Urban Violence and Southern Theory During the Pandemic

by Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti

1 May 2020

We are in the middle of a global pandemic. It is a sunny day here in the UK but the emotions around us are disjointed from the beauty of spring: fear, panic, sadness and anxiety mixed with a dose of hope. My children are being ‘home-schooled’ during the lock down, so it seems a strange time to be writing a blog about my recently published book A Southern Criminology of Violence, Youth and Policing. It is strange because I am reluctant to accept notions of ‘business as usual’ that are floating around managerial approaches to the crisis. And yet, intellectual discussions can help keep us grounded and stimulated amid the boredom and despair of isolation. While my book is not strictly about a virus, its key themes relate to a social and epidemiological debate: the well-known virus of social inequality and its toxic consequences.

Why should we care about the messages in this book? Why should we care about what is happening in Brazil? There are many answers to these questions. I like to remember the important message by Comaroff and Comaroff (2006: ix), which emphasizes the relevance of post-colonies as sites of theory production:

“Many of the great historical tsunamis of the twenty-first century appear to be breaking first on their shores—or, if not first, then in their most palpable, most hyperextended form—thence to reverberate around the Northern Hemispheric cosmopoles.”

As Comaroff and Comaroff remind us, there is also a deeply complex humanist argument for taking account of the knowledge produced in and with post-colonies. That is, billions of human beings exist, live and die in these polities, their predicaments and ours are inextricably entangled, increasingly so.

The stories in my book tell us something about global inequalities, about how power imbalances – including in global knowledge production and policy transfer – relate and intersect with structural inequalities in countries like Brazil. Those stories are warning against the dangers of growing global inequalities. From them, we can learn lessons that apply in and outside the Global South. My book raises central questions, such as, how are we to make sense of contemporary broader social, spatial and historical processes associated with violent and authoritarian contexts? Questioning and investigating these issues is a fundamental task, one that is worthy of critical attention for the production of social theory, radical politics and practice.

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Student protests against rising bus fares in Recife, 23rd January 2012.
Image credit: Andréa Rêgo Barros

Brazilian cities and poor communities are worthy, indeed essential, objects of inquiry, they are not merely sites for anthropological study. The structural violence and inequalities epitomised in these communities are no longer a state of exception. They tell us about how hierarchical forms of citizenship are experienced and contested. As Campos (2020) reminds us, hierarchical isolation is not new in Brazil, especially when we connect this notion to the idea of hierarchical citizenship. As he explains, citizenship is hierarchical in Brazil – and I should add increasingly also globally – because privileged groups constituting a small percentage of the population have access to most of the social, juridical, economic and symbolic resources enabling the reproduction of inequalities. Meanwhile, most of the population, the less privileged classes – working in service sector jobs, including domestic labour and informal jobs or even as health assistants in the Brazilian case – do not have the same resources to enable their right to access public or private spaces or exercise more equal and horizontal forms of citizenship. The idea of hierarchical isolation, proposed by far-right leaders like Bolsonaro during the COVID19 outbreak, suggests that people should ‘just go back to work’ and only people aged above 60 and those who have underlying health conditions should isolate. This is a highly problematic, risky and potentially genocidal approach in the Brazilian context. It suggests that everyone else can do ‘business as usual’. But in societies that are increasingly unequal, with underfunded health systems and high levels of the population relying on income from precarious informal sector jobs, this approach works as a ticking time bomb.

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Graffiti art depicting intersecting inequalities in the city by Luther (activist in Recife).
Photo taken by the author during fieldwork trip in 2013.

Manifestations of inequalities are lasting, disproportionately affecting first the most vulnerable populations in the world – those resisting racialised hierarchies, the migrant, the refugee, the zero-hour employee, the domestic worker, those with no holiday or sick pay – and they reverberate around the globe in a number of ways. Not least, in the flows of political discourses, ideologies, people, legal and illegal products, economic booms and crises. But now – while the recent fires in the Amazon are still fresh in our minds – we are seeing manifestations of these inequalities, hierarchies and violence in the authoritarianism that encourages dispossession, fast reckless extraction such as in mining and fracking industries, severely damaging the environment and air that we all breathe.

