Paulistanos don’t give a damn about the crack issue

Three days into the New Year, state and city governments and the military police in São Paulo occupied the area known as “Cracolândia” (crackland). Today, just over three weeks after the operation began, the state secretary of justice Eloisa Arruda stated that the crackland “no longer exists.”

The area around the Júlio Prestes station has concentrated large numbers of crack users and it has been drug traffic and prostitution central for quite a few years. Some sources suggest that at the times when dealing activity was more intense, there were as many as 2,000 users gathered around that specific area every day, many of them children.

In order to revitalise this degraded area of São Paulo, the Nova Luz initiative was created in 2004. To make strides on the project, mayor Gilberto Kassab and governor Geraldo Alckmin supported the clean-up operation that has so far arrested about 200 people. The crack users have mostly been dispersed and moved to other parts of the city.

At the time the operation started, the operation was heavily criticised due to the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets and “excesses” in terms of the handling of the crack users. This prompted a Facebook-organised BBQ in the region to protest against the police action.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately and have talked about it with quite a few people. I have created a blog with the purpose of gathering suggestions of normal civilians like me about what can be done to improve the situation. Call me naive, but I believed that the people who I have been talking to for months (many of them are Twitter “celebrities” here in Brazil) would want to act on this for the greater good, volunteer, do something.

Pretty much along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of slacktivism, it turned out that some people were happy to support the need for action in Cracolândia in theory, but ended up doing little or nothing concrete about that cause.

Let’s face it. People have their own problems, own jobs and lives to get on with. No one who gets out of bed in the morning and work all day to earn a living -from the multinational manager who earns several thousand reais a month to the modestly-paid manicure – has any sympathy for drug addicts at all.

Evidence of this is the BBQ mentioned above, for which more than 4,000 people said they would attend and only 200 turned up on the day, many of them journalists and bloggers who do not have the guts to walk around there in a normal day.

The reality is that the government does what most people want, and the vast majority does not give a damn. And in an election year, they will not lose a single vote over this – they will do whatever it takes to boot the junkies out of the streets. To God knows where, because the government or the police haven’t quite figured that one out.

People don’t care, also because only a small amount of people are directly affected by the presence of the druggies. The middle classes do not even dare going to the Cracolândia, so it is none of their business, as far as they are concerned. Will these people  start to care when crack-crazed zombies start hanging around their leafy neighbourhoods?

At the same time, though extra funding has been announced to treat these people, it is probably right at the bottom of the list of priorities for the health secretary. There are thousands of people waiting for cancer treatment in public hospitals in São Paulo for example, and many die waiting.

Let’s be clear about something: I do not agree at all with the use of violence or even compulsory treatment – yes they are addicts but they are still individuals who deserve and should be treated with respect and can make their individual choices, even though they are bad choices such as smoking crack. And I also believe that these people have a condition that needs to be properly treated.

But the thing is, the government has its attention elsewhere, as well as other priorities. Even the health and rehab centres we have at present allow people to get clean clothes, a shower, some food and off they go to the streets again. So what’s the point of quitting the addiction anyway?

What’s left for these downtrodden people, you may ask? Charity. But these charities need to come up with a more holistic approach. Maybe the way the government could help is by setting up partnerships with these charities and put a system in place that gets these people out of addiction and into a job. Perhaps a scheme that would give these people community work as long as they are part of a rehab scheme. Social exclusion is clearly not the way to go.

Before becoming a crack-head, you become desperate, deprived of hope, perspective, opportunities, information. And because these many other fundamental issues are not being tackled, the São Paulo crackland will continue to exist, not only in the city centre, but everyone’s doorstep. And what can we do, who is going to help us? Help them?

If anyone reading this blog knows of, or has experience with programmes elsewhere that have achieved some success in getting heavy drug users out of addiction and back into normal lives, I would like to know.

Image: Marco Gomes (CC)

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