Six guns pointed at my face
Below is a translated revision of my Facebook post in Portuguese, originally for friends but eventually public, followed by some reflections that I wasn't able to articulate at the time. After that, there is a recording I forgot I had, featuring some of my conversation with the officers.
Thanks to Kae Yuan for reading a draft of this.
Tanning without a shirt and lying down in the grass at 3:30 in the afternoon. Asa Norte.
(If you're not from there, you could think of it as the equivalent of a quiet suburban neighborhood in Canada or the United States, where basically nothing happens—just a boring and comfortable place for affluent people to live.)
Six white police officers (mostly male) were walking, patrolling. I was surprised as I had not seen a sight like this in the last year or so of being around. I was observing their movement (as I lie on the grass), perhaps even staring, with the look of 'what are they doing in this neighborhood?'. Perhaps they felt provoked by my gaze.
A young-looking one arrives in front of me, cool and composed, silently points his gun at my face (as I lie on the grass) and spoke calmly: "Stand up and put your hands behind your head."
I said, "What did I do?", first in Portuguese, and later in English. The others arrived, pointing five additional guns at my face (as I lie on the grass). They explained that they were doing a '[procedure for the prevention of the sale of drugs]'. I obeyed, not knowing a better action to take. With fear, I started to engage only in English as one of them knew to speak it a bit.
They searched my pant pockets and my cloth bag while I stood with my hands behind my head (shirt still on the grass). They asked me what I was doing in the country. I explained that I was travelling, living with a friend. With luck, I had my passport to 'prove' this, and with their consent, I opened my bag to get my passport (slowly, carefully, as all guns were still pointed towards my face).
They withdrew weapons after about ten minutes, concluding that "it seems like he's just lying on the grass taking in some sun", and started a warmer conversation with me, "How cool that you're in Brazil. Wow, it looks like you have travelled to many countries." Then I started to relax and speak more in Portuguese, which almost offended the woman interrogating me, "Oh, so you speak Portuguese? Why didn't you speak before?"
They explained to me that this 'method' is normal here and that I didn't see this in the twenty countries I visited because "every place has their own way of resolving things".
They left me after another ten minutes and started the same process nearby with a Black man sitting on a bench; I recognized from his t-shirt that he was one of the waiters at the local French bakery.
Only sharing because a friend told me that it's important for more people to know the reality of a non-white person in this country. This likely happened also because of my ragged clothes—many people in this neighborhood look at me and avoid me thinking that I live on the street or that I will ask them for money.
Above all, it's important to recognize one's privileges and how 'nothing happened' in the encounter. In this richer neighborhood, they won't start by shooting. In the favelas of Rio, first you die.
What disturbed me most about this experience was the absence of any drama: nobody was shouting, there was no physical violence, and the police were clearly not acting out of fear for their own safety. This was mechanical, robotic, banal. The first officer acted like someone learning to cook by following a recipe:
Step 1: Approach as if you noticed a shiny object in the grass and wanted to check it out. Is it an earring? Or maybe a coin?
Step 2: Point your gun at it with the minimum of movement, so as to not startle the subject.
Step 3: Try to understand the situation.
It's the silence and the fact of how inevitable this is supposed to be. The calm, calculated clockwork of a system that doesn't question itself. The confidence of an 'expert' that doesn't realize how much they don't understand. I imagine them thinking: "This looks like the type of person we normally seek out, so let's start The Procedure". It's a logic they express with raw power.
Another thing I find disturbing is how after hearing this story, numerous people say to me, "Just change your clothes." I'm sure many women recognize that phrase. It's true, that would be practical. I'm slow to accept this, but I probably will.
Producing and writing is my way to deal with many things. It's empowering to feel what an experience provokes inside and allow it to produce an expression.
Sharing your story can lead to conversations that create momentum for change. Certain people in my network have told me that they revised their attitude towards to the police because of my experience. This is part of our force and our power to change, by sharing and caring.
In contrast to other countries, the police at the city level in Brazil are actually military, and so they engage as if they're in a war—when all you have is a hammer, every situation is a nail. Also, their salary is higher than that of school teachers, which might give a sense of priorities.
A snippet of our more cordial conversation, roughly translated to English
Me: I'm basically a tourist.
Officer A: Wow, you travel a lot! [Laugh] And when did you enter the country?
Me: March 2020, more than a year ago.
Officer A: [Addressing other officers to start the procedure on the man sitting nearby: Go there and ('check it out'?)] .
Officer A: What is your visa?
Officer A: It hasn't expired?
Me: I asked federal police about starting the process of getting documents, but…
Officer A: Ah so you came in the pandemic and stayed?
Me: My luck.
Officer A: You don't work here?
Me: I work on the Internet, I do programming, I sell apps online, I don't have a geographic connection for my work, officially in Canada, maybe.
Officer A: Where are you from in Canada?
Officer A: [Pause] Montreal, dang. So you left the cold there?
Me: [Laughs] Why not?
Officer A: Yeah…
Me: I find the warmth of the people interesting here.
Officer B: In Brazil you only came here to Brasília?
Me: No. São Paulo, Campinas, Salvador, Manaus, Rio, Chapada, Recife, Olinda. But I like it here, and I have friends in the city.
Officer B: In Rio, you never experienced any "procedimento de abordagem" ["procedure of approach/attack"?]?
Me: Well I only spent two weeks there.
Officer A: But this never happened to you in Rio? Because it's so common there.
Me: I would not sunbathe in Rio. Brasília is safer.
Officer A: Yes.
Me: Who would do that?
Officer B: It's more dangerous there.
Officer A: Because this area here is more…
Me: Actually I never had problems anywhere even though people tell me that the country is very dangerous. I wouldn't walk around drunk at night or something like that. Probably stay at home.
Officer B: This type of procedure avoids future problems.
Officer B: It's not about anything you did. It's really just prevention.
Officer C: The truth is, this is really the procedure, you know? With guns pointed. You're from Canada right?
Officer C: If we turn to the context of other countries, each country has their own profile. If you went to the United States, it's one. If you went to Europe, it's another. Here in Brazil, it's another.
Officer C: But, thank you for your collaboration, okay?
Me: No problem. Have a good afternoon.