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Racial Tensions Rise In Rio De Janeiro As Economy Continues To Struggle


In Brazil, racial tensions have been flaring between young blacks, the police and vigilantes. The country's troubled economy has only made the situation worse. Catherine Osborn reports from Rio de Janeiro.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: Summer has come hot and early to Rio. In Copacabana and Ipanema, beaches are packed. Twenty-two-year-old airman Paulo Moreira dos Santos likes to cool off in the waves on weekends, but he's come to expect trouble when he is wearing swimming trunks instead of his Air Force uniform.

PAULO MOREIRA DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: They don't want to hear your story. They're going to search you, he says about the police patrolling the beaches. To them, he's a black man with no shoes on. When they ask him to turn out his pockets, he doesn't resist.

DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: He tells the officers he doesn't have anything; he just came here to enjoy himself. Recently, other young black men headed to Rio's beaches have gotten harsher treatment. At the entrance to Copacabana, police, often with pistols drawn, board buses coming from Rio's poor north zone. Sometimes they frisk the passengers.

A widely shared photo of an incident in September shows six black teenagers alongside a bus with their hands up. In a single weekend in August, the police detained 150 teenagers who had not committed any crimes. Most were poor and black. Since then, a judge has ruled such detentions illegal.

MAICON PEREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Police spokesman Maicon Pereira says now the police will detain only people caught committing a crime. Other suspects may be frisked, he says, but based on their behavior not race or age. Pickpocketing on the beach and police crackdowns are not new in Rio. But long-time residents say the economic downturn has made this summer particularly tense and caused a spike in activity by vigilantes known as justice mobs.

A cell phone video now circulating shows white men smashing the window of a bus filled with black teenagers leaving the beach. Online, some locals applauded the vigilantes with comments like the police don't do anything; the justice mob does. Thirty-five-year-old IT technician Marcio Gorgonio appreciates the vigilantes. He voted for Brazil's leftist ruling party. But lately, he has been watching videos from right-wing tough-on-crime politicians.

MARCIO GORGONIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Gorgonio says he feels insecure. He worries that, like a million other Brazilians over the last year, he may lose his job, and he fears rising unemployment caused by the oil price slump will bring more crime.

GORGONIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "If a person doesn't have anything to eat at home, if they have a kid, if they don't have a great character," he says, it's inevitable they'll commit crimes. He thinks more teens should do time in adult prisons and the state should implement the death penalty. It's not just right-wing politicians stirring up these sentiments, says Sylvia Moretzsohn. She teaches media studies at Fluminense Federal University.

SYLVIA MORETZSOHN: (Through interpreter) The media here usually represent a society that is white and middle class, and the other, the periphery, is always under surveillance and suspicion.

OSBORN: Activists from Rio's North Zone are fighting back against this mindset. At a recent rally in Ipanema, they brought in funk music from Rio's favelas, or poor neighborhoods, and demanded the right to enjoy the beach like everyone else. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.