Protests Erupt in Rio de Janeiro Over Police Shooting of 8-Year-Old Girl

Brazil’s favelas continue to be a site of contestation between residents and police. This battleground, sadly, does not exclude children. This year alone, more than five children have been killed in the government’s war on gangs. The militarization of the police coupled with their “shoot first” policy is having a horrific impact on the nation’s most vulnerable population. The recent police killing of an eight-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro has brought this issue to a boiling point, according to The Guardian.

On the night of September 20, Ágatha Félix, an eight-year-old girl was shot in the back by a police officer. She was not committing a crime or affiliated with a gang. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time — she was poor and African descended in the favelas of Rio.

Félix was traveling on public transportation through the favela when a stray bullet from a police officer killed her. Police claimed they were targeting gang members engaged in an attack, reporting that they came under attack from different directions while standing on a corner. Witnesses dispute this version and point to the fact that there was no chase and no shootout. An officer simply fired at two suspects on a motorcycle but hit Félix instead.

The killing set off a firestorm of demonstrations and protest. Hundreds turned out on the night of September 21 in the Complexo do Alemão favela where Félix was killed, the largest and one of the most violent in Rio. In 2017, a shootout took place there every 30 hours.

During the protest, the hashtag #aculpaedowitzel (translated as “it’s Witzel’s fault”), a reference to the Governor of Rio de Janeiro Wilson Witzel,was trending on Twitter in Brazil. Voz das Comunidades, a favela newspaper, organized a second protest on September 22. The march featured children with yellow balloons marching behind a banner that read, “Stop Killing Us.” Protestors called for government reform, according to The Guardian.

Advocates and protestors condemned the government’s encouragement of the “shoot first” policy. Some have compared it to an “extermination.”

They are also critical of the fact that the government seems not to care. According to Luciano Bandeira, president of Rio’s bar association, “There is no remorse, no admission of fault, no will to rethink the policy to avoid other deaths like this happening.”

The government and police still are seemingly committed to the aggressive policing that led to Félix’s death, along with over a 1,000 other residents this year. In July, The Guardian reported that Wilson Witzel compared the gangs in the Complexo do Alemão to terrorists. Elected as Rio’s governor in January, Witzel has adopted an aggressive posture toward gangs. Prior to his election, he was a little known former judge with a military past. His tough stance on crime endeared him to those concerned about the deteriorating situation in the favelas.

His message is also is also in line with Brazil’s extremely conservative and far right president Jair Bolsonaro. In a statement to journalists, Witzel defended the shoot first policy by noting that the only way to deal with gangs was the use of lethal methods. He pledged to “slaughter criminals” and “dig graves” for members of violent drug gangs active in the state’s favelas. He has endorsed the use of snipers in helicopters as a response to the gang wars. When asked about the significant surge in police killings, he stated that they were “hitting hard” at the gangs and when the police arrive on the scene, gangsters can “either surrender or die,” according to Al Jazeera.

The police echo this sentiment. According to police spokesman Mauro Fliess homicides are down 21% across the state when compared to 2018. Not only will the police not change the policy, but Fliess said “they will not back down.”

However, the killing of civilians in the state has reached epidemic proportions. The number of people killed by police in the first eight months of the year is 1,249. That amounts to at least five people per day, a sixteen percent increase over the same period in 2018. In addition to the problem of police shootings, there is an added hazard of stray bullets as tragically seen in the case of Ágatha Félix. Crossfire, a nongovernmental violence monitor, told The Associated Press in August that more than 225 people were killed last year as a result of stray bullets from criminals and police. More than 100 people have been killed by stray bullets in 2019.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.