by Julia Maia Goldani and Anna Paula Bennech
Ph.D. candidate in Law and Development at Fundação Getútlio Vargas (Brazil) and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Würzburg University (Germany)
Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
When we look back on 2020, the first fact that comes to mind is the COVID-19 pandemic and its harsh effects on public health and the world economy. However, suppose we reflect a bit longer. In that case, another event of global relevance stands out: the killing of the African-American citizen George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the United States of America).
In May 2020, Floyd’s brutal murder by asphyxiation at white police officers’ hands sparked an uproar of street protests against institutional racism and police brutality. Despite social distancing recommendations, over 140 cities in the US held demonstrations. Support from social movements in other countries followed suit, along with intense, international media coverage of the protests and the investigation held against the Minneapolis police force (Taylor, 2021).
Parallel to the real-life protests, black squares and the hashtags #Blacklivesmatter and #Blackouttuesday dominated social media feeds for weeks. Some might say it seemed like the whole world “could not breathe.” A broad debate arose about how big players [or stakeholders, if you prefer] could go beyond social media protests and transform them into financial support for anti-racist actions and internal institutional changes, for instance (Coascarelli, 2020). The watchword here is structural racism because “racism is indeed institutional and structured,” which demands fundamental responses “to initiate the process of eliminating it” (Al Jazeera English [Interviewing Angela Davis], 2020, 2:21).
Around six months after these events, on November 19th, another black citizen was murdered in public by security agents, this time in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state. The victim was João Alberto Silveira Freitas, known to his friends and family by the commonplace Brazilian nickname “Beto,” equivalent to Bill or so in English. The 40-year-old autonomous construction worker was killed by two private guards – one of which was an off-duty military police officer – in a Carrefour supermarket, where security agents restrained him after an alleged confrontation with a cashier clerk. She reported that Beto “seemed furious about something,” besides “showing signs of drunkenness and not wearing a mask” (G1 RS, 2020, our translation). Much like Floyd, Beto was inadvertently asphyxiated by the guards. In both cases, they were held down, and the guards did not respond to their asking for help or onlookers’ alerts.
As a response, Porto Alegre’s black movement’s leadership figures organized protests in front of the Carrefour, and a march in support was held in São Paulo, the country’s largest city (PODER360, 2020). Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Beto’s death received significantly less media coverage than Floyd’s, even when we consider only national media outlets. Moreover, while there were widespread shows of solidarity from Brazilians in reaction to what happened in Minneapolis, Beto’s very similar story seems to have failed to become a household reference in the country, despite hitting much closer to home. Why is that?
Although racial discrimination and violence are certainly worldwide issues, Brazil stands out in its tendency to naturalize the deaths of its black citizens. Public indignation seems to come in only small, quick outbursts, while more determined action is restricted to specific social milieus.
Data from the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (FBSP, Brazilian Forum for Public Security) shows that out of the country’s 6.357 violent deaths resulting from police interventions in 2019, 79,1% had black persons as victims (FBSP, 2020). Amongst these are children like João Pedro Matos Pinto (14 years old), Agatha Félix (8), Kauê Ribeiro dos Santos (12), and Kauan Rosário (11), all shot by the police in the proximity of their homes during security operations in Rio’s favelas between 2019 and early 2020 (Franco, 2020). Except in Agatha’s case, their deaths did not even result in criminal lawsuits against the perpetrating officers. Studies have shown that, in cases of police violence against civilians, Brazilian prosecutors and judges usually acquiesce with the police force’s internal disciplinary decisions, archive investigations, and drop charges (Neme, 2007, p. 91). The latent question is: what is different about these types of murders, so they are excluded from the access to due process? We should probably look at their ZIP code and ID pictures – neighborhood and skin color are most likely a good hint.
As the Brazilian sociologist Jessé de Souza (2018, p. 219) points out, Brazil’s historical formation has led its upper and middle classes to see its black population as sub-citizens unworthy of empathy, especially the marginalized, underprivileged sectors that interact more with law enforcement. Therefore, it makes these strata easy victims of what Achille Mbembé (2003, p. 11-12) calls necropolitics: the use of state power to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.
