Taking Sides: A Hot Night in Rocinha
The day began well. I spent the morning and early afternoon at São Conrado beach – on the other side of São Conrado, the neighborhood of condos and the Fashion Mall across the highway from Rocinha – which is always a scene on Sundays. It seems that all of Rocinha is out: surfing & sunbathing, playing futebol & volei (or their dexterous child: futevol). It might as well be the Praia da Rocinha, although I'm sure the residents of SC whose property values depend on that beachfront cachet wouldn't approve of the name change. A few hours in the sun were followed by a rare treat: Sunday feijoada care of my Bahian neighbor, Almir.
That left me wanting only a light dinner, which I followed with a stroll down the Estrada da Gávea, Rocinha's main drag, in hopes of using a pay phone to make some calls back to the States. After striking out with occupied or broken phones, I finally was at the end of the Estrada. Having still less luck (it's complicated, but Brazilian phones don't seem to like the idea of me inputting the 12 digits of an account number and PIN after making a toll free call to my international calling provider), I was about to turn around and head back, when fortuitously my girlfriend called my cell phone. It's exceptionally windy tonight, along with the usual noisy pace of traffic at the bottom of the hill, so I had trouble hearing her. I wandered over toward a cluster of buildings – a grocery store, pharmacy, a few condos – running parallel to the highway but set at ground level, and ducked next to a garage door where there was some cover from the wind.
Not 5 minutes into my call, a police car drove by and stopped. Two policemen came toward me, one hanging back with his assault rifle, the other approaching me directly with a flashlight. He asked me what I was doing and I told him talking on the phone, out of the wind and the noise. This answer was less than satisfactory and he began to search me while asking me where I lived. "Rocinha," I answered. "Estou fazendo um trabalho social (I'm doing volunteer work)." He gave me a full pat down, lifted my shirt, pulled the waistband of my shorts & underwear outward then shined his flashlight down into my crotch, and then proceeded to scan the ground all around, looking for whatever drugs he was convinced I was in possession of.
All I had on me were my keys and my phone, not having expected to go very far. I didn't even bring a wallet, much less ID or a copy of my passport/visa, which I've been in the habit of doing. Finally satisfied, his partner said I could start talking on the phone again while the first cop kept searching the ground with his flashlight.
What set them off, I wondered on my way back up the hill. I had on a Fluminense jersey, athletic shorts, and Havaianas, all standard issue Brazilian clothing. But with my light skin and my wristwatch, maybe that pegged me as a rich kid from a nearby neighborhood who'd come into Rocinha to buy drugs? It's a common enough occurrence – drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine, are cheap & plentiful in the favelas, and while favela residents are customers, they're certainly not the only customers. Common enough, too, for there to be police: they're at the bottom of the morro everyday. There are even police posts set up inside Rocinha along the Estrada da Gávea. Talk about penetrating deep into enemy territory . . . But they're all paid off, I've been told, and don't give Rocinha any trouble. I've seen bandidos with visible guns ride right by a police post on a motorcycle without a second glance.
On the one hand, it confirms all of my suspicions and prior knowledge about Brazilian police, how essentially in a country that's only 20 years out of a military dictatorship, civil liberties are far from guaranteed and the cops are not to be trusted. On the other hand, couldn't an analogous situation be drawn to any major U.S. city? If I were in a lower-income neighborhood near a known location where drugs are sold, and fit a certain police profile (like, say, black), and happened to be standing alone in a secluded corner on a side street at night when cops drove by, wouldn't they stop?
It's ironic coming on the heels of my thoughts on guns in Rocinha, because I did imply a certain lack of anxiety around gun-wielding police officers, who can be seen in the ritziest, most tourist-friendly parts of Rio with heavy-duty arms. While I didn't think at any point I was going to be shot, I entertained the thought of having something planted on me or getting hauled away on some kind of made-up charge, both practices I have heard rumors of. Indeed, the only "incident" of any kind I had last summer was with MC Gringo, when we were exiting the Baile de Cantagalo and heading into Copacabana. Right as we descended the stairs, a police car pulled up and just about gave Gringo and I the same once over that I got tonight. They seemed to be after bigger fish up on the hill and let us go, but afterwards Gringo told me that had we been searched, having something planted on us would not have been unheard of.
So I climbed back up the hill. It's a hot night in Rio, the first day that the heat has really soaked through day & night since I've been here. I regretted wearing a shirt on the walk back up, passed by crowds glistening with sweat at the door of Clube Emoções, their Sunday night baile funk in full swing. The wind whipping debris around the Curve do S, both an S-curve along the Estrada da Gávea and the área around it (Pipo's Locomotiva threw a massive baile at the bus garage there last night, still raging when I got home at 5 am, making the room vibrate at the right frequencies). Normally I take the becos home – stairs being easier to manage than the 30º incline up the hill into Cachopa, cresting the boca-de-fumo at the quadra de futebol and heading down to Seu Jose's house. But I was determined to walk right past the bandidos just to prove a point: that they wouldn't hassle me while the police would. Other than some bemused questioning when I arrived, loaded with luggage, no one's ever given me a second glance there.
Tonight was no different at the boca-de-fumo, but it was a new scene down on the Estrada da Gávea. Maybe the winds are getting to everyone, Santa Ana style, or there are just rumors about that I don't know of. As I rounded the Curve do S, a man lurked on the sidewalk, a large weapon positioned on his shoulder. I thought RPG at first, but it appeared to be an assault rifle with silencer. He was aiming it at cars coming up the Estrada. I crossed to the other side of the street to avoid walking in front of him. Over there, two of his comrades were also camped out, albeit without aiming. The swirl of humanity kept pace around them, barely noticing on their way up & down. Buses and vans lumbered up the road while motorcycles darted between them. Young girls in teased hair and tight outfits teetered down the steep grade toward Emoções on high heels. A group of hardened men didn't bat an eyelash as they sat at a sidewalk bar drinking cervejas and playing cards.
I walked up into Cachopa shaking my head. A hot night in Rocinha.