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In Brazil's slums, residents band together to protest police shootings

It was Holy Thursday, and Udson Freitas was sitting on the balcony of his small house in the Complexo do Alemao favela when a girl ran onto his street below, screaming.

"They killed my brother! They killed my brother!"

Freitas ran down his steps, and was shocked to see that it was 14-year-old Ana Ferreira, who lived just up the hill from him. It couldn't be possible, he thought. Her brother, Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, was 10.

Hysterical, Ana said that Rio's military police had shot Eduardo in the head.

It would have been far from the first time that Brazilian police, who are in a state of war with drug gangs here, had killed an unarmed resident since the military police began occupying the favela complex in 2010 as part of a "pacification" program in the slums. Just the day before, 41-year-old Elisabeth Alves had been shot in her home.

Ana's boyfriend worked at a barbershop across the street, and she asked for a razor so she could cut her wrists.

"I went to her, comforting her," Freitas remembered. "I said: 'Don't do it. Think of your mother.'"

But Freitas, 33, wasn't just a good neighbor, or a kind, religious young man. He was also a member of Juntos Pelo Complexo — Together for the Complex — a network of community activists, organizers and others who banded together to decry police abuse and insist on favela residents' rights.

Freitas began notifying everyone. Neighborhood associations. The press. Friends. Sympathizers in richer parts of Rio.

Within minutes, someone had posted a gruesome photo of the boy's body on Facebook and a large crowd had assembled near Freitas' house.

"She saw what was happening, that people were coming out to help her, and to support her," Freitas said. "And she started to calm down."

::

Juntos came together last year as violence began to explode in the favela. With frequent shootouts between police and suspected members of drug gangs, 2015 started with "100 days without peace," according to the Voice of the Communities newspaper, which is part of the Juntos network.

Few international organizations or high-ranking officials in the police force deny that officers here routinely overstep their bounds. Every year, police in Brazil kill at least 2,000 people. Last year in the United States, a more populous country, about 600 people were reported killed by police.

A 2013 national poll revealed that 70% of people don't trust the police, and Human Rights Watch has accused the forces of routinely practicing summary executions and torture. In the "pacified" favelas, residents complain that the authorities' attempts at controlling traffickers have been ineffective, and that they have often treated all residents like criminals or potential targets.

"The collective grew out of the necessity of having everyone united to fight for rights within the community," said activist Thamyra Thamara, 26, whose group trains people in social media and new technology to mobilize favela residents.

"Eduardo's death was not the first," Thamara said, "and it won't be the last, until the police are reformed."

The boy's death became a rallying cry for the neighborhood and the Juntos group, many of whose members were keenly aware of what has happened in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore recently.

On Good Friday, a large protest that took place instead of the day's religious procession exploded in violence. The next day, the march, this time peaceful, was even larger. Within a week, the activists had managed to force authorities into holding a public assembly so they could air their concerns.

Brazilian Congressman Reginaldo Lopes, head of a national inquiry on violence against black youths, compared the plight of Brazil's communities to the wave of protests over killings by police in the U.S.

"In the United States right now, they are speaking out against the fact that police treat people differently based on the color of their skin," he said, "but the problem here is much, much worse."

Many residents of Rio's favelas have much darker skin than the white elites who live in places such as Ipanema.

Bistro owner Sergio Ricardo de Oliveira said he fully backed the demonstrations, even though the conflict in front of his small restaurant forced him to shutter his windows and close for business.

"Of course we've all seen what's going on in the United States," he said. "Those are protests more specifically about police racism. Here it's about class, where you live. Police don't treat us differently here because of the color of our skin. They act differently because they're in a favela."

Members of the police and defenders of their methods often point out that officers have faced attacks by heavily armed gangs, and it is extremely difficult to operate safely on the often tight and chaotic streets of the favelas.

The press office for Rio's Civil Police said Eduardo's death is being fully investigated. "The agents are awaiting the results of expert forensic reports, including a reenactment. Witnesses and military police involved in the case have given their statements."

After the protests in response to Eduardo's death, military police Col. Ibis Silva Pereira apologized for all "excesses committed" by officers in the favela and cited the logic of war that has dominated police activity in the slums.

"For 30 years, the response that has been given to drugs is war, with all the terrible things that war brings," he said. "Eighty percent of police are poor and black, but they're trained in war factories. We've been involved in a brutal and stupid war."

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Activist Freitas, who works as a stockroom assistant for the Central Bank, is monastic in appearance, with his hair cropped short and a large cross hanging around his neck.

As he walked toward his home on a recent day, he passed an Internet cafe where neighborhood kids played video games. The walls beside the TV screens were riddled with bullet holes.

Not far from here last year, police shot a 15-year-old boy. His family said officers then planted a gun next to his body.

Up the hill, near Eduardo's house, someone had hung a huge white flag that read "Paz." Someone was blaring the Brazilian rap classic "Negro Drama," about the struggles of growing up poor and black in Brazil's slums.

As Freitas continued his story back on his balcony, his mother interrupted him. She was worried about him. She had seen threats against him online and gotten advice from neighbors.

"They're saying you're really risking yourself. Maybe you should walk around disguised, or at least with a hat on," she said, nervously preparing coffee. "Everyone knows that the police are more bandido than any bandido."

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Freitas and other members of the Juntos collective arrived hours early at the outdoor gymnasium of the Theophilo de Souza Pinto grade school to prepare for the public assembly, setting up microphones and putting up signs as hundreds of schoolchildren filed in. The children moved to the back, giggling nervously and snapping photos of one another on cellphones.

Slowly, journalists arrived, alongside police officials and members of the State Assembly and members of Congress — including Lopes — who had flown in from the state capital, Brasilia. They milled around the teachers' lounge, picking at a spread of coffee and cakes laid out for them, until they received a shock in the principal's office.

"Every butterfly on that wall is a bullet hole," said state lawmaker Marcelo Freixo, who would be overseeing the assembly. There were at least a dozen. He pulled one of the plastic sculptures out of the wall, revealing one of many huge holes where a bullet had entered the office during shootouts in the area.

The police have set up a base just below the school, and teachers say that has put them in the middle of war zone. Attendance has dropped dramatically as a result, and they want the base gone.

Teacher Matheus Guilherme made the case later in front of the assembled crowd of citizens and officials.

"We feel seriously unsafe here, and as a tragic consequence, the children have abandoned their studies," he shouted. "Almost half have left."

Finally, Freitas took the stage. He didn't face the crowd, but turned squarely toward two police officials and boomed at directly at them.

"I know what police are like, because I have met them in my church and spoken to them. And like with anything, there are good ones and bad ones. But unfortunately, you send all the good ones to the [rich] Southern Zone and send the rest here."

The crowd began to clap.

"I don't give a single cent to the drug traffickers. But I help pay your salaries. We are paying your salaries, and we are paying for the ammunition you use to kill our neighbors."

The audience responded with uproarious applause. That day, authorities announced that they would remove the police base.

Bevins is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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