The protests that have emerged in the United States under the banner Black Lives Matter are similar to decades-old movements in Latin America. At the core of all of this organizing, according to Tianna S. Paschel, is the same attempt to humanize black people. While those interested in inequality have tended to ask how black people are living, black rights movement sacross the Americasare demanding that society confront a more difficult question: How are black people dying?
Robson Silveira da Luz was a 27-year-old black man from São Paulo, Brazil. He was a worker and a father, who on June 18, 1978, was falsely accused of stealing fruit from an outdoor market. The police tortured him, and he died in custody. His death sparked protests that ended in the founding of the most important black political organization in Brazil: the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (MNU-CDR, later called the MNU). Amid denunciations of the police and calls for justice, the family of Robson Silveira issued a statement:
The circumstances that ended in the death of Robson are not isolated from all of the other forms of abuse of power and the repression that we all are subject to when there continues to be death squads and [people like] Abdala [the police chief in charge of the precinct where Robson was tortured] who act on their own. It’s because this, to a certain extent, is permitted. We feel it in our own flesh the need for the minimum of individual rights [to] be respected, like the right to life. We do not believe it is right that in exchange for bananas, or rice, or beans, or meat, whatever food item, that someone would lose their life at the hands of the state.
The letter went on to ask for the solidarity of anyone who was against “the abuse of power,” “racial discrimination,” and the violation of “individual rights.” It was signed, “May, 1978, 90 years since the Abolition [of slavery], the Family of Robson Silveira da Luz.” In including “90 years since abolition,” Robson’s family underscored the continuities between black life under slavery and contemporary practices that dehumanize black people. Moreover, as tragic as the death of Robson Silveira was, his family emphasized that it was not an isolated incident.
State violence against black people didn’t stop with the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985. And the criminalization of black communities doesn’t end at Brazil’s borders. Throughout Latin America, a decadeslong fight against racism has developed. While black movements have made some strides in compelling states to recognize racial disparities—helping to pass anti-racism legislation such as collective land rights for black rural communities in a number of countries and affirmative action laws in Colombia and Brazil—they have struggled to force governments to acknowledge racism in their criminal justice systems. Today, the movements are coalescing across borders and recognizing the similarities of their campaigns. The fight for racial justice in Latin America precedes Black Lives Matter in the U.S., but the movements are acting increasingly in solidarity with each other.
THE RACIAL PARADISE MYTH
Latin America is perhaps the last place one expects racialized state violence to take place. While it is a region with deep histories of authoritarianism, abuses were generalized, never specifically about race. Latin America was seen a place of racial transcendence, evident in its lack of ethno-racial conflict, long tradition of racially egalitarian laws, and of national, rather than ethno-racial, identities. Upon independence, Latin American states extended citizenship to all ethno-racial groups, including the descendants of enslaved Africans, which in some cases made up over half of the population. Moreover, as the U.S. banned interracial mixing and marriage, many Latin American countries embraced it. In fact, mestizaje—or the cultural and biological mixture between different peoples (e.g. European, African, and indigenous)—was not only widespread, it was held as the foundation of national identity in the Andean region and in countries like Brazil and Mexico.
This is likely why, throughout the 20th century, visitors to Latin America described the region as a racial paradise of sorts. One Brazilian diplomat suggested before the United Nations in 1978, “even though there is a multiplicity of races that live within our borders, racial problems simply do not exist in Brazil.”
State officials in Colombia, too, argued that the prevalence of race mixture, a tradition of colorblind legalism, and universal citizenship had made racial conflict disappear. A Colombian diplomat captured this idea in a 1984 report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: “The legal and social organization of Colombia has always guaranteed racial equality and the absence of discrimination [against] any element of the population.”
But these testaments to racial egalitarianism were just not true. Rather than a paradise, Latin America was better characterized as a region of profound contradictions. In this, formal equality existed alongside deep ethno-racial inequalities, cultural mixture alongside processes of forced assimilation. What is more, in countries like Mexico and Argentina, slavery and the presence of black populations were erased from nationalist narratives. Even in cases where blackness was the center of the nation, such as Brazil, the African contributions to the nation were relegated to areas like dance, music, and sexual freedom rather than the European virtues—industriousness, discipline, intelligence, innovation, and discovery—that were seen as the key to the nation’s future.
