killings by Brazilian police released
IOC awards Brazil the 2016 Olympics
Human Rights Watch issues report “Lethal Force”
RIO – SHARED PAIN
Joe’s mother Fran and I went to Rio for the trial of Joe’s murderer. While in Rio my sister and I met a group of mothers who have had children killed by the police, “Rede de Comunidades e Movimentos contra a Violência.” We would protest with these families at the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer as well as at a gathering held at the site of the Candelaria massacre. Candelaria is where in 1993 the police killed 8 homeless children while they slept on the steps of the church. Among the mothers and other family members was an elderly couple whose 11 year old granddaughter was murdered, a woman whose 13 and 18 year old sons witnessed a police murder and were found days later executed, and a woman whose son died 10 years ago, her tee shirt with his picture was faded from years of wearing it to these protests.
At Christ the Redeemer we took the tram up to the statue. The view is indeed a wonder of the world. I was baffled by the contrast of such beauty harboring such violence. We were about 25 people, all wearing tee shirts with young faces on them. We had several banners. Tourists read the banners; some came and spoke to us. A few went up to my sister Fran and touched her arm and whispered things. Some tourists fought back tears. There were 3 – 5 police with us the whole time. A police helicopter flew overhead and circled the statue. A father whose 2 year old was killed in 1993 held a picture of his child up to the sky, as if to show the police in the helicopter why he was there. The futility of the situation overwhelmed me, the 17 years of the man’s pain overwhelmed me, the poignancy of the act had me convulsing with sobs.
Several women from the mother’s group joined Fran and me at the trial. Their support and solidarity was indeed a comfort. Fernando Delgado of the Harvard Human Rights and Law program had uncovered a problem and raised concerns with the prosecutor. Four witnesses had gone to the police station the day after the murder, but they were never interviewed. A report filled out at the police station with their contact information was mysteriously removed from the files so neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney was even aware of their existence. Two of those 4 witnesses were found just days before the trial. They each asked the judge if he could “protect them” if they testified. The judge explained that he could not guarantee their safety. As a result, on the stand, their testimony amounted to them explaining that they didn’t see anything. As Joe’s mother Frances and I sat in the courtroom, we realized that the missing document about witnesses, the failure to investigate thoroughly and the outcome, that the policeman who killed Joe was found innocent, was all a forgone conclusion. Our day in court was not unlike other trials of police in Rio.
A CALL TO ACTION
I returned from Brazil struggling to think of how to keep our fight going outside the court. There were many ways to do this, but what could I add? I thought about how several human rights activists had already told me they were worried that the World Cup and the Olympics would bring an increase in police brutality, and I came to realize that calling international attention to that problem might help prevent it and also expose the routine abuses. President Lula had accomplished so much during his time as president. Poverty decreased and literacy increased. Economic programs had insulated Brazil somewhat from the collapse of worldwide financial markets. Brazil was indeed on the rise. Yet, there is a glaring problem with this picture of success. Either the police are acting on behalf of their government, or the alternative is that the government has no control of their police. Once the situation was on my radar I became overwhelmed by the atrocities I would read about: The teenager killed by the police while he rode home from school on the back of his father’s motorcycle, the video of the unarmed 14 year old boy shot by 5 police, a promising boxer destined for the Olympics, killed by the police. The ugly list is massive.
Congressman James McGovern convened a hearing for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. I proudly testified along side James Cavallaro, executive director of the Human Rights Program at the Harvard Law School, Daniel Wilkinson, deputy director of the Americas division, Human Rights Watch, and David Dixon, Brazil country specialist, Amnesty International.
Tragedy strikes many of us and we all react uniquely. My response to Joe’s murder was outrage. Like many people I watched the rise of Brazil in wonderment, thrilled at the progress made fighting poverty and illiteracy. When I finally went to Rio, frankly under duress to attend the trail, I walked off the plane numb with ambivalence about this place Joseph loved, but that I had come to see as a place that knowingly sanctioned state murder. Yet, when I arrived, like Joe, I fell in love with Brazil. How could I reconcile these tensions and the gnawing belief that the Brazilian government and media had developed a perverse perspective that the police violence was somehow acceptable.
I began a process of reading, reflecting and seeking advice and information. How fortunate I am to live in Boston where there are almost weekly lectures at the various universities by Brazilian scholars, artists, politicians, etc…I met with academics, activists, and religious leaders and would seek advice and input. I slowly developed a strategy to work to help create change in the Brazilian police departments.
I have developed a close working relationship with the Northeastern University Sport in Society Program. With their commitment to social justice and sports, the collaboration was perfect.
Each step of the way I have relied on the kindness, generosity and expertise of strangers. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of these people who want to help.
I approached this undertaking fully aware that my presence is meant to augment the important and valuable work being done in Brazil by human rights groups there. Brazil Police Watch exists to stand with these groups, presenting a different voice to a different audience. I am humbled and proud to have marched with representatives from the various groups while in Rio in 2010. In our shared pain, I stand with them, proud of their courage, in awe of their perseverance, and honored to join them in this important cause.
Brazil Police Watch is incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service recognizes Brazil Police Watch (BPW) as a Section 501(c)(3) public charity. Donations to BPW are tax deductible in the U.S.A. Our Federal Tax ID is 27-4316693.
On the field one team wins.
Off the field we should all win.
Safe games for all!