Lucas Leão is a poet and human rights activist. His colleague Cassiane Paixão works as a political consultant and is involved in social movements. Both are young, of Afro-Brazilian origin and participate in CIPÓ. This partner organization of terre des hommes switzerland works with disadvantaged black youth in Salvador on the topic of violence prevention. The large city of Salvador is located in the state of Bahia in the northeast of Brazil. Lucas and Cassiane tell in the interview how they live as blacks in constant fear of violence. At CIPÓ, young Afro-Brazilians like Lucas and Cassiane learn about their basic human rights and the mechanisms of politics and justice in Brazil. This strengthens them as actors for a more just society.
Lucas Leão, Cassiane Paixão - thank you for your openness and for taking the time for this interview. Please introduce yourselves briefly.
Cassiane: My name is Cassiane Paixão. I first participated in a CIPÓ training in Salvador three years ago. That's how I learned about the social movements for peaceful coexistence in our society. Today I am part of Coletivo Incomode (youth organization against violence against young people, editor's note) and the homeless movement in Bahia. Through my involvement with CIPÓ, I obtained a political mandate as a parliamentary advisor in my district. Here I work in the department for the defense of the rights of black youth.
What is the importance of CIPÓ, terre des hommes switzerland's Brazilian partner organization in the field of violence prevention, for you?
Cassiane: CIPÓ is important for my personal and professional life. Here I learned about the mechanisms of politics and racism. In video workshops, we looked at the deeper causes of state violence in the favelas (poor neighborhoods, editor's note). We investigated how to recognize structural violence. To do this, we interviewed the parents of black youth whose children were killed by the police - the cases have never been investigated! This work was extremely educational and also upsetting. So I decided to get to the bottom of the "black youth problem" in our country.
Lucas: CIPÓ creates community and makes people think about our society. The young people who participate in CIPÓ become social and political actors for a more just society.
How did you become aware of CIPÓ's work?
Cassiane: That was in 2015, when my sister took part in a course with CIPÓ on the topic of political participation. I then helped out as a volunteer and led a conversation on the topic of peace culture in schools, for example. In 2017, we launched the Coletivo Incomode. We want to bring to light cases of police abuse in Salvador so that those responsible are held accountable.
Lucas: When I was a child, I lived with my mother and grandmother in Quilombo do Paraiso (suburban municipality of Salvador, editor's note). We were the target of great violence and repression by the police. I remember going to school and when I came back, the police had demolished our shacks. I must have been about eight years old and I thought: I have to do something about this violence! Later, I came to CIPÓ through the Coletivo Incomode.
In the study "Stop killing us!" terre des hommes switzerland documents cases of unscrupulous police violence in Brazil. What are your experiences with the security apparatus and the authorities?
Lucas: I have always been targeted by the police. As a child, I saw on TV how a Brazilian was killed by the police in Europe. He had the same skin color as me. I thought: When I grow up, this will happen to me, too.
My brother and I are hardly out and about together anymore, because every time we are approached by the police as suspects. We are considered "dangerous to the state." It became clear to me: whether or not you actually break the law as a black youth, we are considered "criminals" a priori. My black body is a target. No matter who I am and whether I am loved, whether I am a poet or a human rights activist - for the police I am an "outlaw".
The state sees us as black sheep waiting to be slaughtered. It wants us in slave quarters. Slave quarters used to be physical, now they are psychological. Blacks are trapped in these ghettos and we are afraid to go out and move freely. When I was a kid, my mother always tells me I have to be home by six at night at the latest. All black families in Bahia know this fear.
How do you deal with this permanent fear?
We black people need a survival manual. For example, a friend of mine never wears a shirt out. I thought that was his style. He, on the other hand, said that without a shirt he was showing that he was unarmed. This friend of mine can't even go to school. He can't go to school in his own neighborhood because the gangs are fighting. And he can't go to school in the other neighborhood because the police won't let him in.