There were also deep material inequalities. Throughout Latin America, indigenous people were much more likely than nonindigenous people to live in poverty and work in the informal sector. In Brazil—the only country besides Cuba to consistently collect data on black and mixed-race people over the last century—whites had higher incomes, higher levels of education, and better health outcomes than nonwhites. Furthermore, in 2005, black Colombians were nearly twice as likely to be impoverished; their infant mortality rate was twice as high; and they had much shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population, according to studies using Colombia’s census data.
These inequalities also exist in the labor market. A recent audit study in Colombia and survey research in Brazil found systematic bias against black workers in the job market. Black political organizations throughout Latin America have known this for some time, having denounced such discrimination for decades. This was the case with the campaign No Me Pidas Una Foto, or Don’t Ask for My Picture, launched in the early 2000s by the Afro-Panamanian movement in response to employers requiring job candidates to send along a photo with their application. They held that such practices were at the center of job market discrimination.
Similar practices of labor discrimination are endemic in Brazil. After raising the issue of racial inequality in the labor market in Brazil for decades, the Center for the Study of Work Relations and Inequality (CEERT) conducted a national survey—in collaboration with Brazilian banks—where they found that even when one takes into consideration differences in education between white and black Brazilians, whites were overrepresented and blacks were very much underrepresented in bank teller positions. These contemporary forms of discrimination, paired with historical ones originating from slavery and colonization, have made blackness nearly synonymous with poverty in Latin American countries.
Equally as important as these socio-economic inequalities are the de facto racial hierarchies that permeate these societies. These take the form of gaps in political representation, unequal access to justice, and the pervasiveness of anti-blackness in popular culture. Beyond the question of unequal representation in the media, with few exceptions, the roles that black television actors play are the predictable ones: slaves, maids, criminals, gardeners, and security guards.
Plus, Latin America may be the only region in the world where, regardless of what country you find yourself in, you can turn on prime-time television and find romanticized portrayals of slavery as well as blackface. El Negro Mamá in Peru and El Dominicano in Puerto Rico are just a few examples of the latter. In one scene, El Negro Mamá—played by a white/mestizo Peruvian actor wearing a mask with dark brown skin, large lips, and thick nose and speaking a slow, slurred Spanish—sneaks into a bank, pretends to be a teller, and steals all of the bank customers’ money. Similarly, in the Mexican comedy show, Cero en Conducta, Afro-Mexican singer and actor Johnny Laboriel plays the part of an African student joining an elementary school class. When the teacher introduces him, she asks the other students to “throw flowers” at him, a Spanish expression for giving someone compliments. Instead, the entire class throws trash and bananas at him as they imitate him by making monkey and gorilla sounds. At best, such portrayals naturalize the presence of black people in subordinate positions; at worst, they reproduce racist ideas of black people as ignorant, primitive, and criminal.
One might dismiss these cultural expressions of racism as less important than material inequalities. In reality, they’re vital not only because of their pervasiveness, but because they speak directly to the systematic devaluing of black peoples’ lives to which recent movements are responding. Inequality in all of these spheres helps to reproduce the idea that black Latin Americans are of less value to society than their white and mestizo counterparts. As such, much of the activism around police killings—in the United States and in Latin American countries—has been about countering what protesters have rightfully identified as the dehumanization of black people. As Afro-Brazilian activist Hamilton Borges explained: “We saw a lot of people die in the city [of Salvador da Bahia], young black women and men dying, and the human rights organizations didn’t say a thing. And the black movement could only discuss one thing. It was as if we couldn’t discuss our own death. And so, it was then, in the face of more than 14 deaths in one weekend, that we decided to politicize our death.”
Black political organizing in Latin America has intensified over the last three decades. The number of groups and their level of visibility in domestic and international politics have all increased. While these movements have not always been massive, they have been made up of dedicated activists that have engaged in sustained pressure on their respective states.
Such organizing culminated during the 2001 Third World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa. Partially in response to the transnational activism around this international conference, Brazil, along with other Latin American states, began to move beyond the multicultural policies of the 1990s and adopt legislation with the specific aim of reducing racial inequality.
This shift toward ethno-racial policymaking happened throughout Latin America. Even so, Colombia and Brazil stood out not only because of the size of the black movements, but also because of their successes. Both the Colombian and Brazilian governments institutionalized a number of black movement demands: inalienable collective land titles for black rural communities alongside indigenous peoples, affirmative action in universities, more political representation, the criminalization of racism, the teaching of black history in public schools, and the acknowledgment of holidays recognizing Afro-Colombian and Afro-Brazilian contributions to the nation. As Afro-Colombian activist turned mayor, Zulia Mena, underscored when talking about Colombia’s 1993 Law of Black Communities: “It was a law that recognized some of the rights that had historically been our rights, but which the state did not want to recognize.” She added that this was “the first time the Colombian state recognized the African roots here in Colombia.”
