If only British political life had a political figure with an ounce of the perspicacity, integrity and courage of Rio state deputy Marcelo Freixo.When I was in Rio late last year I enjoyed taking the number 10 bonde into the central district. The bondinho (little tram) as it is affectionately known is the ancient yellow tram which serves as a quaint but very useful means of transport, carrying locals and tourists down from the hills of Santa Teresa in return for what is to the tourists a very small amount of money. It offers along the way some fabulous views, not to mention a slight frisson of danger as it squeaks along the rails in stops and starts and squeals, hisses and wobbles its precarious way over the aqueduct known as the Arcos de Lapa.
Another thing that made quite an impression on me at the time was a massive police invasion of one of the most notorious favelas, which aimed to clear the previously impenetrable area of powerful gangs of drug traffickers. The action on the TV mirrored in many ways a film that was taking the country by storm, and which has just been released in the UK. In Elite Squad 2 the military police take over a favela, kicking out the drug trafficking gangs and establishing new milícias, mafia alliances which control all aspects of favela life. The film depicts the relationships that enable this kind of activity, associations that go right to the top of Rio society, involving prominent media figures and corrupt politicians. To fight this deadly corrupt system an uneasy alliance is formed between a senior investigating police officer, Captain Nascimento, and a leading human rights activist turned state deputy called Manuel Fragas.
Manuel Fragas is a fictionalised version of a real person: Marcelo Freixo, state deputy for the PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party). The filmmakers are quite open about basing their character on Freixo, and Freixo has said he is honoured. In the book of the film, they even use the deputy’s real name. Freixo is well-known in any case for demanding two critically important public inquiries into the milícias and police corruption, and has faced numerous death threats for his work. Upon returning from Rio I wrote a suitably impressed piece about him and about the film, which you can read here.
So when at the end of August a tragic accident on the bonde led to the deaths of five people and injuries to dozens more, the people of Rio had someone to stand up for them and also to stand up to those responsible and to demand justice. In a similar scene to that which which we see in the film, when Captain Nascimento furiously denounces those behind the milícias in a state tribunal, Freixo last week made a devastating attack on those whose decisions and interests ultimately led to the deaths on the bondinho in Santa Teresa.
Among other things he makes the following points:
* The Secretary of State for Transport for Rio de Janeiro blamed the accident on a ‘lack of investment’ in the bondes. Freixo points out that in 2009 the Rio Government was warned that within the next 120 days they needed to make urgent repairs to the safety of the existing Bonde trains or pay a daily fine of around $30,000. The Government appealed, and lost, and appealed again. The repairs were not carried out. Subsequently in June 2011 a French tourist fell off the tram and off the Arcos de Lapa to his death; this was followed by the tragedy at the end of August.
* Of the $BR14,000,000 which had been budgeted to the upgrade of the bonde system, $BR9,700,000 was destined not for improvements to the existing trams, but to the purchase of new ones, in a deal which was subsequently declared illegal. The World Bank contributed $BR17,000,000 for the improvement of 14 bonde trains, an upgrade which never took place.
* The Secretary of State for Transport Júlio Lopes is a former empresario in the area of education, someone who has little experience of or expertise in the area of public transport, and someone who seems more concerned with defending the interests of private companies which invest in transport than in the people who use them.
* The same Júlio Lopes described the accident in Santa Teresa as ‘a tragedy for tourism in the city’, rather than for the victims themselves and those who depend on the bonde in their daily lives.
* Lopes also went so far as to blame the accident on the driver of the bonde, a man who lost his life in the attempt to save others’; he could have chosen to jump from the out of control tram but instead hung on, attempting to regain control and evade a tragedy. Freixo furious response to this is worth quoting in full:
‘Look, sincerely, the Secretary of State needs to wash his mouth out with soap rather than speak of this man, because this man died trying to save other people’s lives (while) working in such terrible conditions, and this idiot, this incompetent coward, this coward, goes blaming the worker who died…(the motorist’s) family are crying over his death, are furious, while this disrespectful Secretary of State, instead of offering his resignation, instead of apologising, instead of going to hell, tries to put responsibility on the poor man who died…please, Secretary, if you don’t have competence, please have a minimum of respect for his family…it is unacceptable, unacceptable that this incompetent man continues in his position. No way. No way…his incompetence caused the death of these people, and trying to pass the blame onto one of the victims passes all possible limits.’
Freixo makes it abundantly clear that the tragedy is not just the fault of a lack of investment but of a lack of shame among those in power, a lack of character, a lack of decency, dignity, and respect.
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According to the late, great Tony Judt, we are simply losing our historical memory, our ability to relate current events to their possible and actual causes. In this sense it seems appropriate to quote Pierre Bourdieu, in a comment about French society which could also have some bearing on our reaction to recent events in London:
‘It can be shown, for example, that the problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?’
In much the same way, who now dares (or bothers) to relate a tragic accident, wherever it occurs in the world, to specific decisions taken by specific people at specific times for specific reasons? Or indeed to point to ways in which specific decisions taken today will lead to deeper and wider problems and tragedies in the future? Who has the courage to point the finger at those responsible and to demand justice? In the case of Rio and the accident on the bonde, the victims have someone to stand up for them. Millions of others around the world do their best to stand up for justice, often in situations of great danger. We have to applaud and support their work in every way we can, and try to be more like them in our daily lives and in our confrontations with sudden or ongoing injustice.
However, when we look at those people who wield some measure of political power we see that there are very, very few Marcelo Freixos out there. To take the random example of those (overwhelmingly Labour) Haringey councillors who recently voted through a 75% cut in youth services in the face of repeated and serious warnings about the devastating consequences of doing so, even though they face nothing of the same kind of risk as Freixo does, ie. of being brutally assasinated; none of them appears to have the slightest comparable amount of courage or integrity. So when riots break out again, or another Baby P case occurs, they will shrug their shoulders rather than address questions of responsibility. And on a broader level, when last week British politicians voted to dismantle the National Health Service, nobody stood up in Parliament and talked of shame or disgrace, used words such as unacceptable or spoke of a total lack of respect; no-one openly accused the Conservative ministers and their pathetic acolytes of acting in line with their own narrow self-interest as they sell off the health of millions of people who they will never meet and who have yet to be born in order to enrich themselves and their friends and to serve an utterly bankrupt and destructive ideology.
It is almost certainly too late in the day to expect Labour Party MPs and councillors to show any signs of anything other than cynicism and cowardice. In the words of Captain Nascimento at the end of Elite Squad 2, as the camera pans over the pristine buildings and lawns of Brazil’s political capital, the system is fucked. It is only with an enormous investment of fury and indignation that we will hold on to the little we have and hopefully achieve something better. There are hopeful signs that the movement which begun in Spain, inspired by the Arab Spring, has reached Brazil. It is high time the British woke up to the fact that a monumental tragedy is currently taking place around us and started to direct our fury at those responsible.