One of the biggest scandals of the 2016 Olympics in Rio was the story of US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s admission to “overexaggerating,” as he called it, about an encounter with security guards at gas station in the early morning hours of August 14, along with swimming teammates Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz, and James Feigen.
While it’s still not clear what exactly happened (although it seems very clear the swimmers were not robbed at gunpoint, as Lochte originally claimed), the saga has elicited plenty of interest and scorn. The damage to Lochte’s reputation has even cost him sponsorships from Speedo and Ralph Lauren.
But when it comes to tales of gun violence in Rio, even Lochte’s made-up, much scarier version of the infamous night at the gas station is tame when compared with the real-life, deadly confrontations with police that go on all the time in the city’s poor neighborhoods. They were the source of serious human rights concerns before the Olympics, and they continued right through the games, almost unnoticed by the sports fans who tuned in.
Amnesty International says police killed at least eight people in Rio during the games
The human rights organization Amnesty International has been keeping track of and spreading awareness of this violence — whose victims, in a parallel to police-involved violence in the United States, are mostly black.
In a press release before the opening ceremonies, the organization warned that “public security” preparations for the event had “unleashed a new wave of violence against favela residents and protestors.” According to Amnesty, in the seven years between the time it was announced that Rio would host the games and the time the games kicked, off, the city’s security forces had already killed more than 2,500 people — 100 of them, the majority of whom were young black men, in 2015 alone.
For comparison’s sake, the Washington Post reported that police in the United States killed about 1,000 people in 2015, across the entire country. The numbers Amnesty looked at in Brazil were for Rio alone.
That was all before the games even began.
Then, according to Amnesty, human rights advocates’ worst fears about the impact of the Olympics in Rio came true. In a press release Monday, the organization said “violent police operations” killed at least eight people just during the two-week event. And that number may rise, since information on deaths in two favelas, Acari and Manguinhos, has yet to be confirmed. According to Amnesty:
...People who live in those areas have also reported other human rights violations such as home invasions, direct threats and physical and verbal aggressions by the police.”
Olympic protesters faced harsh repression by police
The Olympics inspired a lot of protests of Brazil’s government in the months leading up to the Olympics and during the games, largely focused on the way poor residents of Rio’s favelas were displaced and brutalized during preparations for the event, and the way the billions of public dollars spent in conjunction with the games left most of them worse off.
Vox’s Johnny Harris reported on the efforts to hide the city’s poor people from view, through bulldozing entire informal neighborhoods, forcibly relocating 77,000 citizens, and cutting off bus lines that connected poor and predominantly black neighborhoods to the area of the Olympic Village.
It seems protesting itself posed a risk for additional violent mistreatment by the government.
Amnesty reported that peaceful protesters were “harshly repressed by the police, both inside and outside sports arenas,” during the games. In particular, demonstrations on August 5 and 12 in Rio were met with police officers deploying tear gas and stun grenades and detaining several participants.
The action wasn’t limited to Rio. Amnesty reported that in São Paulo, police heavily repressed a demonstration of 100 people on August 5, and detained at least 15 minors.
You can’t separate police violence from race in Brazil
According to Amnesty, Brazil has the highest homicide rate in the world: a shocking 60,000 murders every year. That’s bad, but what makes the statistic even more disturbing is that thousands of these killings are by police, who are often not held accountable for them. And their victims, according to Amnesty, are often young black men.
Christen A. Smith, an associate professor of African and African-American diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas Austin and the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil, wrote about this topic in a piece for Truthout in 2014, well before the Olympic Games began:
The black community in Brazil is in a moment of crisis. Black Brazilians are three times more likely to be killed by the police than any other subset of the population and victims are often as young as 13 and 14 years old. Recently, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety reported that Brazilian police kill approximately six people per day: 11,197 over the past five years. That compares to approximately 11,090 people killed by the police in the United States over the past 30 years. Yet these numbers are grossly underreported.
Records on police killings are voluntarily kept, produced internally and not reported by most cities. Moreover, the police do not record most of their killings as police-motivated homicides. Rather, they log them as "death caused by resisting arrest" (autos de resistência), a controversial category that allows police killings to be classified as "suicides" for all intents and purposes.
Furthermore, statistics do not take into account police death squads - secret, vigilante-style groups that kill young black people with impunity and hauntingly recall lynching in the United States. Police violence is a type of "serial killing" in Brazil, and the vast majority of the victims are black.
This issue didn’t receive much if any coverage during the Olympics. But during the entire event, Smith, tweeting under the handle @Profsassy, worked to share her knowledge of anti-black police violence and related issues — including the impact on women and myths about Brazilian conceptions of race — using the hashtag #BrazilFreedomSchool.
The Olympics may have created some lasting changes to Rio — but not in this area
The New York Times’s Andrew Jacobs wrote in a post-Olympic piece published Sunday, “But the criticism aside, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have profoundly altered this city of six million, yielding a revitalized port; a new subway line; and a flush of municipal projects, big and small, that had long been on the wish list of city planners.”
Just a day later, Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, said in a statement, “We ended the Olympic Games with even more militarized public security policies, focused on a very selective repression, excessive use of force and combat-like police operations in favelas. The outcome has been clear — a rising death toll and other human rights violations of the residents, especially young black men.”
While the end of the Olympics leaves Rio (or parts of it, at least) with certain lasting aesthetic and infrastructure changes, the city and country are also left with a serious problem of racialized police violence that Olympic investment didn’t even begin to touch, and may have even exacerbated.