The naturalization of massive death
Two recent police actions and more than 600,000 deaths by COVID-19 show the historic naturalization of death in Brazil.
Brazil, November 22, 2021. The vaccination campaign inhibited the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which over the course of 20 months had killed more than 610,000 people. In the community of Salgueiro, in the city of São Gonçalo, in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, eight bodies were pulled from a mangrove swamp by residents after a police operation by the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) of the Military Police. According to information released in the media by the Civil Police and the Prosecutor’s Office investigating the deaths, the operation was composed of about 20 police officers who fired more than 1,500 shots over 33 hours, 47 of these bullets fatally hitting at least 10 victims.
Marked by the violence of home invasions, threats to residents, the staging of a drunken barbecue in one of the invaded residences, physical and psychological torture and murder, the Salgueiro massacre has been described as an “operation of revenge.” Its motivation was the death of a Military Police sergeant on patrol on November 20th, 2021.
The spokesperson for the Military Police reported to the media that the operation was “adequate” and “necessary.” In a “planned way,” as he also declared, BOPE entered the community in the early hours of November 21st and carried out a killing that included torture of the victims. The bodies thrown into the mangrove on the outskirts of the neighborhood had such disfigured faces that they couldn’t be used for identification purposes by the forensic medicine institute.
The events in Salgueiro add to 38 other massacres that occurred in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2021. Of these, 27 were carried out by police officers, like the one on May 6th in Jacarezinho, a community in the city of Rio de Janeiro, that resulted in 27 confirmed deaths and became the second largest massacre in the state’s history. The Jacarezinho massacre was promoted by the Civil Police and was likewise a “revenge operation”: it occurred after the killing of a police officer by members of the retail commerce of illicit psychoactive substances in that community, at the very beginning of an action called “Operation Exceptis” by the police.
At a press conference, Civil Police delegates who participated in the operation and who also worked on the investigation celebrated the “success” of the operation. Allegedly conducted “within the protocols,” it resulted in the deaths of “suspects,” “bandits,” and “criminals” — categories used to justify the killings and mobilize a moral economy that kills the dead, dehumanizing their existence.
Considering that since June 2020 a decision of the Federal Supreme Court has prohibited police operations in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic, excluding very exceptional cases, both police operations occurred on the fringes of legality. Hence the name chosen by the policemen for the operation in Salgueiro, that lends to the action an exceptionality impossible to be demonstrated otherwise. Carried out only 20 days after a public hearing meant to discuss strategies to reduce police lethality, “Operation Exceptis” exposes the cruel rationality of those responsible for public security policies in Brazil.
This management of death kills the dead, absolving the State of responsibility for its crimes and blaming the dead for their death.
More than 38% of the homicides in the state of Rio de Janeiro are committed by police officers. The number reveals the existence of a politics of killability that naturalizes the production of death. Although organically and institutionally dead, some victims do not seem worthy of a moral classification that legitimizes their lives and recognizes them as victims. This management of death kills the dead, absolving the State of responsibility for its crimes and blaming the dead themselves for their death. A large part of the media echoes these values by attributing suspicions and accusations of criminal practice to the dead, as if the practice of crimes and the “involvement with drug trafficking” were moral motivations sufficient to authorize the summary execution of a person.
In the face of mechanisms that transform life in survival, several ways of dealing with death and with the invisible presence of the dead emerge. The movements for memory, truth, and justice claim the right to mourning and the recognition of the dead as former persons. Operations conducted by the State, in contrast, often sustain their efficacy through an apparatus of depersonalization, dehumanization, and disappearance aimed at establishing a compulsory non-place for the dead.
The intricacies of State bureaucracies allow for the naturalization of massive death. The same process that produces the young black victims of daily urban brutality was put to work to produce the hundreds of thousands of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these “natural deaths” — which means, deaths caused by a non-human pathogen — could have been prevented. Instead, they became violent deaths from a natural cause: the result of a governmental action intentionally directed at promoting contamination, speculating with lives at risk, and profiting from suffering, pain, and tragedy.
The widening production of the dead derives from the prior normalization of other dead: Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, rural workers, leftist militants, civil rights defenders, transsexuals and transvestites, “suspects,” “bandits,” and “criminals…” These groups are targets of continuous processes of dehumanization, treated as enemies to be eliminated, unwanted beings to be exterminated. Other groups, on the other hand, specialize in making those people die. They spread authoritarian sensibilities and impose technologies of killing as practices of government that persist throughout history. This overarching political project is made more sophisticated through the classification, hierarchization, and suppression of the dead. Killing and letting die: the non-living of the Other is naturalized in favor of the living of the self. Deaths that are desirable become normal, and those that are inevitable become necessary.
Certain deceased are twice the target of violence. In the face of an enterprise so sophisticatedly designed to cancel out disparate existences and promote reactionary conformity, it is imperative to demand dignity and autonomy, to honor the lives of those who are gone, and to combat the imposition of a non-place for those whose existence is denied a priori. It is necessary to celebrate the dead as a way to make life possible; to manifest death as part of life, and to remember and resist a seemingly endless production of killed people.