The Cat, the Rooster and the Story

Image: Szalbocs Toth
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The Cat, the Rooster and the Story

By TALES FONTANA SIQUEIRA CUNHA*

Burning monuments illuminate or erase our memory?

“So that's how you create a single story: show a people as one thing, as just one thing, over and over again, and that's what they'll become. It's impossible to talk about a single story without talking about power [...] Power is the ability to not only tell the story of another person, but to make that person's definitive story” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

On the 24th of July, after images of the statue of the bandeirante Borba Gato, located on Avenida Santo Amaro, burning in flames went viral on the internet, the social networks of some of the people of São Paulo found themselves grappling with the question that gives the subtitle to the text. Next to the statue, a banner was erected which read: “Peripheral revolution – the favela will go down and it will not be carnival”. On the same day, demonstrations were scheduled throughout the country “in defense of life” and against President Jair Bolsonaro. Was the fire a legitimate form of protest or an authoritarian form of erasing history? What is the limit for this type of intervention?

A first aspect that must be taken into account in this discussion is the difference between what is State policy and what is revolt by the population against that same State. Undoubtedly, burning statues as a state policy is an authoritarian practice that dates back to totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, as part of a revolt against established powers, it is a political practice that can both go back to experiences of domination and the violent erasure of history – the case of the destruction in 1996 of Oscar Niemeyer’s monument in honor of the victims of the Eldorado dos Carajás in Marabá, Pará, at the behest of local landowners – as well as experiences commonly referred to as liberating and democratic, such as the North American Independence. On that occasion, settlers tore down and burned numerous symbols associated with Great Britain and its detested king, including statues. Therefore, it is a resource that can be mobilized by different fields of the political spectrum, such as marches and rallies, with the difference of explicitly confronting the legal order.

“Toppling the Statue of King George III”, painting by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel from 1859 illustrates the overthrow of the monument in New York in 1776. The statue was melted down and its lead used for the production of bullets.

Part of the objections raised, even by people sympathetic to the anti-racist struggle, was in the sense of the question: “if it were to be like this, we would have to burn thousands of monuments. Is this really what we want?” Questions like this would make sense if addressed to State policies: they are guided by objective metrics and criteria, allowing consistency and transparency to be demanded. On the other hand, the protests do not respond to this logic. It is worth saying: the group of rebels does not have the authority to remove the statue, which remains today where it always was. The intervention, more than anything else, had an imagery character.

Another difference between protests and state policies refers to the depth of necessary prior studies. Going deeper into Borba Gato's biography and identifying how and to what extent he was linked to the massacre of indigenous peoples is something relevant for memory policies. In a protest situation, the mere existence of the bond may be sufficient. In the case of North American Independence, the biography of the honorees, if virtuous, did not redeem their statues or the British crown. Likewise, at the time the monument was set on fire, Borba Gato's eventual improvements to his community in Santo Amaro spoke less than the historical movement to which he ended up associated and which earned him a captive place in the pantheon of São Paulo historiography. What protests seek is to communicate dissatisfaction using the available means. It is worth remembering that, within a democracy, these means can always be questioned, but, in a regime of permanent fiscal austerity, crossing your arms claiming to be “against destruction” because you are “in favor of building new ones” can be quite comfortable.

Therefore, it is worth asking: what would be an adequate State policy for this type of situation? In São Paulo, it is possible to list some initiatives, such as the Law Project (PL 404) presented in 2020 by Councilor Érica Malunguinho (PSOL), aiming at transferring to state museums monuments that pay homage to slaveholders or events linked to slave practices. Another example is the approval, in 2013, of the legal provision for the possibility of changing the names of public places when referring to authorities that have committed crimes against humanity or serious violations of human rights. However, in the case of PL 404, the project did not succeed, with Condephaat (Council for the Defense of Historical, Archaeological, Artistic and Tourist Heritage) having approved a contrary motion. In the second case, resistance has hindered its implementation. A good example is the renaming of the Costa e Silva, the “Minhocão” elevated road, to João Goulart, proposed by councilor Eliseu Gabriel (PSB), in 2014, which took 2 years to be approved.

Contrary to the previously mentioned good practices, the construction of monuments and the naming of public places as a tribute to characters such as the bandeirantes, added to the elaboration of a laudatory historiography that reserves for the bandeirantes the role of heroes and “founding fathers” of São Paulo, makes them an integral part of our daily lives, in addition to encouraging the development of positive affection by the population towards this type of character in our history, even those who descend from the victims of the historical movements carried out by the honorees.

