Emerson Osasco Denounces Racism and Fascism
Note from BW of Brazil: I first became aware of today’s story when it was posted in a black brazilian men’s group on the WhatsApp phone application. As I get literally hundreds of photos and videos through this app weekly, a few seconds after the video started, I asked myself, “What’s this all about?”. Suddenly, a black man, Emerson “Osasco” Márcio Vitalino, wearing a black t-shirt with the iconic Malcolm X printed on the front, stepped in front of a camera, issued a defiant statement, and then stood firm as he was surrounded by an angry crowd that was obviously at odds with his announcement. The brotha stood firm as the mob, apparently all white, cursed and insulted him and gave him the middle finger.
As it turns out, the group that surrounded him were all supporters of the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, who had become a controversial figure even before his winning of the presidential election over a year and a half ago. As reported in numerous previous reports, Bolsonaro has clearly been a very polarizing figure, from his outrageous comments that have infuriated several groups, his praisal of Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, to his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and his alleged corruption. At this point, with his approval ratings falling, fears are high that Bolsonaro could attempt to implement a dictatorship in a Brazil that has only been a democracy since the last dictatorship ended in 1985.
The other thing that makes Emerson’s act impressive is the fact that followers of Bolsonaro have been known to become very violent against the President’s opponents. Vitalino’s act is yet another sign of a new militancy amongst Afro-Brazilians who are becoming more vocal in their demands for equality, respect and an end to an apparent agenda to slowly eliminate the country’s black population. And once again, we see that references to symbols of African-American resistance have inspired Afro-Brazilians in their struggle. But what was behind Emerson’s defiant act? The story below attempts to answer that question.
Wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt, black fist in the air, Emerson Osasco denounces racism and fascism and becomes new symbol of protests for democracy
After video of his act of defiance went viral a few weeks back, Emerson Vitalino became, symbol of the protests for democracy. In the interview below, Vitalino spoke about his political background and the importance of protests for democracy
By André Nicolau and Chico Alves
On the morning of May 31, Emerson Márcio Vitalino left his home in Osasco, in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, bound for one of the city’s most important avenues, Avenida Paulista.
That Sunday he would join a group of protesters, most of whom were members of Gaviões da Fiel, the fan club of one the city’s best futebol teams, Corinthians, with one goal: a scream for democracy.
He would never return home as he had left that morning. Emerson Osasco, as he is known among his friends in the stands, became a symbol of struggle. Although, to do that, he didn’t put a finger on those who insulted him, spit and pushed him.
Emerson would have been just one of hundreds of fans that Sunday, were it not for an impulse he had right at the beginning of the demonstration. “The revolt was great when I saw Nazi symbols of the Ukraine, a perverse thing,” he explains.
Indignation led him to position himself among the Bolsonaristas (supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro) present to make an anti-racist speech.
“Brazil is tired of fascism. These guys came with the flag of racists from Ukraine. Do you think we’re gonna back off? We won’t back down. No step back, this is democracy!” he shouted. In the end, he held his right arm raised and his fist closed, in silence. The gesture was inspired by the Black Panthers, a political party that in the 1960s fought for the civil rights of blacks in the United States. The picture of American activist Malcolm X was stamped on his black T-shirt.
“People around me cursed my mother, I got kicked, spit on, punched in the rib,” he says.
With his gesture he became immortalized in the photographic records. Unlike the last Sundays when the presence of Jair Bolsonaro, among supporters, stood out in the news, Emerson’s gesture gave new meaning to the agenda of demonstrations against the government. With flags in the name of democracy, and remembering that vidas negras importam (black lives matter), it paved the way for a new page of national politics.
The flag that motivated Emerson’s revolt was created in the 16th century and, according to the Ukrainian ambassador, Rotyslav Tronenko, explained to CNN Brasil, it had no connection with Nazism. However, it is used as a symbol by the paramilitary group Pravy Sektov, of neo-Nazi ideology.
Emerson’s speech quickly went viral on social media. He only realized the repercussions of his act in the late afternoon, when friends started calling to ask how he was doing.
“Today I faced NAZIS, disguised as protesters on Av. Paulista (Watch the Video and draw your conclusions). They have hatred and want to eliminate my people, the time to remain silent is over. This is BRAZIL and racism will not be tolerated, it will be combated.” #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/xHrfh4ix2J – Emerson Osasco (@emersonosasco) June 1, 2020
One of those who helped to draw attention to the scene was Felipe Neto, a popular YouTuber. “One of the strongest images of resistance I’ve ever seen in my life,” wrote Neto on Twitter.
Emerson is known in Osasco, São Paulo, for his social work and also for winning the South American Muay Thai Championship – that’s why he is also called by the nickname Balboa, a reference to the character Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky series.
He manages a politicized vocabulary that he perfected when he ran for a position of councilor for Solidarity in the last municipal elections. He attributes his political knowledge to Chico Malfitani, a sociologist and publicist who is the founder of the Gaviões da Fiel fans and linked to the PT (Workers’ Party).
