This weekend I experienced something that I had never experienced in the States. Fear of police. I'm not ignorant to the fact that for a lot of minorities this is a common experience. But as a white, middle class-ish female, this was new territory for me. It's not like I was physically threatened or in any way purposely intimidated. Back home, two of my friends were police officers. (And we're actually good friends with one here). Once, while picking up some Chinese take-out, an officer let Maicon sit in his car and play with the lights and siren. That's one friendly incident in a lifetime of community outreach and "hey kids, the police are good guys" programs. But in Brazil, the police aren't your buddies. Here, the police have a job to do and don't give a fuck if you like them or not. They don't have time to waste on your perception. But the bigger issue is that corruption is rampant among officers and you, the average Joao, better guard your interaction with every one of them.. just in case.
Which brings us to last Saturday night. Our upstairs tenant is headed to Portugal next month, so she wanted to spend some time with her boyfriend. We have a one car garage, but my husband parks his motorcycle into the enclosed alleyway (for lack of a better word) past the garage and her boyfriend has left his moto there as well. So when she asked me to pull the car out so her boyfriend could bring his moto in, I thought, "No problem." Except that her boyfriend pulled in and left his moto in the garage, blocking my car from entering. I noticed, for the first time, that he was a policeman (the uniform was an obvious giveaway). I had only seen him in regular civilian clothing previous to tonight. I asked if they could pull the moto into the alleyway so that I could bring the car in (note: my husband hates the car being left outside because we live on a busy street and have been keyed before). He waived me off saying, "Oh I'll only be 20 minutes."
This seems like a small issue, right? And in the scheme of life it surely is. But our tenant knows that we prefer the car in the garage and she knew she implied that I would pull the car back in after her boyfriend arrived. There was no "lost in translation" moment about that. Now what was I to do? Argue with this officer that I didn't know? Demand that he bring his moto in or take it outside? They had already ascended the stairs which was some pretty clear body language that he wasn't moving that moto. Instead, I said, "Ok.." and left it alone. Because in that very moment I realized that this guy had the potential to make my life very difficult and very expensive at best. I feared retribution for a perceived slight. And as a foreigner, I live in a legal grey area where I'm unprotected by US laws and only partially protected by Brazilian laws. I don't have the full rights of a citizen, nor do I understand the system in any way that would give me confidence to stand up to this officer. His girlfriend was soon leaving, so there's no motivation on his part to keep things civil if I offend him.
I thought to myself, "Now I can leave the car outside and deal with my husband's pissy attitude about it or I can tell this officer to move his moto and potentially face retaliation." Damned if I do. There is a very subtle understanding that opposing officers here is not a good idea. I don't know this guy. I don't know what his reaction will be. I'm a strong-willed, independent, outspoken American woman, but I was silenced by fear. I was reduced to a timid, subservient yes-man. That's how corruption and fear work. I didn't even have to be threatened. The fear of being threatened (justified by a centuries-long history of corruption culture) was a threat in and of itself. Of course the type of police corruption the average Joao is more likely to encounter is a simple infraction (usually vehicular) that can magically disappear with a little dinheiro. But I knew this guy had the plate numbers to our car and motorcycle and quickly imagined being pulled over every time I left the house. And since I'm driving without a license, that's something I'd like to avoid. But that's a corruption story for another day.