RIO DE JANEIRO — As the Olympic torch snaked its way through the city en route to the Opening Ceremony, citizens of Rio responded with little acts of disobedience; dropping trousers, hurling projectiles, burning the Brazil flag and tipping water.
A few hundred of the most disgusted marched near the Maracana stadium this afternoon in protest at what has come to be called the “Exclusion Games.”
Scuffles broke out between protestors and the military police when officers moved in to arrest one man; some members of the crowd responded by hurling bottles; one picked up a heavy wooden table and lunged at an officer in full riot gear.
Police horses, officers armed with assault rifles and a helicopter ensured that any violence was short-lived.
The protesters were clamoring to tell the world that the real story of the city was being whitewashed by a government and games organizers who want to hide their plight rather than use the Olympic legacy to help them.
“Since we got the World Cup and Olympics our city has been militarized and divided,” said Mariana Wendeck, 27.
Policies to clear the city of street vendors, beggars and the homeless have attracted widespread criticism. Black boys heading to the beach are interrogated by police and forced to prove they have fare for the ride home, she said.
“Our people suffer so that no one spoils your view,” said Wendeck.
At the heart of the protest was a small hardcore of communists and anarchists, who lit flares and banged the lids of trash cans, but many ordinary people also feel they are being cut out of this elite global festival. Residents waved from their windows and staff from stores along the route, including a Subway outlet, held placards in solidarity.
Weeks before the games began, Rio de Janeiro declared an unprecedented “state of public calamity” over its finances and stopped paying some of its police officers and civil servants, while hospital supplies have been cut.
People are being denied basic services and yet they see billions spent on the gaudy redevelopment of the port in the east of the city while an enclave of wealthy investors in the west have benefitted from an enormously expensive infrastructure redevelopment.
The roads and metro that will service this exclusive suburb have been built on top of the homes of some of the city’s poorest residents—some claim they were deliberately routed to take-out as much of the informal shanty town housing, known as the favelas, as possible.
One of the favela citizens who was almost permanently excluded from these games was Vitor Santiago Borges, 30.
As police intervention in the favelas soared ahead of the Rio Olympics, he was the victim of one of many shootings by the authorities.
Speaking from his wheelchair, he told The Daily Beast that he was shot in the lungs, spine and legs during a random act of state-sponsored violence while he made his way home from watching a football match in a local bar.
“We were driving down a very peaceful street when we heard the sound of gunfire. At first I didn’t realize I had been shot, my spinal cord was severed and I didn’t feel the shots that went into my legs at all,” he said.
When the military ordered all five men to get out of the car, Borges was obviously powerless to comply. He passed out before he was dragged from the vehicle by Brazilian troops.
Borges says he only survived because their attackers identified his friend, who was driving the car, as a serving sergeant in the Air Force. He was sent to a hospital where he lay in a coma for seven days.
Many victims of shootings by the authorities in the favelas never make it as far as the hospital.
In an appalling case documented by Amnesty International, a teenage boy was shot from behind in the middle of the day and then left bleeding in the street as his mother pleaded with the officers to take him to the hospital. One of the officials punched her in the face, and they refused to do anything to help him. Four hours later he was dead.
“There were dozens of witnesses and unlike most cases the police were unable to remove the body from the crime scene,” said Renata Neder, from Amnesty International in Brazil. “Forensics showed that the boy had been shot from above and behind—which is unlikely in a case of self-defense. There was everything there for the police to be held accountable on this occasion, but nothing happened.”
The authorities operating in the favelas are granted impunity by senior officers, the prosecutors and the state government, all of whom choose to ignore the slaying of hundreds of young black men and boys.
Police killings have been steadily increasing in Rio in the last couple of years and they have surged in recent months. In May alone there was a 135% increase, with 84 people killed in the state of Rio.
Summary execution and other police killings are the most egregious way ordinary, poor people have been excluded from the Olympics but there are dozens more ways to keep them out.
Buses serving the poorest communities that were supposed to be improved as part of the games have mysteriously been cut off altogether, making it harder to get to the Olympic sites.
Tickets and merchandise are prohibitively high for people who have average monthly incomes of around $250 and they are being discouraged from leaving the favelas by a huge military presence.
“Who is benefitting from having these major sporting events here? On the one hand, you can see that there are clear direct human rights violations related to hosting the games for example forced evictions, increased police killings, the presence of the military here in the city and on the other hand you will see that there is no legacy,” said Neder.
The Maré where Borges was shot and almost killed has been physically excluded from the Rio skyline by a huge multi-colored wall that prevented Olympic athletes and spectators from even seeing that it existed as they drove into the city from the main airport where it is located.
“They are trying to hide us, and pressure people to stay inside the favelas,” said Borges. “It is a lie.”
Borges has nothing against the Olympic Games but he cannot understand how the state government has twisted its finances in order to shine on the world stage while allowing the city to rot from within. He won’t be watching the Opening Ceremony.
“There is nothing to celebrate. This event is taking place in Rio but we don’t have hospitals, transport, rights, security. I need a wheelchair, I need a bed. They say they don’t have enough money for me but they have a lot of money for this torch going around the city.”
Corruption has long been rife in Brazilian politics—the democratically-elected president Dilma Rouseff is even in the midst of impeachment proceedings during her country’s moment in the sun. Borges has no faith that the money pouring into Rio via global sponsors whose names adorn the stadiums, the shops and awnings dotted all over the city will ever reach the people who need it most.
He said he was ashamed of his country: “A lot of money is coming in, that could be a lot of investment but some son-of-a-bitch is going to take that money away.”