We sat on the cracked stone steps of the praça; several American post-college kids and 30 or so Brazilian teens who lived on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. We were building relationships, getting an idea of what services they wanted to help get off the streets – assessing the needs of this transient population, hoping to understand how our nonprofit could best help them – when five men in street clothes brandishing handguns ran towards us. We were surrounded, uncertain who they were until they yelled “We’re police! Everybody freeze!” One flashed a badge and yelled – “Why are you gringos hanging out with trash like this? You know all they do is smoke crack and steal. If we find drugs on any of them, you’re all going to jail!”
Ignoring the guns trained on us, I calmly explained (in my broken Portuguese) our business there and gave my assurance that no one present had any illicit substances. “It doesn’t matter,” the police officer barked. “We’re searching everyone. And when we find the drugs, we’re arresting you all.” I looked him in the eye and stated “If you’re wrong and don’t find any drugs, you’ll need to apologize to them. They’re not trash. They’re people.” He glared, gripped his weapon tighter, and turned a cold eye towards his colleagues roughly searching everyone. After fifteen minutes they stopped, having found nothing, and began walking away. I caught the officer’s eye and loudly asked “Can they have their apology now?” He shook his head once, met my eyes, then disappeared around the corner and was gone.