Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2011 Role Models #3 & #4: Eduardo da Silva & Leonardo Bento

I thought a while about this one before I decided to post it. One has only to scan the right side of my blog to see that I have a sensitivity to the way police power is all too often used in this country and in the world. When push comes to shove, unless we're talking about serial murderers, my sympathies tend to lie, more often than not, with the underdogs -- and they're usually the ones doing the running rather than the chasing.

Nevertheless, I was moved recently when I saw a New York Times article with the video above about what's been going on the last couple of years in the City of God.

I remembered the location, 15 miles from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, because it was the subject of an award-winning film released in 2002. It was painfully dramatic, but even more dramatic was an hour-long special feature documentary I also watched while I had the DVD. Gripping was not the word for it.

In any case, Rio has been tapped as one of the countries to host the 2014 World Soccer Cup and then, in a double whammy of good fortune, the 2016 Olympic games, as well. But the city fathers and corporate financiers knew that, having won those feathers for their collective cap, they must rise to the occasion by making sure that the slums wouldn't spoil the party. So the government and companies like Coca Cola pooled their resources to bankroll an ambitious program to quiet the poverty-stricken favellas (neighborhoods) before the athletes -- and the accompanying media -- arrive.

Needless to say, since the neighborhoods in question had virtually been given over to the drug lords, a concentrated effort to introduce police presence was at the heart of the implemented "clean-up" process. Not everybody in the City of God, as you can imagine, is mesmerized by the new agenda. It started with a month-long gun battle between the drug lords and the cops, though bullets in the streets were commonplace even before that. And the wild parties the drug lords used to subsidize for the mass public have disappeared.

But some person with decision-making authority apparently had a blinding flash of the obvious and as soon as the front line "bad guys" were either locked up, killed or run out of Dodge, a whole new cadre of brand spanking new and freshly trained police recruits (300 of them, in fact -- called "pacification police" -- a term that, frankly, makes my stomach knot up) descended on the community. They had to be new recruits to catch them before they became part of the open culture of corruption in the department.

After decades without police "protection," however, the public was not necessarily prepared to accept, appreciate or trust them. But, proving once again that those with the Power-To-Define do, in fact, know perfectly well what will work and have all the money they need to do it, the new officers were sent not only into the streets, but into the day care centers to play with the children. Some of them are even paid to spend their whole shift holding dance classes or teaching martial arts to young people.

There is some concern, of course, that after 2016, everything will go back to business as usual. I'm sure that's what the drug lords are hoping. And realistically, many families were sustained financially by the drug and crime driven economy, so it occurs to me that jobs -- a lot of them -- must also be developed.

But, in the meantime, children can bounce on trampolines outside, women can walk to the market without looking over their shoulder, and a semblance of peace has descended where it once was deemed impossible. Still, where do our 2011 Role Models #3 and #4 come in? One of them, Eduardo da Silva, is one of the new police recruits and one of them, Leonardo Bento, is a City of God resident whose older brother was summarily murdered by a policeman some years ago for flirting with the policeman's girlfriend.

Bento is candid in the video above about the fact that he wanted to seek revenge on the police for robbing him of his brother. In fact, he signed up for da Silva's martial arts class expressly so he would get a legal opportunity to give the officer in charge a few licks. But da Silva threw him a curve. He came into the neighborhood (unlike the other new recruits) without a uniform or weapon. As da Silva says in the film, "You have to enter this with your heart. Force does not solve everything."

Slowly, the two became friends and now Bento says that da Silva has replaced the brother he lost. And there you have it. Role models for the rest of us.

I doubt that da Silva and Bento are fools. At least, they don't appear to be.

And they -- more than anyone, maybe -- know that the money may dry up post-2016, at which point the birds of prey will descend once more. They undoubtedly know they are part of a masterfully engineered international make-over for Rio's image. But they're crossing the lines anyway. There are enough tensions even now that none of the other "pacification police" seem to be leaving their bullet proof vests in their lockers. But da Silva goes without it anyway. No amount of quality time can ever return Bento's biological brother to him, but he is healing anyway. And that's what makes them role models.

The world, as we only too well know it, is not going to be all better tomorrow. Many of us have come to believe that things are going to get way worse before they improve, assuming they ever do. And the people in the City of God are still struggling to meet the most basic needs of existence. And police brutality and corruption still exists in Rio de Janeiro, just like it does everywhere else. But the two men I'm featuring today are looking ahead into the possibilities of what life can be like for two individuals, conducting their lives right in the middle of all that's rotten, who choose to see the humanity in each other and accept all the risks inherent in that vision.

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