In addition, he read books and saw films about Malcolm X, a black American activist who, according to him, mastered the impulsiveness of youth and learned that to reap results it would be necessary to “plant the seed and wait for them to sprout”.
Emerson has been associated with Fiel since he was 18 years old. In his passion for Corinthians, he never erased from his memory the bid in the 2012 Libertadores quarter-finals, in which the “Timão” faced Vasco, when Diego Souza had everything to make the Vasco goal and goalkeeper Cássio miraculously defended it.
Unity in futebol
In the demonstration on that Sunday, Emerson made a point of emphasizing that fans of the four big São Paulo fans, even being rivals, were together: Corinthians, Palmeiras, São Paulo and Santos. He guarantees that this union will continue and everyone is alert to the possibility of infiltrating the next demonstrations.
“Everyone knows that when a legitimate act gains large proportions and the affected side wants to somehow delegitimize a legitimate act, it will want to create a fact that people understand that society repudiates. They have the power to do that,” acknowledges Emerson. “But when we are organized in groups, it’s very difficult to have infiltrators. The organizations know each other and those who don’t belong to us will be recognized.”
Challenging the social isolation that protects from the contagion of the coronavirus to go to the demonstration was also not an easy decision. “Everyone is afraid to get covid, but we have a much more lethal virus to fight, which is the virus of fascism, the virus of dictatorship,” he says.
After the great repercussion of the quick speech on Avenida Paulista, Emerson explains that he feels he represents many blacks in Brazil who don’t have the exposure he had. People who, as he says, got tired of being the victim of crimes that end up without punishment for the guilty. He remembers recent cases, such as the 14-year old João Pedro, the 8-year old girl Ágatha Felix, and the most rumorous episode, the death of Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco.
About the cold blood with which he resisted the curses and provocations of the Bolsonaristas while he was silent and with a fist, he explains what crossed his mind at that moment: “I thought that greatness would not be to fight back, but to show that I am not like them.”
From MLK to George Floyd
With reference from Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, it’s obvious that Emerson would have feelings about the recent occurences in the United States. Asked about the impact of the George Floyd case, Emerson said he believed in change. Despite this, he questions what has been done to end racism in the past five decades. More precisely between 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s murder and Floyd’s death on May 25th.
“We always believe. But in the not-too-distant past, Martin Luther King was murdered, prompting waves of protests against the deaths of black men and women that happened, practically, every day. But what has really changed? Some things have remained the same. Racism has increased, more blacks have died. How many Kings and Floyds were lost in that period? Many, various, countless.”
Emerson likens the murders in the US to episodes of police violence that have victimized black people in recent years in Brazil. He cites the cases of João Pedro, Evaldo Rosa, Ágatha Félix and Marielle Franco. “What do these people have in common? They are black, of poor origin and little is done to avoid impunity in cases. To this day, their families have not even received a note of condolence.”
Chaos in the pandemic
Bolsonaro’s policy to fight the pandemic, or the lack of it, is among the reasons that led him and thousands of others to leave home that Sunday. He believes, however, that until that moment, many opponents were afraid to speak out because of the fierce climate between the groups. “Many people were afraid to take to the streets in defense of democracy, precisely, so as not to suffer what I suffered. Being physically and mentally assaulted as I was. On the other hand, many people can no longer stand the atrocities of this government. People dying and they disdain.”
After the repercussion of the protest, Emerson believes that a seed was planted. “Many fear violence because they think it’s the strongest part of a person. But in reality, it’s not. Being a consistent, firm, ideal, and non-violent person is the greatest strength you can have. It is a question of character, of attitude. Violence doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Attitudes, yes.”
Emerson believes that the president uses polarization to persecute opponents. Polarization, which even cost him his job as a software developer at a company in Alphaville (SP).
The day after the protest, Emerson was informed by the manager of his area about the dismissal, motivated, according to him, by his presence in the act and in a video in which is seen next to former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.
“Bolsonaro uses polarization to persecute and frighten people and powers. But we have shown that this government has almost no support compared to what we have in favor of democracy and freedom. This will serve as an incentive for the impeachment project for a president who has a genocidal political plan for our country.”
When talking about the police brutality of the 31st, Emerson compares the treatment given to a Bolsonaro protester to the attack suffered by his peers. He questions how the police would react if he was at the demonstration carrying a baseball bat. “You see a lady with a baseball bat, in the middle of Avenida Paulista, being hugged by a police officer and calmly taken down the street. Now if it were me, black, wearing Malcom X, with a baseball bat, where would I be at this moment? The one who started the confusion was a former Army commander, who crossed Paulista Avenue to provoke it. Instead of the police taking any action against him, he decided to attack our side. He offered the aggressor water and comfort. Those who fought for democracy were left with bombs, baton, pepper gas and rubber bullets.”
