In São Paulo, Brazil, three mothers, Dona Cecilia, Dona Maria, and Dona Cidinha, have started a new life. For Dona Cecilia, her new life consists of uncovering what happened to her son, who disappeared and was later found stabbed to death and wrapped in newspaper. For Dona Maria, time was spent trying to gain custody of the body of her twenty-two-year-old son, Betinho, who was murdered by a police-linked death squad. Finally, Dona Cidinha’s days will play out fighting for justice and equality, after her son was choked to death by four police officers in front of his home, while he screamed and begged for his life.
While these mothers have been economical marginalized, residentially segregated, and subject to police terror and state suppression; their stories do not go unheard or unrecognized in the greater story of black struggle in Brazil. In downtown São Paulo, as well as many other cities across the country, black activists, made up of family of the deceased, fight for justice for their sons and all of the other black youth that have been murdered at the hands of the police. But before making any claims or assertions about the struggle of Black Lives Matter in Brazil, it is essential to examine the tense racial history of this nation to understand how race matters escalated to this point. (JAA, p.1)
History of Systematic Racism
Although Brazil has had a long and strenuous history with racial discrimination, the last decades have seen significant improvement, though considerable work still needs to be done. Through the work of multiple movements and numerous organizations, the fight for racial equality has been an uphill battle. Before the Black Lives Matter movement echoed throughout the world in 2015, Brazil, like many other nations, saw an increase in the police killings of its Black citizens. Although the loss of lives is a horrible catalyst for change, the mothers of these martyrs, so to speak, have been working tirelessly to make sure that their loss will not be in vain. Before we can discuss their activism, it’s essential to briefly examine the history and present systematic racism, the movements that paved the way for anti-racist struggles, and the current efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement to combat racism. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Before and after abolishing slavery, Brazil has seen some of the harshest conditions for African descendants. By far, Brazil imported more African slaves than any other nation in the Americas. However, while the institution of slavery is infamous, our focus is how legacies of racism that stem from it cast a long shadow to this day. We begin with the outlawing of capoeira in the early 19th century, continue with the cultural disdain of black success in the early 20th century, and end with the disregard for Black life in the early 21st century. For centuries, it has been a constant “jumping through hoops” for Blacks in Brazil.
In the early 19th century, capoeira games developed as dances and physical feats played by enslaved and freed Africans and Afro-Brazilans in Brazil. The games included several ritualistic dances and martial arts movements with ancestral significance through instruments and garments. In the late 18th and early 19th century, however, as games gained popularity, they were outlawed and stripped of anything that would distinguish them from violence to incarcerate more people of African descent. In this way, police could write off the games as violence and aggression, ignoring the significance and sporting nature. Soon prisons were overflowing with blacks and capoeiras born in Brazil. Specifically, by the early 1860s, 65% of capoeiras arrested were Brazilian-born blacks. (CAP, p.530)
Once we skip ahead to the late 19th and early 20th century, after the abolition of slavery, it is clear that systematic racism only became more concealed during the republican era. After slave emancipation in 1888, politicians in Brazil began to regulate the mobility of Afro-Brazilians in society. In 1889, the new legal code ratified a “anti-vagrancy” law, which in non-racial language targeted Afro-Brazilian by forbidding people to be “idle.” This allowed the police to stop and search and anyone, mainly people of African descent and former slaves, who they believed were not properly employed or allegedly were not obeying good morals in public. This law was put in place to regulate the lives of Afro-Brazilians in public spaces, especially those who had experienced social mobility. One of the few outlets that Afro-Brazilians had in finding success was in the arts. Black singers, dancers, and artists realized that they could earn money and popularity in leisure venues. They attempted to distinguish themselves from “idle” citizens and prove that there were as respectable as any other citizen. They became consumers, buying things flaunting their wealth as others in society. However, this became frowned upon, as the respectable, white society of Rio de Janeiro wanted to keep racialized social distinctions. As historian Marc Hertzman writes, “The antivagrancy campaign created a kind of tightrope for upwardly mobile Afro-Brazilian performers who sought to make enough money to distinguish themselves from the urban poor, yet could suffer harsh rebuke for flaunting their wealth.” (MH, p. 594). Because of the growing popularity of their music, blacks audiences also began to come together and take pride in who they were. While many lighter-skinned Afro-Brazilians decided to identify as white to further themselves in society, others realized that full citizenship was attainable if they united in the struggle for rights.
