Brad Will in Boog City

Saturday, October 28, 2006

From Boog City Issue 24, April 2005

Fragments of a Shattered Hope
Brazil Makes War on Sohno Real Squatters
by Brad Will
The first time I ever squatted was almost an accident. I was living in Boulder, Colorado, and all of my crazy poet roomies fled the scene. I stayed and didn’t even have the phone number for the landlord.
I came to the LES looking for trouble and I landed, broke and confused, on my friends. They took me in at the 5th Street squat, urban camping with water from the hydrant, bucket flush toilets, and unpredictable electricity. Eventually the city came with a wrecking crane, and I almost got knocked down with the building. The city didn’t care that I was still inside trying to stop the horror.
I floated to different squats in the ’hood for years and fought the good fight for housing, and I dug in deep and locked down in the community garden struggle. They stole my heart, those old tenements, and the simple captured plots of green free space. Pure direct action—you are not talking politics and yelling in the streets; you are doing it, making it real, and sharing it with the community.
Wanderlust eventually did me in. I reached South America as a media activist with contacts from IMCistas I met squatting at the Independent Media Center office in New York City. I visited MST (the landless workers movement) rural encampments in Brazil, and saw a whole different side to squatting.
I came to Goiânia, Brazil after I connected with some great IMC media activists in Porto Allegre at the world social forum. They told me of a squatter’s encampment called Sohno Real (real dream) in their city within the interior of the country. The court fight got them nowhere and they started to dig in. They surged on the abandoned land nine months before, after the owner of the land hadn’t paid taxes in over 30 years. A couple of months later it was election time and the governor promised them they could stay, and they started building for real. It was all talk.
The first day I arrived in the city, I was still dazed from hard travel and hit the camp just as night fell. There was a pattern of nightly harassment that was escalating. The night before the police had shot some rounds randomly to scare people guarding the barricades. The barricades were inspiring, layers of tires piled in a hermetic order locking into each other vertically, and some had moats with bamboo spikes and barbed wire. Near the barricades people were at the ready—
T-shirts for masks, some with slingshots and Molotov cocktails, but the norm was a nice big stick. Many of the warriors were in their teens and were excited, but they didn’t really seem to know what was in store. Others were battle-hardened soldiers from other occupations in the region. There were eight barricades, all of them guarded night and day. It got really dark without streetlights, and it was disorienting.
Two nights in a row the police came to attack after midnight. Tear gas crept up, concussion grenades exploded everywhere. Two nights in a row the barricade burst into flames and lit up the night and the community fought back, their silhouettes floating, blurring in pure black inside the inferno. Slingshots singing, fireworks spraying, a Molotov would miss its mark. The police brought it up with incendiary flares and rubber bullets. The second night they used real bullets—they have such a distinct sound as they whiz by your head. Inside the camp someone was screaming with a bullet wound clean through his bicep. A policeman was wounded. They vanished and the barricade kept burning for hours. No one knew if they would return in a few minutes or never.
We got no sleep. Daylight always came up strange and brilliant in the camp. So cruel was this beauty, the contrast at dawn—the sun smiling on the simple homes and the flowers opening their eyes, pineapple and banana trees, gathering water from the well, a black spot in the road where the tires had burned through. There was silence but for a few feet slowly making their way to work, to scrap through the trash for cardboard or bottles or cans. The women were off to market, or the kids on their way to school yawning.
Life pulsed on just like the neighborhood next door. Poor folks were trying to get by living, loving, arguing, cooking, and sharing. Some had settled in nicely, selling everything they owned to buy bricks and mortar. All of them were basically single-room dwellings with a simple garden outside with yucca, squash, or kudzu. Some were still camping in a shanty tent with a black plastic roof. There was a communal kitchen that fed those who needed it. There were all sorts of Christians, lots of Catholics, tons of believers, evangelicals of a different breed than the Bush voters back home. Everyone was so nice. I wasn’t greeted with suspicion but with a smile and a hand. You pass a small simple home and they ask you in for coffee. It was great kindness, generosity, and dignity, in spite of the poverty they faced. They had built a dream in the dust—a new people’s village, a giant squat, a community.
Night returned after rumors flying all day. They had a regular Bible revival rally with singing and little kids and a few politicians. It was beautiful, hands all raised in prayer for peace, for a new life. All the while the paranoia was creeping and chattering, gripping your teeth. No sleep again, the morning dead quiet. Then an announcement on a loudspeaker: 30 trucks on the road, full of military police. The governor had promised 2,500 police and they were on their way. People trickled to the main entrance, but there was no panic. Slowly the police closed the roads, slowly their buses filled the plaza, slowly they unloaded their human cargo. Inside people sang the national anthem of Brazil. A group of women formed a line to pray hard and loud. Soon a large group joined them with children and white flags. The night warriors were not to be seen. The police formed blocks and started to move in with black and green battle paint, bulletproof vests, shields, and helmets, ready for war. Everyone stood terrified, unsure what to do.