The very construction of statues is part of the articulation of a discourse about these figures. The monument in honor of Borba Gato was inaugurated in 1963, more than two centuries after his death. On the other hand, other dimensions of our culture are relegated to historical erasure. Not by chance, the frequent arson in umbanda and candomblé terreiros are less reported and the object of little indignation, if compared to the burning of the bandeirante statue. Thus, it can be said that the responses that the Brazilian State delivers as public policies are insufficient. It would be up to him to do a qualified job in terms of recognizing memory, truth, justice, education and repair, however, his omission ends up blocking a deeper debate about our history and those honored. Less than addressing a past, trying to “pass the rubber” in it, protests like the ones we saw are directed to a present that avoids dealing with traumas, allowing them to be reproduced repeatedly.

Furthermore, monuments are not untouchable. In her project “Memory of Amnesia”, visual artist and professor at FAU-USP Giselle Beiguelman traced the “nomadic” itinerary of ten monuments in São Paulo that today, along with countless others, are abandoned in municipal warehouses. Over a century, the statues occupied different locations in the city, being relocated for various reasons ranging from urban requalifications to ideological disagreements with new governments.

The main form of dilapidation of Brazilian cultural heritage is abandonment. An example of this is the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro: the former official residence of the Emperor caught fire in 2018 due to the poor quality of its electrical installations, losing 85% of its historical and scientific collection built over two centuries. The museum, which should receive an annual transfer of 550 reais, had been having its resources contingency since 2014. In the year of the fire, it had received only 33 reais. Thus, in addition to new ideas, resources must be allocated.

Beyond cultural heritage: the anti-racist struggle and the right to the city

In May last year, a wave of protests swept the United States after the American George Floyd, 46, died of asphyxiation during a police approach that, according to the American police, was motivated by the alleged use of a $ 20 bill. counterfeit for buying cigarettes in a supermarket. In the self-proclaimed “greatest democracy in the world”, the images of a white guard kneeling on the neck of the black man, lying down, handcuffed and not resisting the approach, for almost 9 minutes, added to the pleas for the executioner to stop, including the man himself George before losing consciousness, rotated the Planet and ignited anti-racist protests in more than 60 countries, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially peaceful, the protests turned violent, resulting in clashes with the police, depredations of police stations, vehicles and the removal/depredation of statues of figures linked to authoritarian periods and slavery. The most emblematic example happened in the case of the city of Bristol, in England, where the indignant population knocked down and threw in a lake the bronze statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century trafficker, who profited from the commercial negotiation of at least 80 thousand people enslaved from Africa to the Caribbean. It can be argued that the events took place “on the spur of the moment” and not on purpose, as in the case of the Borba Gato statue. However, we know that around here the absence of “triggers” is due less to the non-existence of George Floyds than to the triviality with which these episodes are treated in Brazil.

In May of this year, 29 young people were murdered by the military police in the Jacarezinho favela, in Rio de Janeiro, without any responsibility being attributed to the command of the operation, which was even hailed by the president. The death of innocent people and children in police raids in popular territories, as in the case of interior designer and Farm store clerk, Kathlen Romeu, 24 years old and 14 weeks pregnant, are routine events that illustrate what the black movement denounces as being a permanent genocide conducted through the public security policy of the State.

In the same vein, in June of this year, the Constitution and Justice Commission of the Chamber of Deputies approved Bill 490, which creates restrictions on the demarcation of indigenous lands and opens up space for water, energy, mining, prospecting and expansion of the road network in these territories, if the government is interested, in addition to releasing the entry and permanence of the Armed Forces and Federal Police, without the need to consult the indigenous nations that inhabit there. It is worth remembering that we live in a context of vertiginous growth in violence against these peoples. The current government took advantage of the pandemic context to “pass the cattle” also in dismantling protective frameworks for indigenous peoples, as stated by the then Secretary of the Environment, Ricardo Salles. That is, another fact that could be a possible trigger for demonstrations is seen as something normalized.

The reality is that these events are taken for granted because they are viscerally intertwined with our historical legacy. Brazil It was the last country in the West to abolish slavery., having received between 38% and 44% of the absolute number of Africans forced to leave the African continent, as historian Lilia Schwarz recalls. The same goes for indigenous peoples, the main victims of bandeirismo, enslaved during the process of bandeirante territorial exploration in search of mineral wealth. Historical injustices are not only in the past, but continue to haunt part of the population in the most diverse ways and populate the landscape of our cities in the form of tributes to the executioners of yesteryear.

Returning to the dichotomy between popular revolt and State policy, we can think of horizons for the Brazilian heritage dilemma. In the aforementioned case of Bristol, the response of the local government was to recover the damaged monument, take it to a museum and open the discussion as to its fate. A public petition was created and already has thousands of signatures. At the moment, the "favorite" to replace him is Paul Stephenson, a black factory worker who led, in 1963, a boycott of the city's bus company to force it to end its racist policies to hire workers.

