‘Why is no one counting the thousands of deaths of black youth in Brazil resulting from police actions?’

by | 29 Nov 2014

Brazil Cops

Brazilian Military Police (BOPE) in front of the Christ the Reedemer statue on Corcovado Hill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Two days ago, a US American friend of mine, who lives in Rio, asked this question on a Facebook post. I don’t have an answer. I have a rant.

Everyone who like me has lost friends and relatives to state violence never stopped counting. What we need is a political transmutation, a turn of thought. We need the left and those to the left of the right and to the left of what now counts as left, to talk and write and protest against police/state violence without immediately associating the talking about it with some plot orchestrated by those who have always been on the right—the Brazilian elite and the wannabes.

There is no such thing as state sanctioned violence. If Max Weber and Walter Benjamin are right, any act of ‘law preserving’ violence returns to the state; it is its doing. We need to talk about the state/police’s killing of black folks. We have to talk about how the Brazilian state has left blacks and ‘the poor’ to deal with the consequences of an economic choice that leaves a large part of its population—always already ruled by the principle of obliteration—at the mercy of minor players in global capital’s most profitable, useful, and lethal trade: the illegal drugs trade. This is perhaps just as lethal as the trafficking of persons, the expropriation of lands and resources, and the displacement and killing of their inhabitants, which fed merchant capital and still sustains the accumulation of global (industrial and financial) capital.

Much like in the many guises and moments of colonial domination—conquest, settlement, indirect rule, etc—in these global times (in Brazil, the US, and everywhere), self-protection is perhaps the main function the state performs for capital.

Who is counting? ‘We’—and this is not the royal we—are not taking the killing of black Brazilians into account (to keep the focus on one country, which happens to be the one in which I was born). More generally, regarding the present global political landscape: the security state, and its lethal police practices, is not at the centre of our political concerns. It is not the main point of our political discourse and practice and struggles. Who is and is not counting is not the question.

What do we take into account as politically significant? Yes, this is the question. The first question; the beginning, the very early beginning of something else, something, I fear, that cannot emerge—let’s not talk about its articulation—in the present configuration of the field of political discourse.

I’ve written extensively about this, the first time was 25 years ago for a newspaper in Brazil. That I have been writing about this for half of my life is not important. What matters is that many others in Brazil and elsewhere have done so—for just as long and many others for much longer—and it has not registered in our political imagination, conversations, and actions. It has not translated into an intellectual-political praxis. Fires, as direct action, then become the sole response when justice fails in/as its realisation – as we’ve just seen in Ferguson, Missouri.

True, we talk about criminalisation (as an ideological move) and mass incarceration (as a modality of exclusion, a failure to meet the principle of universality)—of black folks, of immigrants, of Muslims, and other global subaltern populations—but we have yet to engage crime (the legal concept) as a question (in the classical sense that it targets the state and not as a moral one) for critical thinking and political organising. Why?

Let’s ask another question: what counts as politically significant in Brazil and elsewhere? And let’s continue and ask all the other questions that arise from this. I’m pissed off, tired, sad, and fearful for the families; those who know, who love, and/or who have grown up with someone who will be killed by the state or by those who State-Capital gets to do the killing: in Brazil, in the US, in Palestine, in Mexico, in Colombia, in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya, and the list only grows. Read the papers, pay attention, take stock, and you will get the whole picture: it is a global state of affairs.

What to do about it? Well, this is a challenge we (all of us) will then, and only then, face together, in Brazil and everywhere.

Denise Ferreira da Silva is Professor of Ethics, Queen Mary, University of London.


  1. As far as everyone can see, drug brings money, external and new coins to a country’s market… It is up to you to conclude

  2. I could not refrain frokm commenting. Well written!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,674 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.