Suddenly we heard explosions behind our backs. There was gas inside the camp. The police were already inside shooting. Another explosion directly behind my back pushed my body forward and my ears started ringing. Everyone scattered in a panic. Military police with pistols drawn were right behind me, one of them kicking a woman. I ran, but there was nowhere to go. Shots whizzed past my head. I headed for the back yards and leaped through the yucca bushes where I saw an open door and a welcoming hand inviting me in. Everyone was affected by the gas and in a panic. A little baby was vomiting. A man of the house opened the door and I started filming, and twice got shot at by passing military police. They came screaming, but I could only understand bits and pieces. I was explaining I was a journalist from the U.S.A. The police, with their pistols pointed at my head, didn’t seem interested in my credentials. When they hit me it was first in the back of the head, then one threw me down, three or four kicked me, then one on top hard with his knee in my back. Then the plastic handcuffs like a vise. I got on my feet looking for my video camera. What the fuck happened? I stumbled dazed in the sun into a different group of police. One smacked me on the side of the head and almost sent me to the ground, except another was holding me up. Later I realized they were being gentle with me.
The police came marching out in formation singing songs celebrating their victory—”We will put a sword in your skull and drink your blood!” Twisted. I looked into some of their eyes and saw darkness, cold hard soulless steel. Soon I was in the mayhem at the police station. The pain started to settle in to the bone. There was a first aid area with puddles of blood starting to turn black at the edges. I saw people with stitches, broken arms, and bullet wounds in the head. They moved me along and after eight hours cut me loose. Over 800 were arrested and the bulldozers were busy all night. People said they saw bodies being dumped in the water wells and thrown into burning buildings. People were shot in the head while on their knees. No one knew how many were still missing.
All night there were military ambulances leaving the encampment. IMC volunteers were at the hospitals and these ambulances never arrived. People saw trucks full of dirt entering in the night and leaving still full of dirt and something else. A massive cover-up was underway. People working in the hospitals were afraid to talk with us. One later came forward in secrecy and told us there were 20 violent deaths reported at the morgue; on a normal day there are one or two. In the jail so-called leaders were being selectively pulled into special detention for interrogation. Children were looking for their parents. There were streams of refugees and no government plan for what to do with these people. They went to the Catholic cathedral to sleep and rallied in the morning. They gathered to write down the names of the disappeared. There was a mass funeral the next day. An undercover agent infiltrated and tried to arrest someone randomly, and got beaten down by the crowd until his buddy fired over everyone’s head. Only two official deaths were listed, but we may never know how many for real. People moved into two gyms across town for refugee housing. A young man looked me in the eye. “This is Brazil,” he said “it is not the north east and the beaches or Rio and Carnival—now you know the real Brazil.”
Back at the encampment they had their way with the houses. Scorched earth policy, every house was destroyed. A horse was tied to a post, waiting for someone who was not coming. Butterflies and strange birds flew in the sunflowers and corn left to blaze in the heat. Heaps of belongings and bricks and scrap wood lay everywhere. A dead vulture was at the bottom of a well. Sohno Real became a living land without shade, a new dump, fragments of a shattered hope.
Everyone I knew was shattered and paranoid. The history of the military police in this state is brutal. Nothing seems to have changed here in the interior since the end of the dictatorship. Everyone—the politicians, the media, university students, the middle class—talked about youths in the slums turning up dead after a tall tale from the police; about re-adjusting your car in the middle of the night and a few days later having an unexpected accident; about complete impunity, about midnight disappearances. Two people from the community who testified got late night calls threatening their life. Every phone had echoes and seemed tapped. The police were the muscle for the land-owning elite, which was clinging to a colonial power that had yet to vanish.
Everyone kept telling me I should leave town or go into hiding. I was lost but something was holding me there. There was an image I couldn’t get out of my mind—a thin woman curled up fetal and broken lying in a short pool of water at the bottom of a well. I was haunted.
I would visit the gyms where everyone was sprawled around with fragments of foam mattresses and bundles of clothes in plastic bags. Life was pushing forward. The bathrooms were packed and filthy. Lunch was the only meal and it was mayhem, people pushing and grabbing, little kids all confused and vanishing under a sea of desperate arms. Folks weren’t happy, spending most of the day sleeping just trying to make it through. These people were working hard to build a new home and suddenly they are piled up and waiting, some washing a few clothes and hanging them on the fence next door, some sitting in the shade waiting for news, the kids running wild and looking for mischief. A passing car hit one young child. I could feel the weight in everyone’s eyes. There is a stress that lingers deep and settles in, the unknown, the not forgetting, the clinging doubt, the silent fear, a held breath, the missing. They are all missing.
One warm day the community was on the march. Both gyms mobilized and they walked to the camp. They joined up en route and the joy was overflowing. It was a family reunion. They rallied at the entrance where the military police had invaded, together for the first time since the funeral. There was hope. There was a call to action for global solidarity put out on the internet and there were actions at the embassies and consulates in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, New York City, Oslo, and Washington. The federal government stood up and took notice after people made trips to Brasilia, the capital, using my video as principle evidence. The parliament voted to federalize the investigation. One breath and it will fall into place. All the pieces are ready and they are waiting. All of them, the children, the warriors, pregnant mothers, the unsettled spirits, are waiting. On the one-month anniversary, the young people organized a simple theater of the eviction. They were learning to heal. Time skips a beat, pushing through, and the struggle continues. The dream never died.