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“Where is Justice in Brazil?” housing activist asks after more than 70 days in prison

Social movement leader told Brasil de Fato that her arrest is an attempt to criminalize housing struggle

Leia em português | Leer en español | Brasil de Fato | São Paulo

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Housing activist Preta Ferreira argues that attacks against people’s movement aim to delegitimize the struggle for housing in São Paulo / Marcelo Cruz

“I was arrested for fighting injustice. It’s in my veins. Now I have to face it head-on every day.” That’s how Jacine Ferreira da Silva, also known as Preta Ferreira, defines what she feels after more than 70 days in prison.

A leader of São Paulo’s housing movement, Preta Ferreira is being held at the Santana Women’s Prison, accused of extortion and criminal association, for allegedly coercing residents into paying fees to live in occupied properties in downtown São Paulo.

She granted an exclusive interview to Brasil de Fato in which she says how she was called to testify and never came back home.

The investigation against the housing activist is based on an anonymous letter and was a development of the investigation about a building fire case in downtown São Paulo in May 2018. Preta Ferreira, who is a coordinator of the Homeless Movement of Downtown São Paulo (MSTC), was arrested with three other leaders of social movements. A court ordered the arrest of thirteen activists.

Preta Ferreira told Brasil de Fato that she is innocent and exposed the fact that there is no evidence against her. “I ask the authorities who put me here: Where is the evidence? What was the extortion? This arrest is politically motivated. Society can see what is happening.”

The activist says that there is a deal with residents who live in occupied buildings so that everyone pitches in with R$200 (US$50) a month to help maintain the building. This is the agreement – which the investigators are treating as a case of “extortion” racket – that helps the community in terms of security and cleaning, for example, and prevents new tragedies from happening, like what happened last year when the building that caught fire in downtown São Paulo collapsed.

In August, Carmen Ferreira, an MSTC leader and Preta’s mother, was found not guilty by a unanimous jury in a case in which she was accused of similar crimes as her daughter.

Preta, who is also an advertising professional and cultural producer, believes that the goal of the authorities by prosecuting her is to criminalize people’s movements. “Our incarceration and all this persecution against the housing movement is part of a threat, a plan to stop housing movements. They lock up the leaders, frighten those who don’t have a house to live in, and that’s how they crush it.”

During the interview, which took place at the Santana Women’s Prison, Preta spoke about her routine where she is being held with 2,056 inmates. “Just like I’m innocent, there are other women, mostly black, who have been unfairly incarcerated. They are throwing us on a slave ship,” she adds.

About the campaign people’s movements are conducting to demand her immediate release, Preta reiterates that the struggle is not just about her. “It’s not just Free Preta. It’s Free Pretas,” using her epithet – which means “black woman” – to describe a social situation that affects thousands of black women in Brazil.

The activist granted the interview to Brasil de Fato on Sep. 4, when she had been held for 72 days. Read the highlights of our talk below.

Brasil de Fato: What are the issues with the charges against you?

Preta Ferreira: The truth is that this arrest is completely unlawful. I was called to testify at the police station, there was no arrest warrant. I was called to testify on June 24th, and I’ve been imprisoned ever since. So I ask the authorities, who put me here: Where is the evidence? What was the extortion? We know very well I’m not in prison for extortion. I didn’t commit any crime. That is a lie and they know it.

We’re living a moment in the country where everyone knows political persecution is real. My arrest is politically motivated. I’m not the only one who says that. Society can see what is happening. Me and others [housing activists] are political prisoners. There is no evidence against us.

Regarding the extortion charges, can you explain how the organization of occupied buildings actually works?

No one lives for free. When we occupy a building, it doesn’t have electricity, water, elevator, maintenance, fire extinguishers, anything. The government doesn’t help at all. How are we able to maintain this building?

When a person joins the movement, they sign our bylaws, and it’s all there, how the movement works, and that there is a R$200 contribution fee. No one works for free.

How can you extort someone who knows that they are joining a place that they have to pay? There is no extortion racket when people are aware of the duties they have to meet towards the movement. The movement is based on self-management. There is no one to help it. We don’t get any kind of help from the government. In order to be self-managed, the residents have to pay for everything themselves – after all, they live there. The security is for them, the protection is for them. There is no extortion racket when people know what they have to pay.

And it’s actually a way to prevent cases like the Wilson Paes de Almeida [building that collapsed after a fire in downtown São Paulo] from happening. Incidentally, I’m being accused of being part of that building [organization], but I never set foot in there. I don’t know the movement that occupied it.

The MSTC has always worked with the government. How could we carry out the improvements the city required? It’s the residents who pay for them, that’s what’s fair. No one lives for free.

And who pays a R$200 rent [US$50 a month]? That’s not rent, it’s part of a budget that is for themselves. For the improvements carried out in the facilities where they live. It’s not for my house. It’s for them.

The accusation is based on an anonymous letter.

Actually, this process is so confusing. They’ve funnelled all movements as if they were all the same, but they are not. Yes, there are ethical movements and unethical movements, but I work with the Homeless Movement of Downtown São Paulo [MSTC], an ethical movement that works with the government.

You have to break things down. You can’t answer for what others are doing. I answer for my actions and my words. I’m responsible for what I say and what I do. The MSTC has nothing to do with these other movements. They’re different movements.

