Black July is reference to July 23, 1993. What happened that day has been described as one of the most horrific crimes in Brazil’s history—eight homeless street children and teens were massacred at the Candelaria Church in the center of Rio de Janeiro where the kids frequently sought refuge. According to reports, approximately 60 young people survived the attack—the majority were between the ages of five and fourteen. Of the nine people who perpetrated the crime, several were identified as off duty police officers. Only three were ever convicted.Opening Day Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro painted a glorious picture of a society that had learned to fully embrace its diversity. Black rap artists were prominently featured along- side the country’s most elegant and celebrated high fashion model; while hip-hop artists took center stage and performed as if their rap lyrics were the heartbeat of the Brazilian nation having created an amenable hip-hop fusion of all of Brazil’s ethnicities. “We are the world,” the ceremony proclaimed. But, is it?
The country’s opening day image of a utopian and diverse society was in stark contrast to a scathing report released by Amnesty International on July 1. On that day, the international human rights agency reported a huge spike in the number of deaths committed by police in Rio ahead of the Olympic Games.
The report read in part, “According to the Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP), in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone, 40 people were killed by police officers on duty in the month of May: an increase of 135 percent compared to 17 during the same period in 2015. Across the state as a whole, the numbers rose from 44 to 84, an increase of 90 percent.”
The Executive Director of Amnesty International Brazil, Atila Roque said, “The soaring death count ahead of this major sporting event represents an epic failure on the part of the authorities to protect the most fundamental human right–the right to life.”
The story of oppression and violence against Blacks in Rio rings as familiar to Blacks in America as it does to others of African descents in the diaspora whose histories are deeply rooted in the offensive legacy of slavery; who know intimately the varying forms of disenfranchisement; and who have also lived with institutional abuse; and daily suppress a real fear of being criminalized, at times even murdered, for being Black.
“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 the favelas of Rio (called inner city slums, ghettos, barrios in America), Think Progress (TP) recently reported, “In the four years leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, 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.”
The fate of young Black men in Rio is the fate of young Black men in America. As a result, it should come as no surprise that members of Black Lives Matter in this county should find common cause with the Black community of Rio.
Through its political activism, the Black Lives Matter movement has challenged the consciousness of America and shaped the discussion on issues related to police violence, the need for criminal justice reform and a plethora of other critical concerns.
On July 23, nearly 200 Brazilians and six Black Lives Matter delegates from Boston marched through central Rio with pictures of victims of Brazilian police brutality. “Jogos Olimpicos Pra Quem?” they chanted; translation, “The Olympic Games for who?”
2014 was a memorable year for Rio as it related to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. However, 2014 was also a pivotal year for Blacks in America and for Blacks in Rio. It was a year that will forever bind them in a mutual web of international struggle for justice and the right to life.
Just as Rio is considered by many as one of the deadliest cities in the world—so are the streets of America for Black men. 2014 reinforced that reality in both parts of the world. In 2014, Mike Brown and Eric Garner along with numbers of untold others were killed by police on the streets of America. But, it was the deaths of Brown and Garner that for the first time in almost two generations, galvanized a new generation of African Americans in a way that would not be pacified by the usual rhetorical promises of investigations and compromise. It gave birth to a movement—Black Lives Matter—that demanded nothing short of accountability and a full revamping of the nation’s criminal justice system. The movement has galvanized millions of right minded people of all races, religions and socio-economic standing in America and elevated the movement as a voice for the oppressed around the world.Because Americans take little notice of world events, many Black Americans failed to notice Black men were being killed under similar circumstances more than 5,000 miles away in Rio. 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 behind a childcare center in the Pavão-Pavãozinho slum of Copacabana.
Pereira da Silva was loved and revered by Black Brazlians who took to the streets by the thousands in protest. It was during these protests that the next tragedy unfolded—reportedly, a twenty-seven-year-old man with a mental illness was shot in the head and killed by a police officer as he walked with his hands up during a protest. The officer reportedly shot into the crowd at random. The man was described by onlookers as neither dangerous nor a threat to police.
Just as 2014 was a turning point for Blacks in America, it was also a pivotal year for Blacks Brazilians. Like their brothers and sisters in America they too had grown weary of the indignities of injustice. TP offered a poignant assessment, “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.” Blacks in both countries, “… 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.”
In regard to this year’s Summer Olympics, the media has done a very successful job of focusing the world’s attention (and rightly so) on concerns related to Zika in Brazil; however, Blacks in Rio have a graver concern—a concern tied to their immediate ability to survive in a hyper-sensitive police state. Hyper-sensitive because aside from Zika, the world’s attention has also been successfully guided to concerns related to terrorism (and rightly so). And as a result they media has hypothesized in and of itself serves as strong justification for increased security.
In 2015, police killings in Rio increased exponentially to 645. By May, the number had jumped by 135 percent over the previous year.
However, few American mainstream media outlets have reported on the potential threat such a police state might pose to the lives of Black Brazilians in Rio—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 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. To put it in perspective, Rio’s population is nearly two million less than New York City. In 2015, police killings in Rio increased exponentially to 645. By May, the number had jumped by 135 percent over the previous year.
Despite these concerning realities the story gets even worse. Since organizations like Amnesty International brought enhanced international attention to this human rights abuse, the Brazilian government has allegedly shifted strategy. “Instead of killing, police turned to kidnap and torture, making it much harder for families to prove their wrongdoing. The number of disappearances surged,” the agency reported.
For more information on the plight of Black Brazilians visit amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/brazil/report-brazil/.Feature photo: Amnesty International