Drawing on Southern Criminology as a framework and paradigm, my book shows how the distinct trajectories of the colonised in the Global South turn the experience of diverse forms of neoliberalism into starker, more militarised and violent experiences. High levels of violence and inequality combine with traditions of militarisation to render popular northern crime control models prone to worsen rather than ameliorate the marginalisation of poor communities. A key message here is that dealing with public health issues – whether viral or related to drug use – is not a job for the criminal justice system. When governments opt to ‘roll out’ or encourage the use of policing and incarceration as methods of control, they generate new problems while sideling social and public health approaches. These are especially salient concerns at a time that has witnessed the most unprecedented generic expansion of police powers across the whole of Europe in enforcement of the pandemic lockdown where, as in the UK especially, attempts are made to ‘protect’ weakened and underfunded state institutions from people – as if we were the virus or the austerity that threatens our institutions. The expansion of punitive approaches to control is literally letting marginalised people die, instead of protecting lives, as activists in no borders organisations warn us.

A Southern Criminology of Violence, Youth and Policing examines public experiences of the expansion of punitiveness and insecurity as well as the social impacts of security programmes that claim to address violence. This book contributes to the emerging field of Southern Criminology by engaging with the perils faced by people living in “favelas” in Brazil and critically investigating the discourse of state actors. It combines original ethnographic data with critical analysis to expand understandings of violence and control in urban and post-colonial contexts. In the book, I engage with the concepts and theories of southern theorists, who have made significant but often marginalised contributions to our understandings of the world. My book embraces the challenge, messiness and complexity of the intersections of inequalities relating to race, gender and class with critical lenses for understanding and investigating contemporary urban violence, conflict and how we – as societies – respond to this setting. It examines the impact of public security policies on two different poor neighbourhoods of Recife in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco in Brazil. It captures and contrasts the voices of members of the security system (including military and civil police) with the voices of activists and residents of marginalised communities.

Based on meticulous research in a city I was born in and know well, the book analyses the limitations of mainstream managerial approaches to crime and violence. Its arguments in favour of more democratic and transparent approaches to safety are an alternative to contemporary calls for more authoritarianism and violent policing in Brazil. As such, it confronts prevailing practices and notions of security and control, shedding light on issues relating to policing, coercion and the great socioeconomic, historical and spatial inequalities that shape the lives of millions of people in the Global South. Through the increasing use of methods of control and incarceration, security programmes have failed to prevent diverse forms of violence and challenge the expansion of organised crime. Instead they have aggravated the inequalities that affect the most marginalised populations. The book exposes the exacerbation of social problems by the expansion of the penal and crime industry, unsettling the applicability and universalism of mainstream managerial criminology.

Much social science has concentrated primarily on the context and problems in the Global North, while the Global South has remained largely neglected, especially in criminological thinking. Bringing together a range of academic work from criminology, sociology, political science, geography and comparative social sciences, this book contributes to a project of cognitive justice (de Sousa Santos 2007) that intends to repair this imbalance through new research and knowledge from the postcolonial world. I tried to write my book in an accessible and direct style, hoping it will appeal to students, practitioners and academics in criminology, sociology, cultural studies, social theory and those interested in learning about the social injustices that exist in the Global South. Afterall, we can rethink the coexistence of and relationship between violence and democracy while we start drawing parallels, not least between the policing of a virus and the militarised and excessive use of force that is highly encouraged by the denial and incompetence of the likes of leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump.

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. She conducts critical research about violence, policing and insecurity and is the author of A Southern Criminology of Violence, Youth and Policing: Governing Insecurity in Urban Brazil (London & New York: Routledge, 2020). You can follower her on Twitter @RoxyCavalcanti

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