Do you believe that being a black female activist has had an impact on this process?

I was born in this sexist, racist, oppressive republic. The fact that I am a black woman and influence other people to demand their constitutional rights is outrageous to them. Who is going to accept that? They certainly are not.

They chose the role I have to play: doing dishes, cooking food. And that’s not my role.

Preta Ferreira granted an interview at one of the rooms of the Santana Women’s Prison | Photo: Marcelo Cruz

Do you think there is a growing attempt to criminalize people’s movements under [São Paulo governor] João Doria and under [president] Jair Bolsonaro?

The criminalization of social movements has always been around, but now it’s back and it’s stronger. They have warned about this a long time ago. And now they are doing what they said they would do.

Our incarceration and all this persecution against the housing movement is part of a threat, a plan to stop housing movements. They lock up the leaders, frighten those who don’t have a house to live in, and that’s how they crush it. The real criminals are out there wearing white collars.

I’m not the one who is not fulfilling my constitutional duty. They are the ones doing that – and they’ve been put in office to do exactly that.

As there is a threat against housing movements, which demand their constitutional rights – and that is not a crime –, they want to crush them. If they succeed, there will be no one to expose that they are not enforcing these rights.

After Doria took office, there has been a growing number of killings by the military police and reports of brutal episodes against homeless people, for example. Do you think there is actually a social cleansing policy in effect in the state of São Paulo?

Have you ever heard of genocide? These are some of the several forms of committing genocide against black and poor people. This is the way to exterminate the population. They changed the name from slavery to genocide. This is contemporary slavery. It’s genocide “without masks,” that’s how I call it.

All these things you mentioned have always been around, but it’s increasing because it’s legal now.

You’ve been in prison for more than two months now. What can you say about what you’ve been experiencing here?

What I can say is that I was incarcerated for fighting injustice. I’ve always fought injustice, ever since I was a kid. It’s in my veins. Now I have to face it head-on every day.

Just like I’m innocent, there are other women, mostly black, who have been unfairly incarcerated. It’s a slave ship. They are throwing us on a slave ship.

What did you find here at the Santana Women’s Prison? What’s your day like in here?

It’s ok in here for me. It’s not where I wanted to be. I’m forced to be here, because they threw me in here. It’s the place I’m now, that’s my temporary reality.

I’m not a prisoner, I’m in prison. And since this is the place I’m in temporarily, I have to coexist with everyone. And that’s not only about talking, but also listening to other people too. It’s a place where you have to listen.

I should not be here as just another inmate. We are comrades. We help each other. That’s how I see it. I don’t see myself as better than anyone or anyone as better than anyone else. Not just in here, but out there as well: we are all equals. If I’m in this place, we have to try to understand and help each other.

I’ve always stood up for all women. Black, white, indigenous, quilombola [resident of quilombos, settlements set up in Brazil’s rural areas, mostly by escaped enslaved people of African descent] women. Women have to stand up for women.

Do you hear a lot of stories of injustice here?

Injustice is very common because most inmates that are here are victims of injustice, of forged [charges], fraudulent processes. [The campaign] It’s not just “Free Preta.” It’s “Free Pretas,” free women. There is no justice in Brazil.

In my case, I say that every day that I spend here is one less day [that I’ll be here]. They will not hold me in here forever. One day, I’ll be out of here.

My hope is to be hopeful. Hope doesn’t die in me. Regardless of what they accuse me of, regardless of what the judge or prosecutor may say. I know that I am innocent and that I will not be here forever.

If I’m here as a political prisoner, that means I’m upsetting them. I’m upsetting those who hold power and do nothing. I’m not upsetting them by being someone who conveys danger to society, but it’s actually the opposite. Influencing other people to study, to fight for their rights, to know they have rights, that’s what bothers them.

Yes, I’m a political prisoner. I’m showing people that rights should prevail and should be granted by the powers that be. Are the rich supposed to get the meat and the poor, the bones? That can’t be right. They should be equally shared. That’s the policy that should be in place.

You have been receiving a lot of support from people’s movements, who are campaigning for your freedom. How can this mobilization help you?

I didn’t expect that at all. I thought I was just the leader of a housing movement, nothing more. But I realized I’m not just that. There are other women who see themselves, other black women who had no hope, and now they do. That was very comforting for me. I didn’t think the country would speak up for me. There is a huge clamor in society. If I were a danger to society, there wouldn’t be such a clamor.

That gives me strength and hope. I want them to know that I’m strong because of them. Knowing that there are people out there who believe in my innocence gives me so much strength. For them, I will leave this place with my head held high, the same way I walked in. A lot of people need and depend on me. They are giving me strength.

What have you learned with all this process?

What this process has taught me as a person, a black woman, an activist, and poor person is that I cannot stop. It taught me that I must go on.

In a way, I work with love. I have faith in humanity, in people. This side has love, their side doesn’t. That ends up impacting it even more.

I haven’t lost my essence in here, I haven’t lost the love I carry in my heart. I haven’t stopped believing in the human being. I haven’t lost my joy. Ever. They can throw me in any prison. But I’ll carry on.

Edition: Daniel Giovanaz | Translated by Aline Scátola