Blacks Begin to Mobilize and Unite
During Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), the fight for racial justice gave rise to a powerful movement, the Movimento Negro Unificado, or the MNU. The MNU, which began in 1978 and has continued to this day, sought to end racial discrimination and to include Black people at every level of society, not just in the arts. Through the MNU, Afro-Brazilians were starting their businesses, churches, universities, and other institutions. Before the MNU rose to national prominence, many other civil rights groups were too small and disconnected to gain large-scale traction and recognition. As various social movements to end the dictatorship began to organize, the MNU brought together disparate black civil rights leaders and made their mobilization more widespread. The goal of the MNU was to promote individual and collective success. As David Covin writes, “The MNU is more than the sum of its parts. It is what the individuals, interacting with each other, produce together.” (DC, p. 8). Building a racial identity was necessary, but the main goal was to better the lives of Afro-Brazilians was the primary goal. The mission of the MNU aligns with the Black Lives Matter movement in many ways. Both are in search of an answer to a near-impossible question of “When will Black lives be recognized as equally valuable?”. Even though the catalysts for these movements stem from the particular context in which systemic racism operates, they both share the goal of creating a racially just nation.
Systemic racism has not come to a halt in Brazil. Today, one could argue that police killing is more of an extreme response than social and cultural discrimination. We see connections everywhere throughout the history of the nation. The Black Lives Matter movement in Brazil is not a singular response to a particular instance of police brutality but the culmination of many violent actions and the need to respond to them.
Blood on the Government’s Hands
On November 20, 2020, Black Consciousness Day, hundreds of people gather in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, to protest against the death of a black man in front of supermarket Carrefour. With the recent police killings of these Afro-Brazilians, many Brazilians realize that just because discrimination is not tolerated on paper doesn’t mean that it is not by police officials. This post has traced the evolution of discriminatory state practices that target Afro-Brazilians disproportionally and the insidious ways they have become less overt. While in the 19th century, black capoeiristas were criminalized, in the early 20th century, anti-vagrancy laws curtailed the movement of Afro-Brazilians, and today, and today Afro-Brazilians are slain by the police in the name of public safety. Now social media has become a platform for change, something that was unimaginable years ago. With the highly publicized killings of minorities by state governments, people are starting to open their eyes and see that they can join the fight for racial justice. The lives of Afro-Brazilians are lost to police brutality every day. However, these losses do not go unnoticed. People like Dona Cecilia, Dona Maria, and Dona Cidinha demand an end to racial discrimination and police brutality every time they march the streets.
- Covin, David. The Unified Black Movement in Brazil: 1978-2002. MacFarland and Company, 2006.
- Alves, Jaime Amparo. The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
- Chvaicer, Maya Talmon. “The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth-Century Brazil.” Hispanic American Historical Review 82, no. 3 (2002): 525–47. https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-82-3-525.
- Hertzman, Marc A. “Making Music and Masculinity in Vagrancy’s Shadow: Race, Wealth, and Malandragem in Post-Abolition Rio De Janeiro.” Hispanic American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2010): 591–625. https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-2010-043.
- Mendes, Buda, and Felipe Araujo. “Protesters Hold Crosses Bearing the Names of Victims—Including That of João Pedro, 14, Who Was Killed at Home by Police in May—in the Streets of São Gonçalo, Brazil, on June 5.” Brazil Must Address Its Own Racist Police Violence Afro-Brazilians Make up over Half of the Country’s Population, but They Are Still Fighting for Their Right to Live., Foreign Policy, 7 July 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/07/brazil-must-address-its-own-racist-police-violence/.
- Bachega, Hugo. “Number of People Killed in Police Operations in Rio.” Rio Violence: Police Killings Reach Record High in 2019, BBC, 23 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-51220364.
- Robinson, Ishena. “People Protest against the Death of a Black Man in Front of Supermarket Carrefour, Where His Beating Took Place, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil, on November 20, 2020, on Black Consciousness Day.” Black Lives Matter Protests Erupt in Brazil After Black Man Beaten to Death by Security Officers, Yahoo, 22 Nov. 2020, www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/black-lives-matter-protests-erupt-163000138.html.