At the top of one of Rio de Janeiro’s favela shantytowns—one of several recently occupied by heavily armed military police units—an uneasy gathering begins. Where moments before children chased a ball, now local leaders on several sides of Rio’s long and complex social divide assemble to hesitantly, courageously look at each other and at what they have in common. The gathering includes members of resident associations, local shopkeepers, elders, youth leaders, police, and members of the drug gangs that, until recently, controlled the running of community life.

A few short weeks before, these same actors had met in the same place but in a completely different way: enmity across class and social divides had exploded into petrol bombs, rubber bullets, and serious injury. Strategies of repression and revolt came to blows; outrage, pain, and fear followed. As the Brazilian saying goes, “we’ve...

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