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Black Lives Matter Protests Resonate in Brazil

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Date: Aug 05, 2020

Author: Benji Toruño

Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of three Minneapolis police officers, protests erupted across the United States calling for an end to police brutality and a long overdue reckoning with racial injustice. Demonstrations spread around the world, as protestors from Minneapolis to London, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, and countless other cities demanded justice for victims of police violence.

While police killings are unfortunately common throughout Latin America, Brazil’s problem of state violence against its population stands out as most similar to the United States. In 2019, 5,800 people were killed by police in Brazil; over 75 percent were Black. In the first few months of 2020, more than 600 people were killed by police in Rio de Janeiro–double the number killed by police in the entire United States, which has 20 times Rio’s population. Most of the victims were Black and lived in the city’s favelas. Even a brief look at the numbers reveals that the United States and Brazil are grappling with a similar social problem: the disproportionate murder of Black and Brown people at the hands of police officers and the impunity of these actions.

Yet, American and Brazilian conceptions of historical racism are quite different, leading to different conclusions about the scope of this problem. While Jim Crow created a system of legal discrimination against Blacks that the United States is struggling to dismantle today, Brazil never had institutionalized racism in quite the same way. This is not to say that a racial hierarchy doesn’t exist in Brazilian culture, which often uses social class as a proxy to discriminate against Black and mixed Brazilians.

One of the 600+ people killed by police in Rio this year was 14-year old João Pedro Matos Pinto. Reminiscent of Breonna Taylor’s murder in Louisville, KY earlier this year, João Pedro was in his aunt’s house when police burst into the home and shot him dead.

His murder sparked some of the largest anti-police brutality protests in Rio, yet these paled in comparison with their counterparts across the world. In Brazil, like in the United States, Black Lives Matter (As Vidas Negras Importam, in Portuguese), is viewed as a political statement–one condemned by these countries’ populist right-wing presidents. In fact, the man charged by President Bolsonaro with promoting black culture in Brazil called BLM organizers “scum.” It is perplexing that in a country where over half the population is Black, the assertion that Black lives matter is controversial.

Inordinate police violence against Black citizens is not the only similarity that the U.S. and Brazil share. An article published by O Globo notes the systemic disadvantages that Black people face in both countries, which have only been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison to white people, Black Brazilians and Americans are less educated, have less access to healthcare and employment opportunities, die of COVID-19 and police brutality at higher rates, and are historically underrepresented in the political system.

By all these indications, Black lives are undervalued in comparison to white ones, yet the global response of protest provides hope for change. As Luciana Brito–a historian at the Federal University of Reconcâvo da Bahia–puts it: “We are in a moment that is very atypical for Brazil. For the first time, we are seeing protests, that are, though timid, an inspiration.” Timid or not, one must hope that these protests will inspire true social change.