Interview with Preta Ferreira, Political Prisoner

“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 am supposed to play: doing dishes, cooking food. And that’s not my role.”

Brazil’s 1988 Constitution has some of the world’s most progressive language in terms of housing rights. The result of people’s petitions which gathered over 1 million signatures at the time, articles 182 and 183 declare dignified housing ownership as a basic human right which has to be prioritized over the profit motive. What this means in practical terms, as dictated by the 2001 Statute of the Cities which regulates these articles, is that any Brazilian citizen who does not own property has the legal right to occupy abandoned buildings in which landlords owe a certain amount of back taxes. This, in turn, criminalizes the traditional slum lord tactic of land banking, which destroyed inner city neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis during the 1960s and 1970s. According to the law, when an empty, tax-scofflaw building is occupied, the onus falls on the city government to dissapropriate it from its owner by paying market rate, minus back taxes owed, minus interest, minus a 50% fine on back taxes, and convert it into ownership based social housing. Despite corrupt local judiciaries and crooked city politicians, who have found all kinds of  ways to block this process from playing out, hundreds of apartment buildings nationwide have been converted to social housing through the legally guaranteed right to squat stipulated in the Brazilian Constitution.

As mayor of São Paulo, former reality show star João Doria waged a war against homeless people, ordering police to steal their blankets in winter, and ordering forced evictions of squatters. Now in control of the state military police apparatus as Governor, he has aligned himself with neofascist President Bolsonaro’s purge of social movements and leftist activists. On June 24th, a politically aligned local judge issued arrest warrants for 13 housing movement leaders in downtown São Paulo. Jacine Ferreira da Silva, known as “Preta” (Black woman) Ferreira, has been held behind bars ever since, with no material evidence yet presented linking her to any crime. The charges are that, in engaging in the standard practice of charging a low condominium fee of $50/month to residents – 20 times lower than average rent prices in downtown São Paulo – her social movement committed extortion. The following interview was conducted inside the Santana women’s prison, by a team of journalists from Brasil do Fato.  – Brian Mier

Interview with Preta Ferreira, Political Prisoner

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 squats in downtown São Paulo.

The investigation against the housing activist is entirely based on one anonymous letter and developed out of an 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 social movement leaders after a local judge ordered their arrest.

“I ask the authorities who put me here: Where is the evidence?” she told Brasil do Fato. What was the extortion? This arrest is politically motivated. Society can see what is happening.”

Ferreira explains that, like in the case of most of the nearly 70 occupied buildings in central São Paulo, squatters agree to pitch in R$200 (US$50) a month to help keep the property up to minimum safety and hygiene standards. 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 and prevents tragedies from happening, such as the fire which took place last year, in which a building [which was not managed by any of the traditional squatters movements but by a local entrepreneur] caught fire in downtown São Paulo and collapsed, killing dozens of people.

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

Preta, who is also an advertising professional and cultural producer, believes that the goal of the authorities arresting her is to advance in the criminalization of social movements, which are one of the categories of society that President Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to purge. “Our incarceration and all this persecution against the housing movements 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 them.”

During the interview, which took place at the Santana Women’s Prison, Preta spoke about her daily routine living alongside 2,056 other inmates. “Just as I’m innocent, there are other women here, most of whom who are black, who have also been unfairly incarcerated. They are throwing us into a slave ship.”

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 nickname – which means “black woman” – to describe a social situation that affects tens of thousands of black women in Brazil.

The activist granted the interview to Brasil de Fato on Sep. 4, on her 72nd day of incarceration.

Brasil de Fato: What are 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 in 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. It’s 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 other 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 maintenance fee. No one cleans and maintains the building for free.

How can you extort someone who knows that they are entering a place that they have to pay to help keep up? 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 cleaning 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’s organization, but I never set foot in there. I had never heard of the so-called 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 for rent? That’s not rent, it’s part of a budget that is for their benifit. 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 lumped all the social movements together 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 respond 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 social 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 am supposed to play: doing dishes, cooking food. And that’s not my role.

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 warned us about this a long time ago. And now they are doing what they said they would do.

Our incarceration and all this persecution 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 Governor 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 your experience 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 as I’m innocent, there are other women, mostly black, who have been unfairly incarcerated here. 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 am now, that is 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 descendants of 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 trials. This is why the campaign is not just to “Free Preta.” It’s to “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 the social movements, that are campaigning for your freedom. How can this mobilization help you?

I didn’t expect this 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 in me, 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.

This 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 through this ordeal?

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 human beings. 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

Additional edits and added context by Brian Mier

This article was adapted, through the addition of an introduction contextualizing the issue for an international audience, from an interview which appeared in Brasil de Fato, that can be seen in it’s original format here.