Influences and inspirations
Asked about his main political influences and inspirations, Emerson recalls his childhood in the city of Osasco to reflect the present day. He considers the songs heard on an old tape player to be the first lessons he would take for life. And he saw in the lyrics of the group Racionais MCs the mirror of his reality. “I was born, grew up and live on the periphery. We lack a lot of information. The political struggle that we had every day taught us how much, when and how to fight against the system was Racionais MC’s. When I got home from school, I put the song “Fim de Semana no Parque” (Weekend in the Park) (see note one) on the tape player. There I understood how our people were treated. And listening to those songs was knowing what was waiting for me, already at that age, suffering so many aggressions. At the age of seven suffering racism and prejudice from many people. So, Racionais was my first inspiration. Over time, Brazilian Rap has become a great inspiration. And then, when we started to have internet access on the periphery in mid 2009, 2010, we started to hear other voices: (Martin) Luther King, Malcom X, Muhamad Ali, Mandela, people who were fighting for the rights of the people, but mainly the black population, who suffers the most in these issues of oppression and hatred that exists in our country.”
Periphery and Bolsonaro
The lack of information, he believes, was what motivated the votes of the periphery in Jair Bolsonaro. This includes the spread of fake news on social networks like WhatsApp, which reached the periphery in a massive way and without any filter. “The vast majority of people wake up at dawn and come home late at night. In the little time that remains, they dine, bathe, play with their children, talk to their wives and go back to work the next day. This routine leaves the person isolated from any information about the external world except that which he is already part. With that, due to the fake news of the other candidates, the version that Bolsonaro was the most correct person for that moment was presented. If you have little information and what was passed on was from WhatsApp, like the history of baby bottles, gay kits. How many friends, even the most informed, didn’t fall for that? Disinformation got Bolsonaro elected.”
Cheers for democracy and against discrimination
The protagonism of the fans in the demonstrations in São Paulo, Rio, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba and other capitals motivates an important and necessary debate on the marginalization of social groups formed by young peripheral (inhabitants) and, mostly, blacks.
If the union between historical rivals was previously unthinkable, the demand against the government took to the streets old disillusioned people in a unison cry for rights and democracy.”It’s possible to speak of unity, yes. So much so that we had fans from São Paulo, Palmeiras and Santos with Corinthians. People from all sectors of society, together, fighting for the only ideal. Those organized play an essential role in the fight against fascism, because the vast majority are politicized. Many leaders talk to associates and are able to show them which part of society they belong to. An example, at the beginning of May, we had 70 Corinthians fans, in a group of politicized fans. This group started talking to other fans and we matured our ideas. A month later, we reached almost a thousand fans on Paulista.”
“Gaviões made me more supportive”
Associated with Gaviões da Fiel since the age of 18, Emerson remembers his own experience within the organization to talk about political training. And in this environment, often stigmatized by violence, he became a more supportive person and with a different worldview. “I believe that nothing is done in one way. Everything is a process and a combination of factors. I had my training at home, which I acquired with my father and mother. I was trained through Rap, which positively influenced me to live on the periphery. How to grow up, because at that time it was rare for a black man to be over 20 years old here, and survive statistics. It all helped to shape my character as a citizen. But the conversations I had with Gaviões’ founder, Chico Malfitani, were also essential for my political formation. That was when I started to get to know the struggle of our society up close, through social actions, lectures, everything that allowed us to have contact with the suffering of our people. And from the moment you have contact with such a suffering reality, it is difficult to return a person who is not in solidarity. Gaviões made me a more supportive, serene person, with a different worldview.”
After almost two decades of experience in Gaviões, marked by games, trips, parties and social actions, Emerson clearly describes the structure of a social movement that is present not only in the stands. And today he’s leading a revived movement of opposition to the government until then demobilized in the face of attacks on democracy. “Every social movement that includes peripheral and black people already suffers from the deep-seated prejudice of society. Organized teams are no different, because the fans are equal. We have everything from the homeless person to the businessman. Men, children, women, like society is. There they take what the vast majority of society doesn’t welcome and try to discriminate. But we don’t discriminate against anyone, on the contrary, we fight and act. And through our struggle of daily living we closely monitor the suffering of the people and through social actions we try to minimize it, things that the state doesn’t do. We feel that there is no other side than the people. The least favored side. And that baggage contributed to everything. Not only what I am today, but for every day of my life. I live my life always based on the things I have experienced and experience. Always thinking about the people, the least favored, because they are the weakest link in society.”
Source: Catraca Livre, UOL, Santos, Augusto dos Santos. “Black NGOs and ‘Conscious’ Rap: New Agents of the Anti racism Struggle in Brazil”, in Brazil’s New Racial Politics edited by Bernd Reiter and Gladys L. Mitchell. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009.
- I have heard and read countless Afro-Brazilians reference this song as being instrumental in their development of black consciousness. For sociologist Sales Augusto dos Santos, “Fim de Semana no Parque” (Weekend in the Park) is about black children not having access to “simple luxuries such as Christmas gifts. Rather, they live in poor communities rampant with violence. Racionais develops and disseminates a consciousness about discrimination and racial inequalities that affects those in the periphery. They succeed in being more expressive and expansive than traditional black social movements. The racialized discourse of rap is a weapon that simultaneously shoots against and challenges the myth of Brazilian racial democracy as well as the silence about racial issues in the country.” (Emerson Osasco Denounces Racism and Fascism)