By Pedro de Castro Souza
Every 23 minutes a young black man dies in Brazil. Out of 30 thousand people murdered in the country, 23 thousand are young black men.1 These are not isolated cases. They are the result of structural and systemic racism that befalls Brazil and many Latin American countries with a colonial history of violence and neglect toward black and brown citizens.
On the eve of Black Consciousness Day (20th of November) in Porto Alegre, two white security guards from Carrefour beat João Alberto Silveira Freitas to death, while still at the establishment’s parking lot. Bystanders filmed the shocking scenes of inhumane brutality and begged the security guards to stop. Meanwhile, other Carrefour employees intimidated those recording. In many videos circulating online, one can hear Freitas screaming for help. The beating lasted 5 minutes and 20 seconds and ended with one of the security guards kneeling on Freitas back. By the time the police and first responders arrived, it was too late.
Carrefour and Vector, the company that subcontracts security personnel to the supermarket chain, expressed solidarity to the victim’s family and regretted that the situation escalated to his death. Carrefour also promised to address recurring issues of racism in their establishments. On social media, many condemned the supermarket chain for its racist and violent history in Brazil. In August, at a Carrefour in Recife, one of their employees felt sick and passed away inside the store. Instead of closing it, his body was hidden by umbrellas to not disrupt the customers and sales while the store remained open. In another branch in Rio, an employee was fired after reporting racism from co-workers. In November 2018, in São Bernardo do Campo, Carrefour employees beat another black man for opening a can of beer inside the supermarket.2
Freitas’ case is currently under investigation and the security guards have been arrested for murderer. Nonetheless, with the government officials neglecting the severity of the situation, as well as Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão’s statement that “racism does not exist in Brazil”, revolt from Brazilian civil society and black activists sparked. Across the country, they took the streets chanting “black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe”. Protestors hoped to honor Freitas’ life by denouncing the system that constantly breeds violence against black and brown bodies on an everyday basis in Brazil.
Similar to countries like the United States and South Africa, and contrary to suggestions that the South American country is a “racial democracy”, Brazil has a long and extremely violent history of racism. It was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, while containing the largest African diaspora in the world. The Brazilian government has consistently and continuously inflicted violence against its black and brown populations, while simultaneously silencing their struggle by suggesting Brazil is a “mixed society” and, therefore, systemic racism is an impossibility. Today, Brazil is a de facto segregated society. Not surprisingly, the ruling class is majority white, while the colored working-class lives in a precarious and marginalized situation. It is a country of contrasts and explicit inequalities, where one can see luxurious high-risers right next to a favela.
The normalization of this current reality traces back to Brazil’s colonial roots under the Portuguese Empire. It created frameworks for exploitation and neglect of its black and brown populations, which remains until today. This colonial past, explains why Brazil’s police forces are one of the most violent and brutal in the world. Since it was first created, it aimed to criminalize and oppress black and brown people during slavery and after their emancipation. It is this same history that illustrates why two thirds of those who are incarcerated in Brazil are black or brown. It is a history that is so ingrained into society and institutions that simply trying to mitigate the consequences of racism will not make it disappear.
What some fail to understand is that being black in Brazil means living in constant fear. Fear of walking around without identification, fear of getting accused of being a criminal and getting beat up like Freitas was, fear of being the victim of a stray bullet on your way to work or school. The ways in which this fear affects a black person’s ability to live a normal life is something that a white person will never fully grasp. Peaceful protests do not seem effective in creating the structural changes necessary so that black and brown Brazilians can live and feel safe. Cases like the one that took place in Carrefour warrant frustration, revolt, and retaliation. How could anyone condemn black people’s reaction to the continued violence they endure daily?
On the eve of Black Consciousness Day, it was João Alberto Silveira Freitas who paid the price for the injustices of racism with his life. Before him it was Marielle Franco, Agatha Felix, João Pedro Mattos, Kauê Ribeiro dos Santos, Kauã Rozário, Kauan Peixoto, Jenifer Cilene Gomes, Kethellen de Oliveira, Pedro Gonzaga, Marcos Vinicius, Miguel da Silva and so many more. With that said, I call on those of you members of the Graduate Institute to think about ways in which you can take action in preventing the perpetuation of racism in Brazil and elsewhere. What will you do from your privileged position to stop another black or brown life from being unfairly taken?
Pedro de Castro Souza is a first year Master student of International Affairs and current member of the Latin American Network Initiative (LANI).
Featured photo: “Ato Vidas Negras Importam • 07/06/2020 • Belo Horizonte/MG” by midianinja is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo 2: “Ato Vidas Negras Importam • 07/06/2020 • Belo Horizonte/MG” by midianinja is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo 3: “Ato Vidas Negras Importam • 07/06/2020 • Belo Horizonte/MG” by midianinja is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0