Ana Paula Oliveira looks at photos and article clippings of her son, Jonatha

In Rio, an Unspoken Fight Against Police Violence

Mothers like Ana Paula Oliveira are left to deal with the deaths of their children at the hands of police, a story overshadowed by the Olympics

Ana Paula Oliveira looks at photos and article clippings of her son, Jonatha

Ana Paula Oliveira looks at photos and article clippings of her son, Jonatha. Photo: Camille Smith

Ana Paula Oliveira says her son, Jonatha de Oliveira Silva, was just like any 19-year-old.

“Oh he was a ladies man, he was so charming. The girls would always slip notes under our door asking if Jonatha would be their boyfriend,” she remembers, with a smile on her face. “Whenever he would get into trouble and I would go to yell at him, he would always make me laugh. That’s how he was, always making me laugh.”



But little did she know that Jonatha would become what some might call a casualty of the effort to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro, which ended on Sunday. Now that the games have concluded, tragic stories like his still remain, untold and unspoken.

Oliveira and her family live in the Manguinhos favela of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a blighted area located in the city’s North Zone afflicted by drugs, poverty and violence – and also an urbanization program launched prior to the 2014 World Cup.

“My family and I have lived on the same street all our lives. Me, my mother, brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins,” she told EBONY in a Rio interview. “My immediate family was the first to leave our street, which was a big suffering for my family.”

On May 14, 2014 Oliveira asked Jonatha to deliver a cake to his grandmother’s house. On his way back home, he came across a number of Manguinhos residents demonstrating against a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP).

The UPP is a police program, established in Rio in 2008 whose purpose is to help monitor drug trafficking and gang violence within certain favelas. Though the program has been praised by some for lowering homicide rates, many believe it’s become tainted with corruption. A UPP was placed in Manguinhos in 2013.

“These people were tired of the all the harassment from the UPP. On this day they were searching for drugs, Anna recalls. “People were throwing rocks and yelling at police.”

In an effort to disburse the people, officers fired several shots into the air towards the crowd. Jonatha tried to run away from the chaos, but was struck in the back.

“At that moment people stopped and ran to him,” Oliveira says. “They picked him up and quickly took him to the hospital, where he later died.”

The family went to the police station to demand answers from the officer who was allegedly responsible.

“At first he just denied it and that was it,” Oliveira says. “He continued working in Manguinhos like nothing happened. That’s when I knew I had to fight.”

Jonatha’s story is one that is all too familiar for Black and Brown families living in Rio’s many favelas. In 2009, after Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the Olympic Games, that violence only started to get worse.

“We saw forced removals and transportation services discontinued,” says Rebeca Lerer, a campaign organizer with the anti-police violence activist group, Amnesty International. “It’s a combination of the prejudice culture here in Rio, which criminalizes the poor.”

According to Amnesty International, during the city’s preparation for the Olympic games, police killed more than 2,600 people in the city. A fifth of all homicides in Rio last year were police killings and three-quarters of those were Black men, Human Rights Watch reported. Often times police officers involved in unlawful killings are granted impunity.

“Unlike the U.S., less than 2 percent of police violence here is brought to justice,” Lerer says.

She said that she wants Olympics organizers to remember those who the game may overshadow when they bring the event to future cities.

“We are now calling for a change with our petition. We have over 130,000 signatures on that petition and will bring it to the International Olympic Committee once [the] games are over,” Lerer said. “We want to make sure they take basic human rights into consideration when they search for the next host city.”


Related: In the Shadow of the Games, Black Expats Share Their View of Brazil


The Black Lives Matter movement has been an inspiration for many Afro-Brazilians in Rio. Groups like Jocem Negro Vivo (Young Black Alive), an offshoot of Amnesty International, have slowly started to take shape, as more Black pride proliferates. BLM activists came to Rio during the Olympics to partner with similar groups in demonstrations against police violence.

“I think seeing American artists, like Beyonce, speak out about black lives has a big effect here. People are starting to take notice,” Lerer says. “Here at Amnesty International, we’ve created workshops for kids in these favelas, giving them a chance at telling their own narratives through art, dance and song.”

But even through all the efforts, Oliveira says it’s still not enough.

“The views of the favelas and Black people in general must change in Rio. Even the media must stop portraying these children as suspects, but instead as people,” Ana says. She explains that it’s especially important for mothers to come together and stand up against the system.

A year after Jonatha’s death, Ana took her case to the Rio State Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission. Through her perseverance, she was able to get the officer who she said was responsible for killing her son removed from Manguinhos’ UPP program.

The officer had previously shot three other boys prior to Jonatha. He has since been assigned to desk duty at a police station outside of Rio de Janeiro.

Pacifying Police Unit officials did not return calls for comment.

She’s since gotten involved with the Mothers of Manguinhos movement, an activist group comprised of women who have lost their children to police violence. Ana says that even after everything she’s been through, it’s Jonatha’s story that motivates her to keep fighting for change.

“Each time I speak of my boy, my strength comes,” Ana says with tears in her eyes. “That’s something the officer can not take from me. I pity the policeman because his mother can never know that same pride, that I know for my son.”

 





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