My friend Kurt Shaw (my freshman year roommate at Williams in 1989) has spent the last few years living and working in Latin America, designing programs that help street kids with physical and mental health issues as the director of the Shine a Light Foundation. He periodically sends letters to friends about his experiences, like this one I received yesterday from Recife, Brazil. I thought it was important and worth sharing, so here it is:
It’s been a while since I wrote one of these travel letters, but last week something happened here in Recife that was so inspiring that I just needed to tell friends about it.
I’m here to do a project on how hip-hop can be an important part of education for street kids — breakdance as a way to get their bodies out of the numbing nothingness of drugs, rap as a path to literacy, even fashion design as a possible line of work. It’s exciting education, and unbelievably successful.
Last week, in one of the slums where I have been working, a young man was doing a graffiti mural when a neighbor — an ex-cop and a generally unpleasant guy — walked by and shot him five times. Fortunately, the graffiti artist lived, but he is still in the hospital with a couple of horrible wounds.
The police in Recife (in all of Brazil, really) is famously corrupt and inefficient, and numerous complaints did nothing to get the shooter arrested — he is an ex-cop, after all. He continued to walk through the slum ostentatiously armed, claiming that he was going to “straighten out these kids.” Unlike many of the other miserable other favelas in Recife, this one had long enjoyed relative calm, but with the ex-cop armed in the streets, people in the neighborhood began to think that they were on the path to the kind of civil war that other slums and shantytowns have gone through — the sort of thing you may have seen in the movie “City of God.”
The kids at PÃ© no ChÃ£o (the organization with which I’m working) decided that they had to do something before the shooter killed someone, or before someone killed him. One of the kids lives right next door to him, so everyone asked her mother for permission to use their front porch, and then set up their sound system and laid down a dance floor.
Over the next couple of hours, the kids who had learned to be DJs spun and scratched some great music; the kids who breakdance spun on the dance floor. Others did afro-brazilian dance or capoeira as their friends beat out complicated rhythms on the drums. At the end of the protest, as the hot sun finally began to set over the stinking sewage canal that runs in front of the houses, rappers and their teachers sang about peace, about the need to resolve conflicts without violence… Perhaps the most important thing, however, was that everyone in the community walked by on the way home from work, and the kids talked to them, one on one, about what was happening, and about the consequences if it didn’t stop. Adults watched the kids doing healthy, productive things on the street, and you could tell that they weren’t going to put up with the ex-cop’s vigilante actions. No one at the protest used his name, but I saw lots of adults and kids looking over at his house.
I’ve done a lot of research on urban violence over the last year — here, in MedellÃn, in BogotÃ¡, and in Rio de Janeiro — and I’ve seen that these vigilante campaigns are common, and that they often ignite civil wars in poor neighborhoods, as others begin to arm themselves for revenge or self defense. But people like this ex-cop depend on the support of their neighbors, on the illusion that “it’s tough, but he’s cleaning things up.” Local opprobrium, on the other hand, forces the police to step in, but it also stigmatizes the vigilante, and in close-knit communities like the Brazilian favelas, what your neighbors think about you is important.
Street kids organizing themselves to make peace in the poorest neighborhoods of the city — it’s the sort of event that gives me hope for a different future.
I hope all of you are well,