The disproportionately harsh and violent treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement officials has been at the forefront of national political discourse in the United States since the death of Black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a White officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014.
Mass demonstrations of the kind largely unseen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, have taken place nationwide under the banner of social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Police violence against African-Americans has also garnered international attention, with governments and state-run media outlets from as far away as China, Iran, Russia and Sri Lanka commenting on the issue.i
Less attention, however, has been paid to the treatment of Afro-descendants in Brazil, the country with the second largest Black population on Earth, and where the problem of police brutality against Black people has been described by the head of a government inquiry on the issue, as “much, much worse” compared with in the United States.ii The manner in which Afro-Brazilians are treated unethically by law enforcement is much the same as the injustices faced by their counterparts in the United States, but the reaction among the majority of Afro-Brazilians has been comparatively restrained. There are many hindrances to large-scale social action among Afro-Brazilians, and Brazil has therefore seen markedly less progress on the issue of racially-motivated police violence than has the United States.
Police and the Black Community: Brazil and the United States
Racial profiling—defined as the targeting of individuals by authorities based solely on phenotypic characteristics—though illegal, remains widespread in both countries. The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that African-Americans are disproportionately more likely than Whites to be stopped, searched and arrested by authorities.iii Whites who are stopped on the other hand, are more likely to be released with a verbal warning, though they are more likely to be found carrying contraband.iv
In 2006, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission accused Brazilian police of operating “with the presumption” that all residents of Brazil’s favelas or urban slums, up to 90% of whom are Black, are “inherently criminal,” believing them to be associated with drug trafficking or organized crime.v The United Nations re-iterated the existence and pervasive of racial profiling among Brazilian authorities in 2014.vi
Arrest and Incarceration
Black arrestees in both Brazil and the United States continue to face racial bias as they progress throughout their respective criminal justice systems. The United Nations has criticized the Brazilian judiciary of maintaining “integrated racial prejudices,” and a 2013 report by The Sentencing Project, submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee leveled the same charge against American judges and juries.vii The reports substantiate these charges on the fact that Black defendants in both countries are more likely than their White counterparts to be convicted of crimes and incarcerated.viii They also receive longer sentences than Whites for the same offenses.ix
The disproportionate use of deadly force by law enforcement against Afro-descendants has above all issues, galvanized the Black community in both countries to action. The problem however, exists on a substantially larger scale in Brazil than in the United States.
Brazil has been described as having a “Ferguson every day.”x Data compiled by the Brazilian Public Security Forum reveals that while Brazil has a smaller population than the United States, Brazilian police have killed more civilians in the last five years than police in the United States have killed over the past 30 years, at a rate of about six per day.xi The majority of those Brazilians killed by police were Black, with estimates ranging from 64% to nearly 80% in 2015.xii In comparison, African-Americans constituted about 26.5% of all people killed by police last year in the United States.xiii However, it should be noted that these figures cannot convey how many of those shootings were without justification.
The killing only intensified in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, as police work to secure control of the city’s favelas from violent gangs. In a scathing report, Amnesty International (AI) called the behavior of police in the city “trigger happy,” and “violent.”xiv According to AI, “extrajudicial executions,” in which suspects were killed after surrendering or after having been incapacitated by police, are common.xv Furthermore, the group charges that scenes of police killings are “frequently altered” by authorities to cover up any evidence of wrongdoing. xvi Ironically, such cover-ups may not even be necessary, as the vast majority of police shootings in Brazil are not investigated. Authorities generally claim that dead suspects were criminals “killed while resisting arrest.” xvii Such claims are rarely ever challenged.
