Black Lives Matter in Brazil: The police’s war on the poor
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Black Lives Matter in Brazil: The police’s war on the poor

The run up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has seen an increase of police violence against the city’s poor. According to research, in the past five years some 16 percent of killings in Rio, officially classified as homicides, have been committed by on-duty police.

That’s 1,519 murders at the hands of the police. And those are only the official numbers.

According to the non-profit group the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, 2014 saw an increase in the number of violent deaths committed in Rio by almost five percent on 2013, totaling some 58,000 killings. While the leading cause of these deaths was “murder”, the second cause was killings by off- or on-duty police (source: the Guardian).

Police justice = no justice

Amnesty International found that in one of Rio’s “favelas” or slums, nine out of every ten killings carried out by the police are apparently extra-judicial executions.

Most victims of police killings in Rio are young black males, aged 15 to 29-years-old. The police perpetrators are hardly ever prosecuted. Though there were 220 investigations of police killings opened in 2011, even after four years only one officer was ever charged.

In terms of police violence against poor blacks, Rio is not alone by a long shot

Amnesty’s 2012 Map of Violence shows of the 56,000 murders officially committed in the country, 30,000 were between the ages of 15 and 29. Of these victims, 77 percent were black. (source: Agência Brasil)

The statistics give you a dimension of how grave it is, but even those numbers are underestimated, because they don’t include the deaths that occur from death squads, which are often composed of members of the police force.

—Niara Leite, human rights lawyer for the Bahia state-based activist group Reaja ou Será Morto / “React or Die” (source: Refinery29)

A brief cultural analysis of racism, history and power in Brazil

Brazilian racism is starkly different in character than what is witnessed or experienced in the United States. Research regarding color, race and social attitudes by an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo refers to a survey from 1988, which found that 97 percent of Brazilians believed that they were not racist. However, 98 percent answered that they knew someone who is racist.

Indeed, upon a visit to Brazil, one may notice more socializing, more marriages and more friendliness between people of different skin colors. Yet the wealth divide in terms of race — visually obvious in terms of the populations of more affluent neighborhoods (nearly all white) and the skin tones of those who occupy high-status positions — is immense.

In the face of such blatant inequality, the positive racial attitudes reflected in the 1988 survey ring hollow.

Then there are the police murders discussed above, which in places like majority black and mixed race city of Salvador de Bahia, poor and non-white citizens are beginning to protest.

A history of violence

During Brazil’s colonial times, specifically the era of the Atlantic slave trade, the territory imported more African slaves — some 4.9 million — than any other country (compared to 388,000 imported to the U.S). This was after the enslavement and genocide the colonials visited upon Brazil’s native population.

As opposed to slavery in the United States, colonials were encouraged to marry natives. Colonials were also disproportionately male, resulting in more procreation between male colonials and female slaves.

While this arrangement may have led to more intimacy and socializing between colonials and slaves and their descendants, a parallel relationship in terms of power, class and economics endured.

There are also economic theories, holding that societies that were built on slavery, particularly those based on agricultural labor, never really democratized — including the Southern states of the U.S.

The State, which has a monopoly on force, ends up being the violator of rights and the abuser of lethal force.

—Átila Roque, Executive Director, Amnesty International Brazil (author’s translation)


Brazil is only recently experiencing small changes in how brown and black people are portrayed in film and television — if at all. Indeed, the presence of positive images of blacks in media can only be an improvement upon racial attitudes that start during infancy.

It is a positive sign that such issues are being debated in society and in official seminars.

While much media attention has been paid to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States — albeit often unfairly and unfavorably, Brazil’s problem with racial injustice is arguably worse. Regardless of how many Brazilians may see themselves concerning their attitudes about race, the statistics referred to in this article scream that Brazil desperately needs a Black Lives Matter movement of its own. In both countries it is a matter of life and death.

See also:

Opinion: Are right-wing ideologues at the center of Brazil’s anti-Dilma protests?