Black Brazilians And Americans In Rio Made The Fight For Their Lives A Global One
This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.
Two and a half weeks ago, during Julho Negro, or “Black July,” members of the Black Lives Matter movement met with mothers of police brutality victims and young black activists in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As athletes from all over the world were gearing up for the biggest sporting event of their lives, the activists walked side by side through the heart of the city.
On July 23, roughly 200 Brazilians and six Black Lives Matter delegates from Boston wound their way through central Rio with fists raised and pictures of police brutality victims. “Jogos Olimpicos Pra Quem?” they asked. “The Olympic Games for who?”
With its influence in Washington, D.C. and dominance in the media, Black Lives Matter has gained a level of fame that black activism in Rio has yet to achieve. But now that the Olympics are drawing the global spotlight to Rio, Brazilians’ fight for life is starting to receive international recognition — and with it, powerful allies.
Although their partnership is new, 2014 was a monumental year for black Brazilians and Americans. It was the year Mike Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police, inspiring millions to take to the streets in protest of racist policing. Unbeknownst to most onlookers, it was also the year an eerily similar incident happened 5,235 miles away.
A continent apart
On April 22, 2014, Douglas Rafael Pereira da Silva, a famous black TV dancer and local hero, was beaten and fatally shot in the back by Rio police. His body was found in the Pavão-Pavãozinho slum of Copacabana, laying in the backyard of a childcare center.
Word of Pereira’s death spread through the slum, or favela, and within hours, hundreds of outraged residents stormed the streets. Even though most of them were black Brazilians accustomed to extrajudicial killings and repression, the murder of a beloved star, who regularly visited the favela to see his 4-year-old daughter, was a breaking point.
The protest began peacefully, as demonstrators marched to the local police station for answers. But things escalated quickly when military police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Soon, cars and barricades were set ablaze by locals. Gunfire from shootouts with police echoed throughout the slum.
Then came a second tragedy. As the clashes raged on, an officer fired at random into a crowd and struck an unarmed mentally ill man. Witnesses later said 27-year old Edilson Silva dos Santos was walking with his hands raised when the bullet went into his head. He wasn’t dangerous, and certainly wasn’t a threat to the police.
“The policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ has placed Rio de Janeiro as the one of the deadliest cities on earth.”
Pereira and Silva were two of 580 people killed by police in the larger state of Rio de Janeiro in 2014, the same year cops in the United States killed Brown, Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and more than 1,000 others.
Since 2014, at least 85,000 security personnel — 65,000 police officers and 20,000 soldiers — have been stationed in the city of Rio to keep the peace for the Olympics. With their presence, police suppression and violence has reached fever pitch in slums like Pavão-Pavãozinho.
Before Black Lives Matter got there, there was a decades-long black consciousness movement in Rio and other parts of Brazil, with young black people and mothers at the forefront. But activists in both countries are eager to ramp up their efforts and build a global movement.
The two groups are a continent apart, but are grappling with parallel challenges. They share a history of slavery and systemic racism, as well as the devastating consequences of tough-on-crime policing that has ravaged their communities. At the most fundamental level, the two groups are fighting for the dignity of black men, women, and children who are disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, and imprisoned.
Both are demanding an end to the police occupation of their communities — the freedom to move without fear of being killed by officers with impunity for a phone in their pockets, for illegally selling cigarettes, for playing with a toy. The freedom to express their grievances without being smeared by politicians and pundits for demanding visibility and police accountability.
The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics have inspired crackdowns and heavy-handed policing over the past few years, but oppression and suffering has always been the standard for poor black Brazilians living in Rio’s favelas. Pushed to the margins of society, they are surveilled, slaughtered, and tortured by police every day. For them, the only difference now is that the world is paying attention.
With a story that’s all too familiar among previously colonized countries, black oppression and disparate treatment in Brazil has origins in slavery and its immediate aftermath. At the height of Portugal’s colonial reign — and 60 years after it ended — Rio served as a central hub for human chattel and trade. When slavery was banned in 1888, freed Brazilians were prohibited from living in the city’s main streets and unable to find jobs to earn money for proper housing. Out of necessity, former slaves found a home in Rio’s hills, forming large communities of informal settlements — today’s favelas — that have stood for hundreds of years.
