Urban violence and its impact on the social landscape: Personal experiences from north eastern Brazil

In urban Brazil, I found a world with a different physical structure and a different emotional outlook. Uncertainty and fear of violence seem to have turned living inside out.

Everyone I meet and who we interview knows the stories from the media; they become known by the first name of the victim, like Alanis, the two year old who was kidnapped and found murdered and raped.

Nearly everyone also has personal experience of some kind of urban violence. A colleague told us about her weekend: “My brother and his family were kidnapped at gunpoint in the supermarket car park. They took them in their car to the cash point and got their money, then let them go. Thank God it wasn’t worse.”

As a result, the discourse and experiential worlds of the academics and students I meet is filled with stories of violence. When I ask how this affects their everyday lives, they suggest that it doesn’t much. But, from what I see, every aspect is affected.

My colleague takes me to her apartment to collect something. She lives in a nice looking apartment block, one of several inside a high metal fence with spikes on top. We stop outside the gates and wait for the armed security guard to check who she is and the car. He opens the first set of gates automatically from inside his glass cabin. We drive in and stop. The gates close behind us. The second set of gates open and we drive inside. There are children’s swings in a small park, and flowers, and paths to walk around. Inside is a small, safe world, made secure by fences, gates and armed guards.

When we drive in her car, the windows stay firmly shut. At night on the way from the airport, there are traffic lights at red that we drive through, carefully but without stopping. “No one stops at these lights because we know it is a dangerous place. People can come with guns to stop you.” The car becomes a safe place by being sealed and by keeping moving.

People experience feeling safe only when they are inside — inside the car or inside their apartment. Behind the locks, grilles, guarded gates and fences, people can relax. What happens though is that the stories feed into the insecurity and being ‘outside’ comes to feel less and less safe; getting inside and safe becomes more and more important. People move out of old style houses with doors on the street and into gated apartments. They park inside where that is possible rather than on the street; they shop more in malls and less at shops on the streets. They drive from one secure place to another. Being inside comes to feel natural. Out there, on the pavements and the beaches, feels more and more threatening. Only the poor and the criminals go where they like and move freely.

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