Do you remember your favorite childhood memory?
Can you close your eyes and picture it?
Picture it, and if you can't, then picture mine.
I grew up with my half-brother and my mother on a cul-du-sac in Pennsylvania. My favorite things were ice pops, play stations, and playing batman with Mike Penn. All the boys had skateboards or roller blades, but all I had was a Barbie limousine, so I would stick one foot in the hot tub that was in the back of the limousine and the other small ankle through the sun roof and I skated around on that pink limo until the wheels popped off.
But imagine as I was sitting there contemplated my options, the anguish welling up inside of me because the boys on their skates and bikes were doubling the distance between us, there was a loud pop. And I look up to try to find the back of my brother’s head amongst the distanct forms that were circling the cul du sac, but then there was another pop and then the street lights flickered. A third pop announced the presence of dark 6 dark figures at the entrance of a cul-du-sac. They broke through the line of my brother and his friends as smooth as scabbed elbows cut through a giggling mass of tanned hands linked together in a Red Rover line.
Red Rover Red Rover everyone wearing black come over.
Except we didn’t invite these guests.
They didn’t come to play.
One grabbed my brother by the neck of his shirt causing his body to convulse, arching back as if a demon were about to be exorcised from his body.* Maybe there was a demon in my brother’s eyes because his look made the officer drop him in disgust, sending him head first into the same asphalt that was where our bike tired burnt skid marks.
Behind my brother kids coming home from school scattered in different directions. Backpacks were left forgotten and stray sheets of homework took brief flight into the air before being tramped back down by black boots storming towards us.
A guy my dad always talked to on the way home ran by my left. As he passed, one of the black figures lifted both arms and sent a deafening sound through the night air, splitting my senses in two.
His name was EJ. He was our neighbor's son. I used to have a crush on him. I used to confuse his name with OJ, as in OJ Simpson, who was on trial at the time. The last few times I had seen him, I clammed up, too scared to speak because I might confuse him with a killer.
But I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore because they killed him.
Thes same sound that sent an excruciatingly painful noise ricocheting around my head, sent EJ crumpling to the ground. His bottle of v8 shattered leaving splattered red remnants on the walls car park.
I used to climb the tree next to the car park and lay flat on the roof to hide from my friends. To me, it was the highest and safest place in the world.
It took me a couple years to realize that there were higher and better places in the world to hide.
It took me a couple days of nagging the older boys to realize that Ej didn’t drink v8, that it was his blood, not juice that stained my favorite hiding spot. Now every time I walk by I look at the hole that Ej's bullet carved out in the carpark and think of the night when I came bounding down my stairs in my light blue mermaid pijamas with a coloring book in hand to see show EJ his name, misspelled in blue crayon next to mini mouse.
This never happened to me, but it’s happening right now in the favela I call home. Their childhood memories are being systematically snatched away and replaced by nightmares.
I remember the first time that an 8-year-old, who was walking home to the favela by himself, told me about hopping over puddles of blood on his way to school. He said it like he was talking about baseball statistics. Bare chested, cell phone clipped to baggy pants, key swirling between his fingers, he was only eight, but he was no child.
City of God Favela
They keep telling me it's dangerous. That I shouldn't go there.
So I came to tell him that. I tried to take him home.
But he wouldn't leave, so I'll keep going back, leaving little trails
of bread crumbs, till he can't find a way to get by and you,
you can keep calling them dangerous and leave them to die.
I wonder if he ever spent a summer eating ice pops with his best friend and using cheat codes from the internet to beat his favorite PlayStation games. I wonder if he had ever played on a real soccer team, with real shoes, or if his sports aspirations were limited to deflated balls, guided by bare feet, on crumbling cement courts. I wonder what he wants to be when he grows up or if he even sees growing up as a possibility for his future.
Kids playing with a soccer ball in the Alleys
Today they came at 6 A.M., but a lot of time they come in the afternoon when the streets of the favela are filled with life. When kids are coming home from school. When parents, tired from a long day’s work are hauling bags of groceries up endless flights of stairs. When grandmothers are serving lunch and opening their doors for the uncountable number of cousins and uncles that claim refuge at their dining room tables.
There are 38 supposedly "pacificed" favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
That means they contain police stations but that doesn't mean they have
stopped the violence or the drug trafficking.
You can’t always hear the shots, especially if you live on my side of the neighborhood, but you see the messages. The pictures of armored trucks with ARs protruding from any available opening, missing kids lost on their way home from school, the futile prayers and pictures of white doves asking for peace.
Police have occupied favelas but have done little to foster
community engagement. Police in most communities are very
hostile. Notably they are working in very unfriendly environments
and engaged in urban guerilla warefare, but does that justify
the inhumane practices?
They killed someone on Valentine’s Day in June and that set off two months of incessant shooting.
They shot someone off the side of the mountain and that set off a series of vulgar Youtube videos degrading people from the community.
They blew someone up with a grenade last month, and that, well that just fucked with my mind as I walked through Columbia heights wearing hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes with 1,000s of dollars worth of electronics in my backpack.
It’s hard, as an educated adult, to understand how you can go from sipping coffee and discussing politics in Ipanema to laying on the floor in the dark wishing you had put credit on your phone because they shot out the electricity and you have no means of communication with the outside world.
It’s in that dark, silence, isolated from the world, that hate is born.
Hatred for the police. For the government. For every intruder that comes into your neighborhood and shoots down your dreams, takes pictures of your misery, and tries to use you as a political ploy to get more votes.
It’s hard, to take a kid raised in this situation and try to teach them to dream because when they close their eyes, all they see is nightmares.
It's hard, but we still try.
Find out more about Jiu Jitsu based Social Projects in Rio
*while this is a fictional story about my childhood it is based off real events that I have seen while living in Cantagalo. The most disturbing thing I saw my first month there were 6 armed police officers patrolling the neighborhood yank a kid out of a corner where he was hiding and stick his rifle in his face while barking at him. It was standing two feet behind them watching them shove an automatic weapon into the face of a child that I understood for the first time in my life what it means to embrace the "fuck the police" mentality.
War In Rochina
(From a past post)