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Bolsonaro and the fascism of 'tough on crime'

Last month, international attention turned to Brazil as far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected the country’s 38th president. A former military general under the regime of dictator João Figueiredo, Bolsonaro ran a populist campaign promising to overhaul Brazil’s corrupt government. His victory comes during a period of wavering faith among in federal institutions on the part of the Brazilian people. 

In recent years, the country has struggled to cope with a severe economic downturn and noticeable upticks in crime in addition to scandalous revelations regarding bribery—allegations which have resulted in some leaders of the exiting administration facing impeachment and criminal corruption charges. Bolsonaro positioned himself as the solution to these issues during his campaign. In his platform, he called for numerous radical changes, including liberalizing gun laws, rolling back affirmative action for black Brazilians and removing land protections for indigenous tribes in order to exploit the economic resources of the Amazon rainforest.

While this election marks a turn towards a deeply frightening and uncertain future for Brazil in many ways, perhaps one of the most unsettling implications of a Bolsonaro presidency come in the realm of criminal justice. Bolsonaro, like many “tough on crime” military hawks, ran on the promise of eradicating crime through violence. He has promised to allow police officers to “shoot first, and ask questions later” and said that those who use “10 or 30 shots [to kill] need to be decorated, not prosecuted.” While this type of campaign rhetoric is disturbing in its own right, the coded message it conveys is even more troubling. Bolsonaro’s advocacy for extra-judicial murder is not intended to preserve community; his intent is to declare open season on poor Brazilians, specifically Afro-Brazilians who continue to suffer due to the country’s social apartheid

It’s easy to paint these issues of militarism and violence against civilians as problems endemic to a fascist regime in Brazil, but to do so would ignore the rapid spread of these repulsive sentiments across the globe. Rodrigo Duterte, a violent populist elected as president of the Philippines in 2016, is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in directing police officers and ordinary citizens to hunt and murder criminals in a self-styled “war on drugs.” He, like reactionary warmongers in various other nations spouting similar proposals, has used crime as a justification for genocide against the poor. Given President Trump’s own use of crime rates as a basis for racist and xenophobic immigration and law enforcement policy, it comes at little surprise that the current American administration is supportive of figures like Bolsonaro and Duterte. The use of state-sponsored violence against citizens in the name of “preserving” the general welfare is not reserved solely for governments that we consider to be fascist. It exists in our own communities.

American proponents of militarized responses to prevent crime often justify those responses' inhumanity by arguing that severe punishment is the best deterrent for crime. They point to the brutality of murderers and abusers to justify harsher sentences and aggressive policing, ignoring the fact that one in five inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

Calls for harsher sentencing and policing to address crime ignore data that show formerly incarcerated people—as a consequence of employment and housing discrimination—have a high likelihood of being rearrested, suggesting that time incarcerated is not an effective deterrent. These draconian policies also obscure heavily influential sociological contexts surrounding crime. Crime has never existed in a vacuum; offenses like drug distribution and theft are situated in specific economic and social realities. State neglect, historical economic disenfranchisement, systemic and generational poverty, hyper-policing and lack of robust reentry support programs for people released from prison or jail all contribute to propensity towards crimes of survival or necessity. Any policy meant to actually reduce crime must be based in addressing historical inequities dealt onto black and brown communities as well as adopting a restorative justice framework that focuses on rehabilitation and education opportunities.

Bolsonaro’s election as president marks a frightening step towards the normalization and perpetuation of state-sponsored murder of the most underserved citizens. While reversing such a global shift feels futile, we as individuals all have the capacity to prevent fear mongers like Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte and others from continuing to hold power. Support for policies that promote violence are based on the spread of misinformation. It is our responsibility to learn about and understand the inhumanity and demonstrable ineffectiveness of “tough on crime” policies and reject the alarmism used in their advocacy.

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