International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman; Steve Martinez; Isac Nóbrega/PR
Emerging Voices /13 Aug 2020
08.13.20

Police Brutality: It’s Not Just in America

What do you know about Brazil? Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s known for harboring 60 percent of the Amazon Rainforest, or their famous Carnival. However, behind the dense rainforest canopy and samba dancers lies a dangerous underbelly of organized crime and police violence.

In order to understand the destructive activity that’s been going on in Brazil, one must have a brief understanding of the social-racial background of the country. After slavery was abolished in the late 1800s, former African slaves weren’t given the means to properly integrate into society, which led them to gather within larger cities and on their outskirts creating boroughs called “favelas.” Today, more than 11 million people live in favelas; larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Salvador have the highest number of these neglected neighborhoods. Favelas often have no basic sanitation, poor health assistance, and deficient if not completely absent government-provided services. However, these low-income communities are linked by strong solidarity ties. The residents are predominately Black Brazilians, who now make up more than half of Brazil’s population.

This leads us to the topic of racism in Brazil. A prominent divide exists between Black and white Brazilians, and it has socioeconomically influenced both sides heavily. Police brutality only continues to reinforce this high prevalence in society. Police are targeting marginalized groups of poor, Black, or mixed-race youth just because they fit into the “criminal stereotype.” The police aren’t afraid of being found guilty of these reckless shootings and cold-blooded killings because the Bolsonaro government has granted the police a license to kill, securing them impunity from any questionable actions. President Jair Bolsonaro has made it clear that he values and supports what the police are doing, regardless of the deadly impact they have on his own citizens. Not only has he said that “a police officer who doesn’t kill is not a police officer,” but he has also stated that he will send a bill to Congress to provide officers with even more “legal backing.” While some countries focus on the rehabilitation of criminals, Bolsonaro has said, “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” and wishes to continue to wreck homes and destroy Black youth.

Today, Rio de Janeiro is the reigning capital of police brutality in Brazil. For the two million people in Rio living in favelas, there are two constant threats, both equally fatal: COVID-19 and the police. Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio state and an avid follower of Bolsonaro’s police-loving mentality, has promised to “immediately neutralize and slaughter anyone who has a rifle.” Additionally, he allows the police to shoot into favelas of suspected criminals. Although this crackdown on gangs may have shown some results, police killings in 2019 have reached a 21-year high. In Rio alone, there were 1,814 police-caused fatalities, with more than 75 percent of them being of Black civilians. This year, within the first four months of 2020, Rio police killed 606 people. In April, isolation measures were put in place, resulting in robberies and other crimes to drastically drop. However, police violence still managed to skyrocket. Killing an average of six people per day, a 43 percent increase from April 2019, the police were responsible for 35 percent of all killings in Rio for that month.

The Rio favelas are also a popular site for the “Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais,” which translates to Special Police Operations Battalion (also known as BOPE). Founded in 1978, BOPE’s roots come from military special operations. In every aspect, the officers are trained as soldiers and not as police officers. They are granted military-grade weapons and are constantly raiding favelas, disregarding anyone who might lose their life as a bystander. Their random raids can last as long as six hours, throwing everyone in a state of fear and tumult. One raid in the Complexo do Alemão favela, located in the northern part of Rio, lasted four hours and left thirteen dead. Many residents argue that these raids make it difficult to effectively quarantine when they constantly have to come together to clean bodies off the streets.

My question is, how many more people have to die before Brazil sees change? More importantly, how many more kids have to die before this is considered an official issue? Kauê Ribeiro was only 12 years old. Jenifer Cilene was 11. Kauan Peixoto was 12 years old. Ágatha Vitória was 8. Kauã Rozário was 11 years old. Anna Carolina was 8 years old as well. Kethellen Umbelino, a 5-year-old, was walking to school one morning with her mom when she was shot and killed.

Teachers, students, and other volunteers were outside a school in Providência favela, handing out food packages to hungry families hit hard by the economic fallout due to COVID-19. Police suddenly opened fire, claiming they were “responding to gunfire from unidentified suspects.” 19-year-old Rodrigo Cerqueira was caught in the crossfire.

Just 3 days before Cerqueira’s death, João Pedro was playing in his house with his cousins when heavily armed police entered the wrong property, shooting more than 70 high-caliber bullets into his home. His parents weren’t even able to track him down until seventeen hours later when he was already pronounced dead at the coroner’s office. He was 14 years old.

The lack of media and government publicity resulted in the normalization of these killings. Families are forced to mourn silently without any justice for their tragedies. Following João Pedro’s death, there seemed to be a moment of uniform awareness for police violence, but it, unfortunately, did not last long. It took the momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States for mainstream media outlets to finally create an ongoing conversation about Brazil’s domestic racial issues.

This brutality doesn’t dismantle criminal groups; it feeds into an endless cycle of bloodshed. How many more innocent Black Brazilians need to die at the hands of police in order for Brazil to finally take a united and effective stand against racial violence?