Racism in Brazil was never formally codified the way it was in the United States, where Jim Crow laws carried on the legacy of slavery by formalizing segregation and subjugating the black population. Still, going as far back as the 19th century, police have been around to keep black Brazilians in their place and maintain the de facto racial caste system.
And in the 1990s, the War on Drugs that swept black and brown communities in the United States also made its way into Rio’s favelas, extending even more power to law enforcement and leading to the criminalization of poverty and egregious policing of poor blacks.
‘Shoot first, ask questions later’
“The police have always existed in the favelas to control — to subjugate — black people,” Fran, a native Brazilian and Rio activist, told ThinkProgress. “The policy has an address and it has a color.”
Fran and other residents of his home favela, Manguinhos, learned that officers would be arriving en masse in 2013, supposedly to provide enhanced security ahead of the World Cup. This was the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP), a special task force of military police established to crack down on drug trafficking and build a permanent network of police bases in the favelas.
People in Manguinhos were immediately skeptical. Although drugs were present in the massive favela, which is partitioned into five communities, most residents knew each other and didn’t see a need for an infusion of police to keep the peace. They’d also heard horror stories about law enforcement taking over and terrorizing favelas in other parts of Rio. But as a marginalized group with few rights to begin with, there was nothing that Manguinhos residents could do to prevent the UPP from coming.
“It’s an immediate violation of the senses in your community.”
“The public relations part of coming into the neighborhood was, ‘We are here to protect you,’” said Fran, who has called the favela home for fifteen years. “Considering the language used — a ‘pacifying’ police, a ‘community’ police, it was an immediate surprise that they [came] in armed with military-grade weaponry.”
Two hundred UPP officers arrived in Manguinhos and built five bases — one for each of the five communities within the favela. Instead of coming when called, however, the UPP walked around the favelas with guns used for war, instilling fear and invading houses at random. Moat-like trenches were also built around the UPP bases, to keep out the residents the police were supposedly there to protect.
“That’s very symbolic. It’s an immediate violation of the senses in your community,” he said.
With 85,000 more officers and military personnel stationed throughout the city under the guise of security, particularly in the favelas, police violence has only worsened. In Manguinhos, the UPP has killed at least 12 black boys and young men in the past three years, Fran said.
“The policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ has placed Rio de Janeiro as the one of the deadliest cities on earth,” Atila Roque, Amnesty International Brazil’s director, reported in June. “The country’s historic ill-conceived public security policies, coupled with the increasing human rights violations we have documented during major sports events and the lack of effective investigations are a recipe for disaster.”
Approximately 6.5 million people live in Rio, roughly two million fewer than New York City. In the four years leading up to the World Cup, on-duty police officers killed 1,275 people. Of those killed, exactly three-quarters were young people aged 15 to 29 years old. Nearly 80 percent were black, and 99.5 percent were male. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of police killings skyrocketed by 54 percent, with kids as young as 10 and 11 years old gunned down in the streets.
In 2015, 645 people were killed by police in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Police killings accounted for one in five homicides in its capital city. As of May, the number of extrajudicial killings in the city had jumped 135 percent from the year before.
According to human rights lawyer Joao Tancredo, who works closely with families affected by police violence, the tactics used to repress people started changing in the years leading up to the World Cup. Public outcry about mass killings from major organizations, including Amnesty International, was drawing too much negative attention to police operations. Instead of killing, police turned to kidnap and torture, making it much harder for families to prove their wrongdoing. The number of disappearances surged with the arrival of the UPP.
“[We] have a lot more people that are missing. We can’t find their bodies, but the family knows that [it] was police violence. [The] people can’t prove that,” Tancredo explained.
“There is no right to come and go in your neighborhood.”
Killing and disappearing favela residents isn’t the only way the UPP instills fear. Policing in the favelas is arbitrary, which creates a state of “psychological terror,” said Fran. Residents are stopped and questioned for reasons as innocuous as carrying a cellphone. For example, a young boy could be stopped by an armed officer brandishing a machine gun and questioned about why he chose to walk down a particular street.
“The right to come and go is restrained. There is no right to come and go in your neighborhood,” he said. In Manguinhos and other favelas throughout the city, residents even need special permission from UPP commanders to participate in public cultural “manifestations” — events and celebrations that are an integral part of black Brazilian heritage.
