Note from BW of Brazil: No, the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in the photo above is not from Ferguson, Missouri, nor is it from New York or any of the other nationwide protests going on across the US in protest against a number of police murders of unarmed black men in that country. No, the photo above features black youth in Salvador, Bahia, where young Afro-Brazilians are “in the target” of police and death squads in that heavily black state. And it’s not just Bahia. States such Paraíba, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo among others should be placed on the list of states of emergency due to their murders of black youth. All told, police in Brazil kill five times more people than in the US, so what’s it going to take to create a sustained movement of resistance and international coverage?
Another question that was posed earlier today was, “Why do black Brazilian deaths not cause the outrage provoked in the US?” It may seem like a thought-provoking question, but for anyone who has studied Brazil’s race relations it’s not really all that difficult to figure out. In reality, the difference between reactions to black death in the United States vs. reactions in Brazil can be found in a simple comparison between the racial approaches of two of the top athletes of the 20th century, Brazil’s Pelé and Muhammad Ali in the United States. While Ali’s outspoken political stances and proclamations of racial pride are considered by many to be the epitome of black athletes and social consciousness, over the years, Pelé, in contrast has earned the scorn of many Afro-Brazilians who have voiced their extreme disappointment in the futebol King’s stance on racial issues. Pelé’s non-position and even denial of racial problems in Brazil negatively influenced many black Brazilians in much the same way that Ali’s outrageous bragging brought was symbolic of African-American pride during antagonistic racial relations in the 1960s and 70s.
Ali stood for boldly confronting the contradictions of the fallacy of American “equal opportunity” in the face of oppression while Pelé became a symbol of Brazil’s fallacy of a “racial democracy” that denied equality to Afro-Brazilians all the while proclaiming all Brazilians were treated equally. In many ways, the struggle over black rights in Brazil is in some ways 30-40 years behind a similar struggle in the US but the methods and histories of the two countries explain the different reactions to black murders at the hands of the police. In the US, African-Americans grow up knowing that if they had any traceable African ancestry they were considered black, while in
Brazil, arguably, if one has a drop of non-African blood, said person was taught to identify as “multi-racial”, “pardo” or just Brazilian. Widespread African-American demands and marches for racial justice can be traced back 1920’s Marcus Garvey UNIA movement, labor struggles of the 1940s led by A. Philip Randolph, 50s/60s movements led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and 60s/70s Black Power movements led by figures such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers (1).
On the other hand, in Brazil, the first popular black rights organization, the Frente Negra Brasileira was put out of commission by a dictatorship in the 1930s, the most well-known Afro-Brazilian activist, Abdias do Nascimento, was never allowed to gain widespread recognition and ended up going into exile in the 1960s, while the Movimento Negro that began in the late 1970s faced heavy oppression by the second dictatorship of the century that at one point made it against the law to make accusations of racism in the country. Subsequently, the first headline making marches for racial equality didn’t occur until 1988 during the observance of 100 years of the abolition of slavery and then later in 1995 organized around the 300th anniversary of the death of the country’s greatest symbol of black struggle, Zumbi of Palmares.
The legacy of Brazil’s denial of racism, encouragement of racial mixture and avoidance of a black racial identity is a legacy that the Movimento Negro must still deal with today. Still today, it is very common to hear everyday Brazilians even deny that the high volume of police assassinations have any sort of racial element even in the face of statistics that prove the reality. In this view, people are more likely to be killed because they are poor rather than because they black, again, in opposition to hints that suggest otherwise.
In reality, the question of racism and black identity have only been discussed openly in Brazil for a large parcel of the population for the past few decades or so, thus why would be any surprise that the reaction to police racialized violence seems to also be slow? Keeping these factors in mind, it’s not really difficult to understand the differences in reaction to the assassinations of black males. The history of race relations and ideologies provide the undeniable facts.
Now that we know the facts, what’s the next move to shine the spotlight on the situation in Brazil?
“In Brazil, Ferguson happens everyday”
In the last five years, the Brazilian police killed more people than the US in the last three decades
By Vinicius Gomes
In the wake of the non indictment of Darren Wilson, the white policeman who murdered Michael Brown, a young black man from the city of Ferguson, Missouri, Mac Margolis, collaborator of the US portal Bloomberg View and resident in Brazil, said a Brazilian friend of his, during a conversation about the protests and demonstrations that reached more than 170 US cities, showed little interest in the death with six shots of an unarmed young man. Margolis soon justified: “Racism, above-the-law police and blind justice are as familiar [to Brazilians] as the Hawaiian and palm leaves.”
The data that the American has in his text are some of which many Brazilians have no concept: the Brazilian police killed 2,212 people in 2013, according to a study published in early November this year. Another shocking number is that 11,200 Brazilian lives were taken by police violence in the last five years. That’s more than all the police forces of all US states in the past 30 years: 11,090 people killed.
Other research that is equally disturbing, serve to put in check those who reject the fact that a black skinned person is much more subject to police violence than a white person. According to the study by economist Daniel Cerqueira, from 2009 the number of black victims of police violence is twice that of whites and another study conducted by the University of São Carlos has shown that while blacks correspond to 34% of the São Paulo population, they make up 58% of deaths by the police. As stated by sociologist Ignácio Cano, a specialist in crime and police violence: “Our police kill by the hundreds. We have a ‘Ferguson’ every day.” (2)
A 2005 study conducted by Florida State University has shown that white police officers were more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an armed white person. A list of 10 white men who actually confronted the police with guns and still were not killed was created.
However, Brazil is still a more violent country, after all, in a place where 22 people are killed per 100 thousand inhabitants – a rate four times higher than the US – it’s no surprise that much of the population still believe in the phrase “bandido bom é bandido morto” (a good criminal is dead criminal).
Source: Portal Fórum
1. See a brief summary of these leaders in a report entitled “Integrationists and Separatists African American Politics in the 20th Century” here.
2. I recently received a similar response to this question when I approached the topic in a conversation.