Book review: The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil

reviewed by Luisa G Melo

20 Apr 2022, 9:11 a.m.
Luisa G Melo

The Anti-Black City book cover

The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil

By Jaime Amparo Alves and reviewed by Luisa G Melo

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018; 334 pp.: ISBN 978-1-5179-0156-1, US$27 (pbk)


The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil is a valuable resource to think critically about the struggle of marginalised people to subvert the Brazilian racial-colonial order. Looking at the current largest African Diasporic population in the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, Alves’ book is a current and necessary analysis of the impoverished black population in Brazil. Nascimento (2021) claimed that Brazil’s history needs to be written by black hands, and The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil makes an essential contribution to writing this history from an overlooked perspective.

Jaime Amparo Alves argues that urban space in Brazil is racially produced, and that police terror represents the hands of the state which traces the boundaries of who belongs to the black necropolis. Brazil is a black country embedded in the fake discourse of ‘racial democracy’ where scholars have traditionally avoided addressing race in the social science field. Alves’ ethnography demonstrates why ‘São Paulo is de facto racial apartheid city’ (p. 50). Even though the racial lines are de jure blurred by Brazilian law, the state and civil society can easily identify black bodies and establish racial boundaries through everyday violence, incarceration and death. The book offers an inside perspective on urban black life in the favelas of São Paulo and people’s struggle to survive in a city designed to exclude, oppress and exploit black bodies.

Alves, research is an outstanding ethnography mixed with journalistic techniques from two years of fieldwork, between 2009 and 2010, in a violent and marginalised area of São Paulo called ‘Fundão da Zona Sul’. Each chapter opens with a richly detailed narration of Alves’ interactions with different actors – police officers, favela inhabitants, incarcerated black people – which puts the reader inside the scene as if they were witnessing that moment with him. The book is a testimony to how the cruel colonial order confines and annihilates black urban life. Alves is honest about who he is and where he speaks from – a black male scholar who grew up in a favela himself – and also recognises the limitations of his position when addressing gender issues and representing an institutionalised position inside academia. Being in the position of an outsider within (Collins, 1986), Alves deals with the ‘fractured self’ of the activist scholar who is situated in the dilemma between embracing the outlawed black insurgency and being part of an institutionalised position of privilege in academia.

The book is divided into five chapters describing the arduous ways that black lives have dealt with and navigated institutional practices that produce anti-black spatialities: whether they are prisons, favelas or roles of submission in white spaces. It starts by telling the story of Dona Maria and her painful trajectory of trying to recover the body and dignity of her son who was assassinated by the police; her story is intertwined throughout the chapters with other stories of survival and annihilation of black people in the anti-black city. Even though the research took place in São Paulo, the book offers tools to analyse many other marginalised spatialities; unfortunately, there are millions of Dona Marias in other favelas throughout Brazil.

The first chapter describes the spaces where black life is confined and annihilated. The state violence against black lives is evidence of a racial and gendered regime of domination that Alves defined as black necropolis. His theoretical argument is framed around the Fanonian idea of the existence of a racialised zone of nonbeing, where black lives are counted as surplus and disposable. According to Alves, contemporary São Paulo is racially divided into the biopolis and necropolis, and the police force is the state arm responsible for drawing the line that divides who should be protected and who deserves to die in the city. The geography of violence generated by this necro(bio)political regime is mainly performed by police terror but complemented by other state practices: residential segregation, unemployment, economic dispossession and psychological pain.

In the second chapter, Alves illuminates the relationship between the police and the ‘colour-blind community activism’ in the favelas, and how these two actors reinforce the maintenance of the black necropolis. In the last two decades, the police have acted on two different fronts: community police and the drug war. On the community police front, the state promotes cultural and educational programmes in the favelas in order to create allies among favela residents. On the drug war front, the police have a free pass to kill in the favelas, and the police murder of black youth has rampantly increased since the community police were created. These two fronts, apparently contradictory, complement each other in the task to protect nonblack beings; Alves claims that the community police’s projects of surveillance are ‘aimed to protect white and other nonblack bodies endangered by their proximity to predominantly black space’ (p. 84). The police’s double face reveals a differentiated treatment towards the heterogeneous but predominantly black population in the favelas.

In the third chapter, Alves claims that the favela–prison pipeline represents a continuum of social and political reproduction of racial order and criminalisation of black urban life in Brazil. He pays particular attention to the vulnerable position of black women in their encounters with the Brazilian carceral system since those encounters started in other places of black captivity: the favela itself and the kitchen of white elites. Since 1990, mass incarceration has grown substantially in São Paulo as part of a neoliberal approach to crime; the expansion of the prison system is a state strategy to profit from the surplus labour of impoverished black people living on the outskirts of the city. Alves demonstrates how black males are targeted as an urban threat and seen as ‘unruled bodies’ who need to be under hyper-surveillance. This pattern creates a deadly circle of racial injustice felt first-hand by incarcerated men and women and as double punishment by impoverished black women outside of prison walls who wait for their sons and partners to be released.

The fourth chapter theoretically discusses black insurgency practices as forms of political agency against a system that excludes and oppresses urban black life. Without defending its criminal practices, Alves analyses the First Capital Command (PCC) criminal organisation as one way that black people attempt to challenge the racial-spatial order in Brazil. Given the context in which Brazilian police operate in the urban periphery, favelados have limited options to reclaim their rights, and they often appeal to PCC protection as the only alternative available. However, being a violent, majority male and hierarchical organisation, PCC has structures very similar to the current state authority. PCC is not a revolutionary entity and does not intend to change the structures of racial inequalities. How could unruled black lives fight for their existence through an alternative that goes against both an authoritarian state and an organisation like PCC? Alves addresses this question by navigating through examples of black autonomy, as Quilombo dos Palmares, and contemporary subversive practices, as black criminality.

The fifth chapter expands the discussion about the political possibilities of black agency, now looking at the black movement’s struggles to make suffering legible and its goals to create social change. Alves narrates Dona Maria’s meeting with a public attorney and human rights activists to illustrate the most challenging question of the book: how to bring back the dead? During the meeting, Dona Maria’s emotions rapidly escalate until she explodes in front of the group, demanding the state bring back her son alive; she will not accept him in a plastic bag. Outside of the state authorities’ office, the black movement tries to bring back the dead by politicising black death, transforming it into symbols of the struggle for black urban life. The black movements of resistance aim to contextualise black assassination as race genocide, while state discourse keeps pretending to blur the racial lines which contour the black necropolis. In the midst of their mourning, the black mothers’ movement attempts to recover the respectability of their sons names indiscriminately associated with criminality.

Alves’ book has no happy ending, and the most recent police mass murder in Jacarezinho in May 2021 demonstrates that race genocide is still happening in Brazil, perhaps even more intensely today than before. The mainstream media keeps reporting these cases not as black genocide but as biopolis protection. How can we keep the energy necessary to keep fighting against a racial order that seems to be indestructible? When we seem to advance a few steps towards black affirmation, the police seem to advance doubly towards black annihilation.



Collins, PH (1986) Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of Black feminist thought. Social Problems 33(6): S14–S32.
Google Scholar | Crossref
Nascimento, B (2021) Uma História Feita por Mãos Negras. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.
Google Scholar


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