When the law comes out of the barrel of the gun (Graham Denyer Willis)

5 minutes to read
Paul Mutsaers



Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus is a valuable contribution to the debate on statehood and sovereignty. The book is a product of what has been intense ethnographic labor that took place in São Paulo, that Brazilian megacity where crime and violence run rampant. Where routinized killing takes place involving police and an organized crime group known but not always officially recognized as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). As a literary piece the book borders on Coetzee quality and it almost feels like a crime to give some of its essentials away in a review.



Building upon three years of bulletproof-vest-ethnography among homicide detectives in São Paulo, Denyer Willis's book allows for no simple line between good and bad. Having shadowed homicide detectives investigating both police killings resulting from "resistance" to police arrest as well as homicides perpetrated by organized crime groups, one thing is clear: the Dirty Harry problem - should violence be deployed to prevent more violence? - is ubiquitous in the Brazilian favela. The difficulties with police violence, ethics and legitimacy become utterly clear from the very first passage of the book, in which the author describes one of his field experiences:

'I can't remember what we were talking about when our conversation was interrupted. The tire squealing grew from distant to loud, filling the open window. Craig and I stopped talking to watch as the red hue of flashing lights grew bright on the surrounding buildings, converging from different directions. With sirens in chorus, there was a crashing of metal and concrete, an abbreviated commotion and two gunshots in quick succession. Pop. Pop. Curious (and certainly reckless), we walked over to see what had happened. Arriving within seconds, we saw in flesh and blood what the sounds had suggested. A vehicle pursuit had ended with police shooting a man.'  


Organized crime groups as security-oriented collectives

Denyer Willis’s book comes out of a world that is best characterized by what Kenneth Maxwell in a recent article in The New York Review of Books called the corruption of progress. This is a world in which the regime is required to secure global capital involving large-scale corruption (e.g. the Petrobras scandal, FIFA, the Mensalão scandal), while utterly failing to create a secure situation for its citizens, particularly for the millions living in “the spectacular favela”, to paraphrase the title of another ethnography on police in Brazil that was recently published by The University of California Press (authored by Erika Robb Larkins). In such a situation a security vacuum arises in which urban residents are ‘left to cobble together their own security solutions’ (Denyer Willis, p.7). It is in this light that Denyer Willis understands the emergence of organized crime groups such as the PCC. They are security-oriented collectives.

Now, why then is this book such an important contribution to our understanding of statehood and sovereignty? After all, we have read about “citizen security” before, for instance in the work of Daniel Goldstein in Bolivia, where the absence of police in marginal barrios has led to vigilante groups who tend to administer justice on their own initiative (e.g. in Current Anthropology, vol.51, no.4). Phenomena of this kind have also already been described as partial or horizontal sovereignties, with the regulation of life and death as the ultimate signifier of sovereignty (see for instance Jean and John Comaroff in their Law and Disorder in the Postcolony). What then is so special about Denyer Willis’s notion of the killing consensus, or sovereignty by consensus?

The answer does not lie in the discovery of “self-help security” and the proliferation of “statephobic” attempts to security, nor does it have to do with the advanced level of the PCC’s social organization (e.g. PCC tribunals and their pseudo-juridical processes), which the author so painstakingly describes. Its novelty comes from the well-grounded and ethnographically informed conclusion that police and PCC are not necessarily antagonistic.

Its novelty comes from the well-grounded and ethnographically informed conclusion that police and PCC are not necessarily antagonistic.

One may be surprised by this conclusion, considering the fact that the book is filled with vignettes about the “feud-like violence” that erupts when police and PCC clash – such as with the Mother’s Day Attacks in 2006 in which fifty-two police and prison agents were killed, murders that were retaliated by off-duty police who set up death squads to kill no less than 492 people. 

However, the author equally reports on moments of relative peace. To be sure, these “equilibriums” have their share of lethal violence, but they are precisely described as equilibriums because police and PCC are not at each other’s throats but share a common enemy; ‘a “disposable” population that [the state] allow[s] to be preyed on under an acknowledged definition and  common denomination of deservedness’ (p.12). This disposable population, which Willis elsewhere dubbed as "the abandoned," is defined by the PCC’s ethic of crime as much as it is defined by police and other state representatives – and sometimes police seem to be little more than cogs in the PCC machinery.

One of the many virtues of this book is that at all times the author manages to keep an eye on nuance. On the one hand, he describes the streamlining of witness and police statement as a standard practice, extralegal killings as routine, and police as a force that can turn the urban landscape into a battlefield. On the other hand, he argues, ‘these police are ensnared in a deeply unenviable position where they are distrusted by most, hated by many, and wished dead by a great deal more’ (p.17). They are hunted and liquidated and their homes are invaded and their families threatened.


Character assassination

This nuance must at least partially explain why his op-ed published in The New York Times in 2012 was so well received by most of his informants. In part three of the book (Debate) the author reflects on his effort to go public, that is, to inform a broader public about his study. Upon his return to São Paulo, after some time spent in Canada, he found out much to his own surprise that he was still in good standing with most of his former companions. They were glad with the voice they had been given. Much to the contrary, however, the political leadership of São Paulo’s police was not amused. Responding to the author’s claim that the PCC’s crime control has effectively reduced the number of killings, he was accused of an infatuation with the PCC.

These diverging responses are a direct confirmation of the author’s analysis. The structural violence observed is indeed a structural problem that has little to do with defects in the characters of individual street officers. The Public Security Secretary’s attempt to accuse the author of “character assassination” is unsuccessful as he makes clear from the outset that individuals are not his prime concern. Rather, he is concerned with the structural conditions of violence. It is exactly at this point that those who go public with their police ethnography (I think of the work of Alice Goffman, Didier Fassin, but also my own work) are incredibly challenged. They voice a systemic critique of police, but all too often this is a critique that those who are pivotal within the system do not want to hear. And yet, as Denyer Willis concludes in his New York Times article, a ‘cold reckoning with the system’s shortcomings is desperately needed.’