Yet the culture of violence created by the UPP is widely tolerated by people outside the favela. A 2015 poll concluded that 50 percent of Brazilians support the country-wide saying, “A good crook is a dead crook.”
“People understand that poor people are naturally criminal and have to be violent,” Tancredo said. “So people naturalize this policemen approach a lot, here in Brazil. They think it is important for the security of the city.”
With their lives hanging in the balance and few Brazilian allies to stand with them, favela residents are looking beyond their own borders for support.
A meeting of the minds
With so much in common, a meeting between Brazilian and American activists was, arguably, hundreds of years in the making.
It eventually came to fruition in April, when favela youth and the mother of a slain teen flew to the United States to meet organizers from Black Lives Matter, One Million Hoodies, Cop Watch, and Stop Police Torture in Washington, D.C., New York, and Miami. A second meeting of the minds happened in Black July, when Black Lives Matter delegates from Boston traveled to Rio to meet more of their Brazilian counterparts.
Black Brazilians and Americans quickly discovered they’re not only facing similar struggles, but they’re using similar tactics of resistance: occupying space, filming cops, and documenting abusive police activity. Sitting in the same room was a victory in and of itself though, because it demonstrated that the two groups were willing to work together and opened up a dialogue about how to do that.
Visibility in the media is a key aspect of making their shared struggle a global one.
“The policy has an address and it has a color.”
In that regard, Black July had a significant short-term impact as well: bringing Brazilian organizers into the world spotlight. While the Olympics have highlighted some of the police brutality in Rio, less attention has been paid to the work that young people and mothers are actually doing there: mapping out police violence in the favelas, marching in the streets, and meeting with human rights experts.
“We have been invited here by local activists and we’re here to lend our solidarity and our American-ness; to use United States privilege to bring media attention to the issues,” co-founder of Boston’s Black Lives Matter chapter Daunasia Yancey said during the Black July meeting.
Extrajudicial killings happen more frequently in Rio than in the United States, but they get far less media attention. Even with the surge of killings leading up to the Olympics, most of the international news is focused on “construction costs, dirty water, Zika, and crime,” according to Elizabeth Martin, the founder of Brazil Police Watch and a delegate who flew to Rio. One of the objectives of the meeting was to showcase what local news outlets won’t.
Yancey told Rio On Watch, an online news site dedicated to community reporting in Rio, that getting more media attention is a top priority to make the movement a global one. Because Black Lives Matter has much more visibility than local activists in Rio, delegates were able to generate some buzz by flying to the city and standing with them.
“We need the media to be honest, to tell the truth and to share all of these stories,” said Yancey. “Together we must refuse that any more killings happen.”
Keeping the alliance alive
Maintaining that solidarity will ideally make a lasting impact internationally. But Rio, in particular, needs outside allies now more than ever.
Despite significant pushback from police and many lawmakers in America, the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. has received significant support from white, Asian, Latin, and Native American allies. Black Americans are steering the ship, but others have stood by their side.
Rio organizers haven’t had the same success finding people to stand with them. Race is a taboo subject in Brazil. People of privilege are reluctant to join the struggle — choosing to ignore the suffering of poor black people in the favelas, instead.
“The lack of allyship has made this conversation less potent,” Fran said.
But the Olympics, coming to Rio at the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement is starting to notch its biggest mainstream victories in the United States, is starting to force the elites to pay attention.
“The Olympics have gravely highlighted the racism and genocide against the black people at the hands of a racist state,” Fran said. That attention, in turn, has helped poor black Brazilians forge a game-changing relationship at a time when police brutality is getting worse.
“The lack of allyship has made this conversation less potent.”
As athletes from around the globe prepare to compete for personal and national glory, black Brazilians shut out of the Games and main streets of Rio are looking ahead to when the Games are over.
“I think we can expect police violence and racism to become even more of a problem after the Olympics,” said Fran. If that happens, global support will be even more crucial.
Before the Black Lives Matter delegates left the city, organizers put together a calendar of events for the future, and committed to participating in Black July next year.
“We exchanged a lot of ideas and decided to keep a dialogue going and a political agenda in the works for the struggle,” said Fran. For now, specific tactics and actions they plan to use in the future are a secret. But Brazilians and Americans parted with a mutual feeling of optimism.
“This event did give us hope, because we can see that we’re not alone in this struggle against racism.”