While such recognition was an important fruit of black organizing, racialized state violence never made it onto the agenda of Colombian and Brazilian political leaders. In Colombia, despite legal protections and collective land titles, Afro-Colombians continue to be overrepresented among the victims of the country’s protracted civil war between leftist guerrilla groups, the military, and, more recently, paramilitary forces. What is more, nearly all of the assassinations of Afro-Colombian activists in recent years have not been properly investigated, and thousands of Afro-Colombians have been forced to flee their homes in rural areas to face differnt forms of discrimination in Colombia’s urban centers.
According to the NGO, the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), while black individuals represent about 10 percent of Colombia’s population, they make up approximately 30 percent of the country’s approximately 5 million internally displaced peoples. Despite this disproportionate impact, black voices have largely been shut out of the historic peace negotiations between the Colombian state and guerrilla leaders in Havana. This has forced organizations like AFRODES and the Black Communities Movement to organize the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council, which has argued that by not providing much-needed security for black leaders and failing to recognize the land rights of black communities located in regions with natural resources, the Colombian state is complicit in the violence.
Colombia, much like the United States, uses the illegal drug trade to justify state violence. As it has in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, the war on drugs has resulted in the generalized criminalization of black people. The mestizo police commander of Buenaventura, dubbed the murder capital of Colombia, put this generalized suspicion bluntly in the recent documentary Pacificadores of the Pacifico: “Every 20 meters [in Buenaventura], you’ll see children playing. All of them are fed by narcotráfico. They are all fat … with happy faces. It is the drug trade that is taking good care of those kids.”
In Brazil, the urban state violence against black communities is particularly dire. While the data is notoriously inaccurate, more citizens die at the hands of the police and death squads (grupos de extermínio) in Brazil than in any other democracy in the world. Brazilian on-duty police officers killed 11,000 people between 2009 and 2013, according to Brazilian Public Security Forum, an independent research group. That’s more than police officers did in the United States over the last 30 years, a country with double Brazil’s population and its own infamously high rates. And these numbers do not even include murders committed by death squads, which are thought to be rampant.
While these death squads are not official state forces, they are often made up, at least in part, of off-duty police officers and, precisely because of their informal nature, are known for their violence. One of the most shocking cases of death squad killings was the 1993 Chacina da Candelaria (Candelaria Massacre), in which a death squad massacred eight children, most of them black, on the side of a Catholic Church in Rio de Janeiro. About 10 years later, one of the children that survived that tragedy—Sandro do Nascimento—held a bus hostage in a saga that unfolded on Brazilian television over an entire day. When he was finally captured by the police—not having physically harmed anyone on the bus—he was killed on the way to the police station.
Later, and in the context of Rio’s preparation for the 2014 World Cup and a city campaign to pacify the favelas, killings like the ones that happened in Candelaria increased. In 2011, in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone there were 220 police killings. While the data on the color/race of those killed by police in Brazil is uneven, over the last decade numerous reports suggest that those murdered are much more likely to be from the favelas and to be nonwhite. Most recently, using data from Brazil’s 2010 census, Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) found that Brazilians who identify as black or mulato were almost four times as likely as whites to be the victim of a homicide and nearly twice as likely to report experiencing aggression by either the police or private security forces.
Human Rights Watch reports that many of these extrajudicial killings—both at the hands of on-duty police officers and those involved in death squads—are never tried. The ones that do make it to court reveal police cover-ups including planting and removing evidence from crime scenes, moving bodies, and staging shootouts post facto. The narratives of police officers typically rely on the idea that those murdered were marginais, or criminals, who deserved to die. This was the case in the neighborhood of Cabula in Salvador in February 2015; police tortured and murdered 12 black boys and men between the ages of 16 and 27, execution style, in the necks. They argued that the youth were involved in criminal activity, an accusation that has never been proven.
These egregious cases are perhaps why many black Brazilians have such little trust in the police. According to the IPEA study, 62 percent of black Brazilians reported they would not seek out the police if facing a violent situation, compared to 38 percent of whites. Of course, that black Brazilians are more likely to be poor and live in favelas surely contributes to the wariness of the police.
