Thursday, May 7, 2015

In honor of a brief friendship

The other day I found out a friend of mine was murdered in Rio. For privacy's sake, I'll call him "Miguel". Miguel was an officer in the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in Rio, so I don't know if "murdered" is the right term, but he died on the job in a rather violent manner - shot about 20 times on his way home - so it was pretty intense to say the least. 

For those unfamiliar with the term "UPP", it basically refers to these police units that have been placed in favela communities throughout Rio with the objective of "pacifying" areas that were previously ran by drug factions. The official mission statement is to make these areas "safer" for its residents, though plenty of criticism surrounding the operation has arisen since its initiation. The first is the fact that the Brazilian government only began implementing the program for the international mega events and its true purpose is to more or less make tourists feel safer during their visit. The second is police brutality against community members. I work closely with kids in a couple of favelas, so my initial reaction, to put things mildly, was very much on the side of "Fuck the UPP". It wasn't until I met Miguel that my views began to change.

I'm not going to pretend Miguel and I were good friends. We met face-to-face maybe two times and spoke only a few more times after that over Facebook. It was more what our friendship represented in my life that meant something. He had a surprisingly gentle demeanor for someone that was part of a notoriously "ruthless" police force and I really couldn't imagine him committing any sort of brutal acts against anyone. At least from our interactions, Miguel believed in and did treat people fairly, and I'd like to think that he maintained an integrity for justice within his working life. To me, he just seemed like a normal guy who wanted normal things in life - a family, a job, and some semblance of peace. His former fiancee (my friend and the way I know Miguel), wrote in the email delivering the news that he planned on soon leaving the police force, and they were processing the marriage paperwork for him to come live in the United States, which I guess makes this whole thing more tragic. Granted, there could totally be this aggressive, asshole side of him that I never saw, but I can say that what I did see of him was genuine, and that at the very least, it was part of who he was.

Miguel and I never discussed our political beliefs, but we would talk at length about jiu-jitsu. He told me a number of times about how he wanted to begin training, and I matched that number in urging him to train with me at the dojo. The problem was that I trained in the Centro district and he lived and worked in the Ilha Do Govenador. Anyone familiar with Rio territory will tell you that with the weekday traffic, those two neighborhoods are virtually worlds apart, and jiu-jitsu, no matter how great the academy, is hard a sell to justify navigating that journey.

Then one day after training a teammate of mine came up and randomly said to me: 

"Dude, you have to come train with us on the Ilha Do Govenador on Saturdays!" 

"There's a Gracie Humaitá academy there?!"

"Hell yeah there is!"

The conversation really started and ended, just like that. To this day I have no idea why that guy came up and said that to me, but I do remember going home really excited that day, immediately telling Miguel about what had happened in probably way too much detail, attributing the entire interaction to some kind of divine inspiration. He laughed at the notion, but was happy to see the possibilities opening up. I'd like to imagine both of us smiling behind the computer screens, at least I know I was. I told him it was a sign that he should start training and how one day we'd roll together on Saturdays. I'd envision finishing a sparring round with him, shaking his hand and saying something like, "You know, it's really cool that we know each other." I was so sure that it was going to happen one day, but I guess now, maybe not so much.

The thing that hits me most about my friendship with Miguel is that he made me rethink my views on the world, not by argument or by imposition, but just by being who he was. Knowing Miguel made me realize that beyond all the political ideologies or the various "isms" in which we assign our identities, that at the end of the day, it is the people that matter. It's not about how many statistics you can quote about injustice, or the level of complexity in which you've mapped out the current state of the human design; it's about how you treat people, period. I mean I totally get and respect the representation of some dedicating their life to fighting some form of injustice, but if that journey turns them into an angry and hateful person, then they've lost sight of the whole thing. That is, at least, the banner that I wave.

It meant a lot to me to be able to befriend someone like Miguel. It showed me that no matter how large of an ideological chasm that might exist between two people, there is always hope to find some medium to understand one another. I guess it just hurts to know that he's no longer around, and I am very sad that we will no longer be able to continue our friendship.

Rest in Peace, my friend. 

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