In necropolitics, although there is no explicit intention of exterminating certain groups from the body politic, a series of decisions from the sovereign power work to place specific populations in a social existence marked by precarious living conditions and constant possibilities of death (Mbembé, 2003, p. 25-29). This phenomenon seems to be the case of Brazil’s marginalized black citizens. Through factors such as economic exclusion and institutional racism, they are placed in “death-worlds” (Mbembé, 2003, p. 40), in which they must constantly interact with their mortality and that of their close ones. Also, an automatic and often inaccurate association between interaction with law enforcement and involvement with criminality makes (black) deaths by police intervention justifiable to the rest of the population, a trend that is also fed into by Brazilian mainstream media.
Source: Reproduction TV/Folha
In Beto’s case, another critical element to consider is that one of the security guards involved was a military police officer working off-duty to complement his income. This reality is ordinary in Brazil due to the low salaries and work conditions offered to the police (Muniz, Proença, 2007, p. 163). When we consider that a large portion of the country’s patrolling officers is composed of black men from low-income backgrounds (Sinhoretto, Lima, 2015, p. 129), it becomes clear that the conservative arguments that “denouncing police racism means attacking officers who risk their lives daily” cannot be upheld in Brazil. The police officers, too, are victims of structural racism, and the majority (51,7%) of the agents who effectively lose their lives to lethal violence while on the job are black (FBSP, 2019).
Most Brazilian families have a Beto around and the raw reality is that Beto dies every day in Brazil. More than that, many Betos are killed daily, and a veil of normality covers it. Beto is a symbol of the Brazilian structural racism guiding state politics and policies. As Elza Soares would sing: “the cheapest flesh on the market is the black flesh.” And, despite black families being used to losing their relatives to police brutality and state necropolitics, their grief is not reduced by repetition, so that it eventually becomes a mandatory – and continuous – part of their lives. In Brazil, #Blacklivesmatter more and majorly when they are not Beto.
Al Jazeera English. (2020, June 25). Angela Davis: ‘Racism is embedded in the fabric of this country” | The Bottom Line [Video]. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LiMOThNpxU. Accessed on: Jan. 2021.
Coscarelli, J. (2020, June 2). #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/arts/music/what-blackout-tuesday.html. Accessed on: Jan. 2021.
Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública – FBSP. (2020). Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública 2020. São Paulo: [FBSP]. Available at: https://forumseguranca.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/anuario-14-2020-v1-interativo.pdf. Acessed on: jan. 2021.
Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública – FBSP. (2019). Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública 2019. São Paulo: [FBSP].
Franco, L. (2020, May 20). Caso João Pedro: quatro crianças foram mortas por operações policiais no Rio no último ano. BBC News Brasil em São Paulo. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-52731882. Accessed on: jan. 2021.
G1 RS. (2020, December 17). MP denuncia seis pessoas pela morte de João Alberto em supermercado de Porto Alegre. G1 Rio Grande do Sul. Available at:
https://g1.globo.com/rs/rio-grande-do-sul/noticia/2020/12/17/mp-denuncia-seis-pessoas-pela-morte-de-joao-alberto-em-supermercado-de-porto-alegre.ghtml. Accessed on: jan. 2021.
Mbembé, A. (2017). Necropolitics. Public Culture, 15(1), 11-40. Translated to English by Libby Meintjes.
Muniz, J. D. O. & Proença Jr., D. (2007). Muita politicagem, pouca política os problemas da polícia são. Estudos Avançados, 21(61), 159-172.
Neme, C. (2007). Reforma en la policía: control de la violencia policial en São Paulo. URVIO-Revista Latinoamericana de Seguridad Ciudadana, (2), 85-98.
PODER360. (2020, November 20). Morte de Beto provoca onda de protestos antirracismo pelo Brasil. Poder 360. Available at: https://www.poder360.com.br/brasil/morte-de-joao-beto-provoca-onda-de-protestos-antirracismo-pelo-brasil/. Accessed on Jan. 27, 2021.
Sinhoretto, J. & de Lima, R. S. (2015). Narrativa autoritária e pressões democráticas na segurança pública e no controle do crime. Contemporânea-Revista de Sociologia da UFSCar, 5(1), 119-141.
de Souza, J. (2018). Subcidadania brasileira: para entender o país além do jeitinho brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Leya.
Taylor, D. B. (2021, January 6). George Floyd Protests: A Timeline. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html. Accessed on: Jan. 27, 2021.