Nothing beats a dip in the cool waters of Rio de Janeiro's world-famous beaches on a hot Sunday morning. A favorite leisure spot, they appear on Brazil’s most widely recognized postcard — and also offer a less-than-sunny portrait of the country’s strained class and race relations.
While a privileged few live close enough to walk or bike to the sand strips of Copacabana and Ipanema, located in upscale South Zone neighborhoods, most of Rio's residents will spend more than an hour on public transportation to enjoy them. Last weekend, 150 teenagers who were making the trip from Rio's outskirts to the beach ended up spending the day in a police station instead. The reason? They might commit a crime.
According to the story uncovered by local newspaper Extra, police were regularly stopping buses heading from the North Zone to Copacabana beach and hauling teenagers to the police station, where they would fill out a form and wait for a parent or guardian to fetch them. Reporters discovered a group of 15 teens, all but one of them black, detained — none were found with weapons or drugs.
“They think we're thieves because we're black,” a 15-year-old told a reporter. X., 17, explained what happened:
Os PMs entraram no ônibus e selecionaram quem eles queriam que saísse. Fomos nós cinco e mais dois. Achamos que seríamos revistados e depois nos liberariam, mas isso não aconteceu. Um policial disse que essa era a lei aqui de baixo, porque estava tendo muito roubo
The policemen entered the bus and demanded that some get out. It was the five of us and another two. We thought we would be frisked and let go, but that didn't happen. An officer said that that's the law ‘down here’ now because of too many thefts at the beach.
Police said their objective was to “protect minors who are in a vulnerable situation”, but rights groups believe the real reason was to prevent poor youth from frequenting the fashionable South Zone beaches, where they would allegedly commit mob theft — locally known as arrastões.
A public servant from the social welfare department present at the police station, who asked the Extra reporters to remain anonymous, revealed she didn't agree with the policy, as well as the number (160) of detained teenagers over the weekend:
No início, o critério era estar sem documento e dinheiro para a passagem. Agora, está sem critério nenhum. É pobre? Vem para cá. Só pegam quem está indo para as praias da Zona Sul. Tem menores que, mesmo com os documentos, são recolhidos. Isso é segregação.
In the beginning, the criteria was to be without ID or money for the bus fare. Now, there is no criteria. Are they poor? Come over here. They only detain those who are going to the South Zone beaches. Some minors, even with ID, are collected. This is segregation.
Public attorney Eufrázia Souza das Virgens told the press that children above 13 years of age are free to circulate in public spaces without the presence of a parent or guardian. “A risk situation is when a child is on the streets or being exploited. If this is the case an intervention could happen, but conducted by social workers, not the police,” she said.
She and her colleague Rodrigo Azambuja are demanding a formal investigation be conducted by the child and adolescent protection police bureau. “Not even a formal complaint was registered at the station. What happened was the boys were grounded for the day,” she said.
While some were shocked by this policy, Rio de Janeiro state governor defended the police's actions this week and said the operation has been going on since the beginning of summer in late 2014, when the police started to “track” minors who had committed thefts at the beach in the past:
Quantos arrastões nós tivemos, praticados por alguns desses menores? Não estou falando que são todos os que estavam ali, mas tem muitos deles, mapeados, que já foram apreendidos mais de cinco, oito, dez ou 15 vezes, como na Central do Brasil.
How many mob thefts were committed by some of those youths? I'm not saying all of them [who were “collected” over the weekend] are involved, but many have been tracked by us, they have been detained five, eight, 10 or 15 times before.
Rodrigo Azambuja, however, says that the police's actions are still completely illegal if you look at Article 230 of the Statute of the Child and Adolescent, which forbids the detainment of children and teens without a court order or who are not caught in the act of committing an offense.
State legislator Marcelo Freixo, from the Socialist Party, posted on Facebook:
A Polícia Militar do Rio de Janeiro, a mando do Estado, montou uma operação para evitar os arrastões na praia. Para isso, proibiu que mais cem jovens pudessem ir à praia. Com qual devida suspeita estas pessoas foram recolhidas? Baseados em que informações e denúncias? Apenas porque eram jovens, moradores do subúrbio e negros.
É evidente que ninguém quer e concorda com arrastão, mas não podemos condenar toda uma população pobre, negra e que vem do subúrbio para as praias porque eles podem vir a cometer um crime.
The military police, under state orders, carried out an operation to avoid mass robberies at the beach. In doing so, it prevented more than 100 young people from going to the beach. Based on what suspicion were these people “collected”? Based on what information or whose complaint? It was just because they were young, suburban residents and black.
It's obvious that no one wants or agrees with mass robberies, but we can't condemn an entire poor black population that come from the suburbs to the beaches because they might commit a crime.
Racism and security politics: a love-relationship
The so-called arrastões, which translates as “dragnet”, dates back to the 1990s and are an old grievance of Rio's beachgoers. In groups of 15 or more, children and adolescents — some as young as 10 — sweep the beach snatching bags, phones, jewelry and whatever else they can carry. Sometimes, some of them fake a brawl while others take advantage of the turmoil to rob. From time to time, police respond with major crackdowns on suspects right at the beach, in a dismal scene with chairs and umbrellas flying over people's heads.
Angry reactions from the victims often seem to highlight the racism and segregation in unequal Rio de Janeiro, with white, rich residents of South Zone feeling their territory is being “invaded” by the poor masses. For a while, some of them even advocated that bus lines connecting the North Zone with the beaches be discontinued.
In January, a journalist suggested a “fee” should be imposed for those wishing to sunbathe in Ipanema or Copacabana, as this would be “the only way” robberies could be prevented. “This would sound strange to Cariocas, who are used to go to the beach for free, but overseas this is quite common,” she said in a Facebook post that was later deleted.
In 2001, an artificial saltwater pool known as Piscinão de Ramos (“Ramos’ Big Pool“) was built amidst favelas in Rio's North Zone, generating much controversy. It was seen as a “bread and circus” policy, with its main objective being to keep the poor from heading to the South beaches.
A classic Brazilian TV documentary from 1989, titled “The Poor Head to the Beach” (today often seen as racist in itself), shows white South Zone residents publicly saying that “those people” are not “really Brazilian”, but rather a “sub-race”.