The problems of police violence and the lack of accountability are well illustrated by the shootings of Chauan Jambre Cezário, 19, and Alan de Souza Lima, 15, last February. They were Black residents of a Rio favela, shot by police while playing. Police shot the boys before asking questions as to what they were doing, killing Lima and leaving Cezário seriously wounded. Cezário was taken to the hospital, but authorities claimed that he and Lima were carrying guns and resisting arrest. Fortunately, video from Lima’s cell phone documented the incident and revealed that the police account was entirely false. Charges against Cezário were dropped, but the officers involved were not charged with any misconduct.xviii
A report by The Economist notes that police violence, and the associated lack of accountability are not problems unique to the city of Rio de Janeiro. Police, according to the report are “horrifyingly violent all over Brazil.”xixPolice in Sao Paulo are believed to have in 2012, carried out “several drive-by shootings,” in an “indiscriminate” manner against favela residents as revenge for the death of officers at the hands of gang members.xx
Equally disturbing was the shooting of Sergio Silva Santos, a young, physically handicapped favela resident in Salvador da Bahia who survived being shot by police who had initially approached him for questioning. Instead of rendering aid or reporting the incident, authorities took Santos to a remote area, executed him and planted a gun on his body. They reported that Santos had died in a firefight with them, but his disability called the report into question. One of the officers confessed to the murder, but none were charged or even fired from the police department.xxiWhile this incident took place in 1999, it remains relevant because it demonstrates how little has changed over the decades regarding accountability and police violence against young, poor, Black men. Furthermore, in light of the March 2014 conviction of ten police officers involved in the killing of prison inmates in 1992, it may still be possible for justice to be rendered in older cases of police brutality.xxii
The lack of accountability in police shootings is by no means only a Brazilian issue. In the United States, charges are filed against officers in only 3% of all police killings and only one-third of those cases result in a conviction.xxiii Nearly 7% of the African-Americans, and almost 20% of all the people, killed by police last year had no weapon of any kind.xxiv It is important to note that the shooting of an unarmed suspect by police is not inherently unjustified. It can be warranted if the suspect attempted to take control of an officer’s gun. However, cases like the non-indictment of an New York City police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, in which video evidence revealed wrongdoing on the part of the officer, suggest that there is indeed a problem in the United States with successfully holding officers accountable for unwarranted killings.
One principal difference between Brazil and the United States, however, is that police killings and the absence of accountability for the officers involved have sparked nationwide public anger and large-scale social action in the latter. In Brazil, on the other hand, these issues in most cases have not garnered massive public attention or prompted high emotions.
Black Lives Matter
Since it burst onto the national stage in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement has affected some significant changes and paradigm shifts in American society. The U.S government, as well as some state and local police departments, have taken steps towards ensuring police accountability and improving police-community relations.
In 2015, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch pledged $20 million in federal money to help provide body-worn cameras to police departments across the nation.xxv As of this year, one-third of America’s police departments have equipped their officers with body cameras, with about 95% of all departments expressing a commitment to do the same.xxvi In part because of these measures, twice as many police shootings this year have been caught on camera over the first half of 2015, and criminal charges filed against police officers involved in these incidents have tripled over the past year-and-a-half.xxvii Studies have indicated that police and civilians are more comfortable with each other and get along better in the presence of body cameras.xxviii
Furthermore, President Barack Obama has banned the transfer of some forms of surplus military equipment to local police forces, after activists in Ferguson and elsewhere charged that access to military equipment encouraged police aggression and soured relations with the community.xxix Aside from changes in public policy, there has also been a shift in the dominant training paradigms in police departments across the country. The emphasis on the use of force in police training is gradually being replaced by lessons in de-escalation, dealing effectively with the mentally ill, and combating implicit racial bias.xxx
The Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Shootings
The progress that Black Lives Matter activism has achieved, as well as the challenges that remain, have been illustrated by the July 2016 police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on the July 7 and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 9. Both men were shot and killed by police, but video taken of the incidents suggest that both shootings were unwarranted.xxxi These incidents reveal that the problem has not yet been solved, and police are still more likely to use deadly force against African-American suspects than White. The governor of the state of Minnesota himself surmised that Castile’s shooting would not have happened if he were White.xxxii While these shootings have shocked, horrified, and angered the nation, and the Black community in particular, there are notable differences in the reaction to these shootings compared with some of those which preceded it.
Firstly, the U.S. Department of Justice has been called in to investigate both shootings.xxxiii This is in stark contrast to similar cases in the past, in which investigations were led by local authorities who activists accused of being incapable of objectivity, given their close working relationships with police departments.
