What happens when people DO NOT recognize themselves as rights holders?

By Camila Jordan, editor and writer at Brazil Talk

[ 7 min read ]

Watching a video[1] of a tragic incident in São Paulo[2], where people’s houses under a bridge were caught in a fire, triggered the following reflection.

What happens when people DO NOT recognize themselves as rights holders?

According to residents living in the occupation, the fire was started by local police officers with the intent to expel them from their impromptu homes, made out of remnants of wood and other rejected materials. However, according to an article in Folha de São Paulo and interviews with Eduardo Odloak, the sub-mayor of the region, one person from the impromptu community lit the area on fire in revolt against the actions performed by the city government.

People who had been living in the place of the incident say they had been dwelling there the last three years. Whether city hall gave warnings about their planned removal is unclear, some people said two social workers came by and urged them to go to a shelter on the Friday before the incident, but the majority didn’t seem to know what was happening.

Former mayor Fernando Haddad[3] had installed the ‘cold law’ decree, with the intent of discouraging public agents of dismantling improvised shacks and removing belongings, such as tents, sleeping bags, blankets, and mattresses, from homeless people. However, the decree ended up also allowing the creation of new small slums in different parts of the city. To combat the increase of new slums, the current mayor João Doria has now formally revoked it.

Actions like these targeting vulnerable communities are unfortunately quite common, especially in Sao Paulo, a megacity of 22 million, where land is a valuable resource and can draw the big bucks. After hundreds of fires in favelas in the last five years local activists started noticing how the price of square footage of these areas starting to increase after the fires. In 2012 a commission was installed to investigate the relation between the so called ‘accidental’ fires that were happening in the favelas and real estate speculation. The case closed without further investigations.

Last year 230 fires were registered, by March of 2017 already 44 had happened.


See more about this issue here, here, and here.


Sao Paulo has one of Brazil’s largest homeless population. According to a study conducted in 2015 by the Municipal Secretary for Social Assistance and Development (SMADS) and Fundação Instituto de Pesquisas Econômicas (FIPE), there are 16.000 homeless people. But some specialists[4] say this number is incorrect and too small, due to methodological errors and improper data collection.

Violence against the most vulnerable populations in Brazil comes at an early age and has a long history, and depending on one’s race and economic status it will be a lifelong experience with various degrees of severity and forms.

If a person is upper or middle class and white, she or he might grow up being taught that the walls that separate them from the outside world are for their safety, since there are people out there that ‘are out to get you.’ This person will learn the right time to be at home; if you are a woman, this will mean a different hour of the day. She or he will also learn the habit of crossing the street, if someone ‘funny looking’ (Hello: racial bias) is coming. And they sure will know which places in the city to avoid.

If the person is poor and black, he or she will most probably live under constant cross fire between the military police and drug cartels. They will learn not to go out at certain hours at the risk of being shot, beaten, arrested or killed. Police officers abusing power to achieve the so called ‘pacification of slums’ by raiding houses without a warrant will be an everyday fact of life. They will know someone who has been either killed or shot.

The violence comes in many shapes and forms.

It doesn’t come equally to all. Some read about it. Others see the news on TV. Others have no choice but to live with it every day of their lives.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, violence is:

  1. a) the use of physical force to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy;
  2. b) an instance of violent treatment or procedure.

Physical violence – that’s the one hardly deniable, easier proved and condemned, but how about ‘b’? How about the non-physical abuse? How about the denial of your rights as a citizen? The right to be safe in your home and neighborhood, the right to quality education and health services, the right to privacy, and even the right to life?


“Aqui não tem traficante, aqui não tem arma, aqui não tem assassino!”*

*Translation: “There are no drug dealers here, there are no guns here, there are no murderers here!”


Reflecting upon what people in the video were saying, I was brought back to the time I worked in Rio de Janeiro’s poorest favelas. I became friends with many of the families living in extreme poverty, meaning they had no access to water, sanitation or electricity. In that three year period I had the chance and opportunity to listen to their stories of suffering, of a daily feeling of insecurity and violence, and this sense of invisibility they feel society had towards them.

Fabbi Silva[5], my friend, someone I admire and worked with in Rio, is a resident and coordinator of several projects in Parque das Missões[6], considered one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous favelas. She works with women in circles of trust talking about issues like racism, domestic violence, feminism and does poetry readings with young teens and children[7]. The impact her projects had and continue to have in a community stricken with extreme poverty and violence are immense. Fabbi dares to inspire the community to tell a different narrative about themselves.


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Young girls proudly performing a dance show about their ancestrality

When I asked her about the video and what she thought about my reflection she immediately answered that the violation of rights starts at an early age and comes from all sides.

“It has become our normality.”

She emphasized the fact that these rights violations are continuous and targeted at poor and black populations. “We cannot talk about these violations without talking about systemic racism”, Fabbi reinforced.

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Children and Fabbi reading poetry

Most of these vulnerable communities do not see themselves as holders of rights, they have never been taught, shown or proven that they hold the same rights as the richer and whiter counterparts of their country. As mentioned above, their neighborhoods are blighted, lacking access to water and basic sanitation, connections to the electrical system are usually illegal since private companies decide not to provide services in certain neighborhoods.

In Rio, I saw how people had to stay awake two or three nights of the week to fill their large water containers, as late as three in the morning. This is the time at which the state  owned water company (soon to be privatized) decides to open the water stream for some of the most invisible favelas. These are also the same people who have to wake up at 4 am to catch a three-hour commute to get to the city and work. The access to education and the public health system are precarious, not only in quality but, as Fabbi mentioned to me over the phone, in the way they are treated as second class citizens by public servants. All these violences, little by little, day by day, have a devastating effect – people stop believing they are citizens with power and rights.

While studying and living in New York, I have been confronted with so many patterns of inequality and racism that call to mind the reality in Brazil.

Two continental sized countries. Two countries with a deep history of racism. Two societies that need to start urgently addressing, head first, the roots of these inequalities that we can still clearly see today affecting colored populations across all aspects of their lives.

So, dear reader, what shall we do? I suppose there is no other way but to start the change within oneself. One needs to look inside, acknowledge one’s biases, racism and start being aware, start listening, observing. Start being an ally to this pressing cause.





All photos were published with Fabbi’s authorization.

** Corrected version, previously said that the water company in Rio was privately owned is in fact still state owned.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwZp2K_npGs




[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjpiWvqyVbI (video in Portuguese)

[6] http://parquedasmissoes.blogspot.com.br/

[7] https://www.instagram.com/sarauapadrinheumsorriso/