Another example: I wanted to go shopping in the supermarket. The policeman pointed the gun at me and forced me to leave. To do this, he got three guards, who beat me to the ground and insulted me in the worst way.
My white friends and colleagues are never humiliated by the police. I myself have stopped counting how many times I am harassed by the police. The police slapped my brother even before he became a criminal. They killed his dignity.
According to the study by terre des hommes switzerland, the number of people killed by police violence in Brazil has risen steadily since 2013. A quarter of those killed in 2019 were younger than 19. What do such figures tell you?
Cassiane: I live in a neighborhood that is considered one of the most violent in Salvador. We experience repression and violence by the police all the time. Last week, seven young people were killed at once. Today I know that the security forces are ordered by the state to "eliminate" black youth in our favela. Something like this must not happen, neither for my family nor for other people's families!
Did the pandemic increase official violence against blacks?
Lucas: Bahia is one of the four states with the highest rate of violent deaths in Brazil. I'm more afraid of gun violence than I am of Covid-19. On the health issue: Black people know from their own experience what it's like to go to the hospital and be ignored or treated indifferently.
What do you think of the Brazilian president?
Cassiane: I am not afraid of Bolsonaro. I am afraid of those who voted for him and support him.
Brazil is a major transshipment point for illegal drugs, and people in poor neighborhoods play an important role in trafficking them. Aren't police raids in the favelas understandable?
Lucas: We see things too narrowly if we only look at the role of the police. In Salvador, armed vigilantes are a dangerous parallel force to the police, and this problem is deeper than we think. It is these militia groups that use police divisions for their campaign of destruction in the favelas. The deal is: the vigilantes "dispose" of the bodies of those killed, who are then considered "disappeared." And the police blame the illegal drug trade for these murders.
The drug war is an excuse for the security forces to kill black people and make money. I have observed several times how police officers deal drugs instead of stopping this business. Drug-related crime provides the police with additional income; I witness this day after day in my neighborhood. But no one raises an objection: Because we know how dangerous it is to tell the truth. Anyone who files a complaint risks his or her life. The police leadership is corrupt. When I was a child, I saw officers dealing drugs in bars and thought it was normal. But it is simply absurd!
Cassiane: My observation is that police operations have decreased since the outbreak of the pandemic, but the "disappearances" of young people have increased. The police don't fly in by helicopter; they come in hoods and plain clothes. Many officers live among us. They are careful not to take part in official police operations so as not to be recognized by the population. The real drug lords, however, come from out of town.
terre des hommes switzerland is campaigning against arms exports to Brazil. What do you think?
Lucas: I'm not surprised. The Brazilian state invests in weapons, military vehicles, drones. They use the war power to attack us. Who cares where the weapons of war come from? Foreign armaments simply have a different color or design.
Cassiane: Our country is investing in everything but a good life for the general population. It is investing in a state war against black Brazilians. Armed patrols have long been a part of the street scene in our country, but as violence increases, there are more and more armed people.
Lastly: What is your biggest concern to the government and authorities in Brazil?
Cassiane: We live with the constant fear of being killed at any time. But we can't be silent, someone has to fight for these young people. We have to give a voice to those killed. The racism against black Brazilians must stop!
Lucas: There needs to be non-violent struggle, but also access to information, education and culture. And we need democratic structures at the local level, because otherwise we won't be able to move anything in a good direction. Our government will never give me a vote voluntarily. But that is precisely my dearest wish.
Lucas and Cassiane, thank you for talking with us.
Interview: Fabiana Kuriki and Anna Wegelin; Illustrations Lucas and Cassiane: Hannes Nüsseler, Basel
Together with our partner organization CIPÓ (Comunicação Interativa, Port. for: Interactive Communication), we are contributing to UN Goal 16 of the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development: peace, justice and strong institutions.
*Urubu di Quilombo means Vulture of Quilombo in Portuguese. Quilombo was the name given to a settlement of escaped black slaves in Brazil at the time of Portuguese rule. The word Quilombo comes from the African Bantu languages Kikongo and Kimbundu and means settlement.