Secondly is the reaction to these shootings by some prominent conservatives who in the past have been silent, or in complete agreement with law enforcement on the issue of possible racial-motivation in police behavior. For example, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and 2012 Republican presidential candidate said that White Americans “don’t understand being black in America,” and “instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”xxxiv Also, members of the National Rifle Association have expressed outrage at the shooting of Castile, who had a legal permit to carry a concealed firearm, and they harshly criticized their group’s failure to immediately condemn the incident.xxxv
Even the Republican Party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has previously expressed unwavering support for law enforcement, issued a statement calling both shootings “senseless.”xxxvi In a subsequent interview, Trump acknowledged “it could be” that African-Americans are treated differently by police than are Whites.xxxvii While most conservatives still detest the Black Lives Matter movement, seeing it as divisive, dangerous, and fostering hatred of police, the debate sparked by the movement regarding police violence against Blacks seems to have convinced at least some conservatives of the problem’s existence.
Afro-Brazilian Social Action
In Brazil, meanwhile, Afro-Brazilians, while perhaps less vocal, are not entirely silent on the issue of police brutality. Social movements protesting and mobilizing against police violence do exist, like Amnesty International’s Jovem Negro Vivo. Also, Brazilians have demonstrated a willingness and the ability to affect change on this issue through social action.
Brazilians nationwide expressed outrage at the 2013 death of Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old bricklayer living in a Rio favela. De Souza was brought in for questioning by police on suspicion of drug trafficking despite having no criminal record, and was never seen again. Authorities denied any involvement in his disappearance, but protests led to an investigation, which revealed that De Souza was tortured to death by police. In February of 2016, in no small part due to the public outrage, thirteen of the officers involved were charged with murder and sent to prison.xxxviii
Most cases of police killings, however, especially those involving younger Black men, receive much less public attention. The Washington Post reports that police killings of young unarmed Black men in Brazil are “barely noticed” by the majority of people.xxxix Most protests have been un-sustained, small-scale (relative to what is seen in the United States), and localized to communities where the incidents took place. Jovem Negro Vivo itself admits that Black deaths in Brazil are “generally treated with indifference.”xl
Furthermore, according to The Washington Post, police killings or any kind of recognition or analysis of the issue are normally given “little space in the national media.” In reaction to the shooting of five young, unarmed Black men in Rio last year, Humberto Adami, director of the Institute of Racial and Environmental Advocacy asked “why don’t people get as indignant as in the United States?”xli There are several key reasons for this.
Lack of Unity among Afro-Brazilians
A lack of unity among Afro-Brazilians is arguably the primary reason for the absence of mass mobilization and the resultant sustained community action. Brazil does not have the kind of rigid, binary system of racial classification seen in the United States. Light skinned Brazilians with mixed European and African ancestry are classified as a separate, intermediate race. They are generally slightly better treated in society than their darker skinned counterparts, and have greater access to jobs, promotions and slightly higher incomes.xlii In a phenomenon termed the ‘mulatto escape hatch,’ light-skinned Afro-Brazilians are traditionally more likely than dark-skinned to enter the middle class, where they tend to associate themselves more with middle-class Whites, as opposed to other Afro-Brazilians.xliii
For these reasons, class- and color-based divisions and resentments exist within the Afro-Brazilian community, impeding solidarity. Poor, often darker-skinned Afro-Brazilians have not been inclined to respond to calls for mobilization, which have largely come from middle-class Afro-Brazilians.xliv Furthermore, many Afro-Brazilians still believe that institutional racism is not a problem in Brazil, and that their mistreatment is a result of their social class alone.xlv Therefore, they see no need to either protest racial discrimination, or to mix their politics with their racial identity.xlvi
However, this trend is starting to change among the millennial generation of Afro-Brazilians. Because of the rise of social media, greater access to higher education among Afro-Brazilians due to affirmative action programs, and the influence of U.S. social movements like Black Lives Matter, young Afro-Brazilians have been much more socially active than previous generations.xlvii Still though, Afro-Brazilian social movements do not find mass support among the Black community, and a sustained national effort to address the issue of police violence has not yet taken hold.
Desire for Law and Order
Division within the Afro-Brazilian community is not the only encumbrance to Black mobilization to protest police violence and racial discrimination. Another reason for this is that many Brazilians across class and racial lines hold strong support for law enforcement and are in favor of aggressive police tactics.