In the current context, graffiti honoring Marielle Franco, memorials to cyclists and pedestrians victimized by traffic and light projections on the facades of buildings began to compose the urban landscape, creating informal monuments and passengers that re-signify the city and figure its latent disputes. Hence the sense of declaration of the lawyer and philosopher Silvio Almeida, when asked about the topic on the Roda Viva program, in June 2020, pointing out that: “Historical revisionism is trying to impede the flow of history. (…) The public space, in an anti-racist struggle, has to be reconfigured. History is conflict. Building a statue is a political act, just as removing a statue is also a political act.” Hence also the meaning of the flag extended next to the burning statue, referring to carnival and the possibility of other forms of occupation of urban space that subvert those enshrined as normal.

Memorial in honor of cycle activist Marina Harkot. Photo: Deborah Ungaretti

The criminalization of protest: restricted citizenship in a slave society

Either through the market or through the State, the current scenario lacks any prospect of social inclusion. The set of global transformations brought about in the midst of the Third Industrial Revolution (Technical-Scientific-Information), the growing deindustrialization of the country and the recently approved neoliberal reforms seem to impose limits on social integration from the world of work. How is it possible to survive in an economy that is increasingly antisocial and marked by exclusion? And how can we combat this exclusion? The absence of a clear project that points out horizons for society imprisons the underprivileged between the legacies of the past, the barbarism of the present and the lack of promises for the future. You don't need a crystal ball to know that new revolts will arise. Unlike the last century, in which factories were the privileged stage for protest movements, such as strikes, in this century the city itself is once again the locus of these disputes, with new characters taking the lead in their agonistic moments. An example of this was the unusual character that emerged in the debate about the burning of the Borba Gato statue: the founder of the collective “Entregadores Antifascistas”, Paulo Roberto da Silva Lima, the “Galo”.

After being pointed out by the São Paulo police as one of those responsible for the arson act, Galo took responsibility for the action. Along with organized fans, and without initially counting on the support of parties, the collective “Deliverers Antifascists” was responsible for organizing, in the wake of protests in the United States, the first acts against the president during the pandemic, in June of last year. , when the country had just over 30 deaths from the new virus. Since then, more than half a million people have died in the country.

The Justice of the State of São Paulo decreed the preventive detention of Galo and his wife, Géssica. The decision was made after the delivery man collaborated with the Civil Police, which carried out a search and seizure without a court order at his residence, and after having voluntarily presented himself at the 11th Police District of Santo Amaro to provide clarification. The measure, unjustified in light of Galo's behavior and unjustifiable in the case of Géssica, who was not even present at the time of the protest, reveals the structural limits to the full exercise of citizenship in a society with a slave heritage. The State, which should mediate conflicts, prefers to suppress them through its criminal arm. Seen as the incarnation of a subversive and counter-hegemonic project to dispute public space, the couple – who have a three-year-old daughter – were not arrested preventively for their conduct, but for what they symbolize. State policies, especially those that curtail civil liberties, cannot afford this kind of luxury. Genuine liberals, if there are any here, should get goosebumps.

In a note released to the press, Galo announced that “for those who say that we need to go through democratic means, the purpose of the act was to open the debate”. In line with Galo's note, we also say here that the objective of this text is to continue the debate, pointing out possible directions to be followed, without intending to exhaust such a complex subject.

The fire on the 24th was not the first “direct action” suffered by the monument on Avenida Santo Amaro. In 2016, the statue, along with the Monument to the Flags, in Ibirapuera, woke up covered in paint. The public response was the installation of a 24-hour watch on the statues, which did not prevent the protesters from acting last Saturday. For public safety policies, resources are never lacking. A good path, if we want monuments like these not to have a similar fate to the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a tycoon directly linked to colonialism and racism, at the University of Cape, which was removed after being covered with manure and garbage bags by students , is to charge the public power to take more effusive measures in order to discuss the history and meaning that we understand today as cultural heritage. It is worth mentioning that, although it represents a good start, a cultural heritage policy that is more sensitive to the impasses of our history will not be enough to solve the dilemmas of Brazilian society.

This resolution will only take place based on the understanding that peripheral lives matter and that the criminalization of protests and demonstrators is not a solution, but part of the problem. In a country where indigenous peoples and blacks have been exterminated for centuries and which already counts – it never hurts to repeat – with more than five hundred thousand deaths due to the careless and criminal conduct of its head of state in the face of the pandemic, building this understanding is not a task. few. If we don't, we'll continue the tug of war.

* Tales Fontana Siqueira Cunha is a doctoral candidate in Architecture and Urbanism at FAU-USP.

Fall of the Vendôme column during the Paris Commune, May 1871. Source: National Gallery of Victoria.

 

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