Rock star prods Rio's residents to stand up to the violence

Lead singer Tico Santa Cruz is rousing Brazilians from their apathy with highly visible, creative forms of protest.

Rock stars are often angry young men and Tico Santa Cruz is no exception. But the tattooed lead singer of the hit Brazilian band Detonautas has plenty to be angry about.

His hometown of Rio de Janeiro is a city under siege, with more than 6,000 homicides each year. Drug factions fight for control of the shantytowns that dot the city. Stray bullets from their firefights strike down two innocent people every three days.

What ticks off Mr. Santa Cruz the most is that so few people seem to care. So he now channels his frustration into rousing Brazilians from their apathy with highly visible, creative forms of protest. Of course, he's not the first celebrity to use his star power for a good cause. But he is one of the first to galvanize victims' families to confront Brazil's growing scourge of violence.

"There are no popular protests here, nothing starts from the ground up. It's like everyone is waiting for someone to guide them," says Santa Cruz. "I don't see myself as a leader but as an organizer, someone who can bring together people behind an idea. Lots of people have a common purpose but just don't know how to get there, and I help them focus on that."

Few people would argue that violence is the one fear that unites residents of Rio de Janeiro today. Carjackings, muggings, home invasions, and now stray bullets have changed the city irrevocably over the last few years. Seventeen people died each day from homicides last year, according to government figures.

Rousing an apathetic public

But Cariocas, as the citizens of the self-proclaimed Marvelous City are known, have been strangely placid. Perhaps believing the notoriously corrupt police force is beyond redemption and conscious that political pressure is largely ineffective, there have been few protests.

But now, as the number of barbaric acts of violence rises, angry citizens are finding new ways to demand justice and more often than not, Santa Cruz is involved.

Last month, in front of the Rio State Assembly, he had people dress as ghosts to symbolize phantom justice, policing and legislation.

In another, he organized bodies to lie out as if dead in front of the city's court building. And before that, he lent his support to an nongovernmental organization that planted 1,300 roses on Copacabana beach, one for each person killed in the state this year.

Tall, with arms covered in tattoos and small hoops through a pierced lip and eyebrow, the 29-something rocker is a physically striking man. He has a faint yet evident charisma and speaks with a steely integrity that makes him an effective communicator, especially when engaging the young fans of his band, one that is popular enough in Brazil to have opened shows for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The son of an engineer who lost everything and saw his family evicted from their home when he was 15, Santa Cruz has firsthand experience of life's reverses. He was already trying to rouse Rio's notoriously depoliticized youth when his band mate Rodrigo Netto was shot dead in an attempted carjacking last June.

But Mr. Netto's killing so angered him that he decided to devote more time to raising consciousness. Since then Santa Cruz, often with the support of his bandmates or friends who are poets, artists, and musicians, has given interviews, preached to crowds at rock concerts, and taken a road show to schools and universities.

He has also helped organize Rio United Against Violence, an informal umbrella group of victims and human rights organizations whose figureheads are all people whose tragedy has marked the city in recent months.

Those victims have responded to his crusade, and even though he is half the age of some of them they see him as a leader. The movement has no formal leaders and it is not dependent on Santa Cruz, but his ability to attract media attention make its protests more newsworthy and his fellow campaigners say his involvement is crucial in publicizing their plight.

A reluctant leader

"I am not sure he wants this role, but he is intelligent and articulate and he has taken on a very important task," says Lenin Novaes, a journalist whose son was killed by a stray bullet in April and who has worked with Santa Cruz to organize protests and debates. "He is one of those leaders who doesn't compromise but rather looks to mobilize people. At protests and marches against violence people listen to him and not because he is a musician but because he has something to say."

The problem for Santa Cruz is that Novaes, and most of the other active members of Rio United Against Violence, are people whose lives have already been marked by tragedy. As usual, Brazil's masses have shied away from outright confrontation, preferring to live with the despair rather than confront it.

Santa Cruz has worked hard to take his message to new audiences – to the housewives watching on daytime TV, for example, or to teenage music fans. And he has gained valuable media attention for his campaign.

But it has so far had no noticeable effect. If the people at home are watching or listening they have so far shown little desire to act.

"I don't think it's worth protesting," says Leda Bunde, a perplexed retired teacher's assistant who watched the ghosts protests in front of Rio's state assembly. "You have to wait for the government to wake up one day and see what's going on."

Santa Cruz is conscious of such apathy and knows this is one crowd he needs to win over. And with a steely resolution, he vows to continue objecting, demanding, instigating. There is, he says, no other option. For him or for Rio.

"I don't think that everyone needs to lose someone to violence to realize what is going on, but it's getting that way," he says. "When I started I felt really frustrated that no one paid any attention. But I don't think that I am going to change things overnight. I think I am planting a seed. Do your bit today because you don't know what will happen tomorrow. It's up to you."

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