Brazil is a relatively violent country, with an intentional homicide rate seven times that of the United States.xlviii This rampant violence has left many Brazilians very afraid, and this fear, according to Human Rights Watch, has given law enforcement “carte blanche to commit abuses.”xlix Because the Brazilian criminal justice system is widely seen as slow and ineffective, and criminal gangs have enormous influence in the country’s prisons, many Brazilians, civilian and police alike, feel that arresting and incarcerating criminals is ineffectual in reducing the level of crime and violence in their country. For these reasons, there are many on all levels of society including among the marginalized poor, content to “let the police act” in any way they see fit if it means reducing crime—even killing suspects outright. l li
Also, as in the United States, Black people in Brazil are widely stereotyped as criminals.lii The public oftentimes is unmoved at the sight of young Black men shot by police, and is willing to quickly accept authorities’ accounts of their victims’ guilt. Therefore, a great many Brazilians, especially in the middle and upper classes, see no need to criticize such acts of violence or to reform police practices.
Fear of Retaliation
The dangers associated with protesting in Brazil also help to explain the relative lack of Afro-Brazilian social action, especially on the issue of police brutality. Brazilian police are reportedly much more aggressive than their U.S counterparts in breaking up demonstrations.
Amnesty International reports that especially over the past three years, military police have employed excessively violent measures to disperse peaceful demonstrators, regardless of race.liii The report charges that police have fired stun grenades, tear gas canisters and other chemical irritants in enclosed spaces and at close range. Furthermore, police reportedly fire rubber bullets directly at the faces of demonstrators, and have wantonly, indiscriminately, and viciously beat demonstrators with batons. liv
Police aggression has spawned an intense culture of fear among favela residents. Fear of retaliation by authorities if they protest or try to hold police accountable. For example, Chauan Jambre Cezário and his family have expressed reluctance to pursue legal action against the officers who shot him because “we know they have friends.”lv Also, members of the Afro-Brazilian social movement Reaja ou Sera Morte (React or Die) in Salvador da Bahia have received threats against their lives for protesting police brutality. These threats, Al Jazeera reports, have only intensified.lvi A poll taken this year in Rio revealed that favela residents fear the police more than they do drug traffickers and illegal armed militias.lvii In addition to explaining their general reluctance to protest police brutality, this revelation only underscores the desperate need for a reformation of police behavior, as well as for greater trust between the police and poor communities.
Given these many concerns, especially for personal safety, asking Afro-Brazilians to mobilize and engage in social action is to ask a lot. However, if the problems of racial profiling and the disproportionate use of violence by police against young Black men in Brazil are to be solved, there may not be another option. The wider Brazilian society, much of the political elite, and the mainstream media have largely been apathetic and have ignored these issues, and will continue to do so as long as they are allowed.
It is important that all Afro-Brazilians become aware of how their race defines their role in society, and develop solidarity across lines of class and shade. Only in this way, can a national movement be created which will effectively bring the issues facing the Black community to the center of Brazilian national discourse. Social action can also help to challenge the longstanding stereotypes of Black people by increasing their visibility, allowing the wider society to see them in a different, more favorable light. In this way, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States helped to shatter some of the most extreme stereotypes of Black inferiority.
It is important for Black movements in both the Brazil and the United States to recognize that not all police officers are the same, and most want only to protect and to serve their communities. So dialogues between the police and Black communities must be established to foster mutual trust and respect. It is only when authorities gain the trust, not the fear, of communities that crime can be substantially curtailed. However, both countries’ governments must ensure that officers who do act inappropriately are held accountable, and a criminal justice system must exist wherein offenders are properly punished and everyone is treated fairly.
The divides between police and Black communities in Brazil and the United States may seem insurmountable, but there is hope for change. There is no problem which cannot be solved if all sides come together, recognize legitimacies in the other’s concerns, and engage in honest and open discussion of the issues which cause dissention amongst them and how to solve them. All while remembering that there is more that unites them than that which divides them.
About the author:
*Andrew Lumsden was a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org. The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. He is currently an International Relations graduate student at the City University of New York-Brooklyn College. Email: [email protected]
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