GENOCIDIO DO POVO NEGRO
The movement that began in the late 1970s in response to the unjust murder of Robson Silveira da Luz continued to protest against state violence and other forms of racism for the next decades. Like Robson’s family, the movement that emerged linked the dehumanization of black people to Brazil’s brutal system of slavery. These efforts were re-energized in 2005 when a number of activists, some of them who began their activism with the MNU, formed Reaja o Será Morto (React or Die), an organization dedicated to fighting against what they call the “genocídio do povo negro,” or the genocide of black people. The group has been vocal and contentious, demanding justice for the families and communities affected by racialized state violence.
While their efforts started in Salvador, they have begun to amass a large grass-roots following throughout Brazil. Over the last several years, Reaja has organized the International March Against the Genocide of Black People, the third of which happened on Aug. 24, 2015. The demonstration attracted thousands of Brazilians, including the mothers, fathers, and other family members of those violently murdered.
Reaja has been clear from the beginning that their fight is a struggle to humanize the people who have been killed as well as the black community more generally. Indeed, the number of police killings and the impunity of the perpetrators signal that the lives of certain citizens are of little worth. As one military police officer made apparent after killing two black teenagers in the city of Rio: “Two less. If we do this every week, we can reduce their number. We can reach the goal.”
Scholars agree that killings like these are only thinkable because they mostly happen to poor Brazilians, who are treated as disposable. Up until recently, survey research found that the majority of Brazilians were in favor of death squads and cleansing campaigns aimed at ridding the streets of the “marginal,” according to research by anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes.
Yet while there is a consensus on the classism that justifies such violence, the racial character is often denied. Increasingly though, scholars and human rights advocates like Christen Smith have found the racial patterns hard to ignore: If you are young, male, nonwhite, and poor, you are much more likely to be killed by the police or a death squad.
NAMING THE DEAD
The protests that have emerged in the United States under the banner Black Lives Matter are similar to the decades old movements in Colombia and Brazil. At the core of this organizing is the same attempt to humanize black people. In Brazil, expressions like “the cheapest meat at the market is dark meat” reveal this devaluing of black life. To say that black lives matter or to characterize racialized state violence as the “genocide of black peoples” is to bring black people to a status of full humanity. While those interested in inequality have tended to ask how black people are living, these recent movements force us to ask the more painful question: How are they dying?
In politicizing black death, movements across the Americas have tried to make the case that the people gunned down by police officers—regardless of their imperfections or if they engaged in criminal activities or not—were, in fact, people. Among other things, this has meant naming the victims as well as making public the pain and suffering of the families and communities of victims. The annual homage that the community of Punta del Este in Buenaventura has to remember the 12 youth murdered is one of many examples of this. As Bolivia Aramburu García, the mother of one of the boys who was killed, noted on the 10-year anniversary of the massacre: “It has been 10 years of impunity, 10 years without justice, without truth, and without reparations.”
In addition to similar language of dehumanization and criminalization, black movements across these countries have also taken their demands to international spaces like the United Nations and the Organization of American States. These kinds of transnational appeals have a long history. For example, We Charge Genocide—a grass-roots Chicago-based organization that emerged in the wake of the 2014 killing of Dominique “Damo” Franklin and works to help individuals and communities to “police” the police—took its name from a 1951 petition with the same name. Originally submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by the Civil Rights Congress, the 1951 petition documented 153 racial killings and was signed by W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, among many others. Its authors held that “the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”
In a similar vein, the youth organizing with We Charge Genocide, along with the parents of Michael Brown, made similar statements on state violence against black communities in front of the U.N. Committee on Torture in Geneva in November of 2014. In March of 2015, Borges of Brazil’s Reaja movement testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the genocide of black people in Brazil.
In Buenaventura, three men held a red, black, and green colored banner with the words “Black Lives Matter … Buenaventura=Ferguson=New York.” They were accompanied by 10 other black men of various ages standing with both hands raised above their heads in a similar fashion to the tens of thousands of protesters in the United States who chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” as they protested the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Similarly, black activists with Brazil’s Reaja movement posed in the city of Salvador, with messages of solidarity for black movements in the United States. In fact, just as cities throughout the U.S. were erupting in protest of the dozens of publicized cases in which black people—many of them young men—were killed at the hands of cops, Afro-Colombian organizations were denouncing the murder of two Afro-Colombian youth in Bogotá at the hands of a “social cleansing” group, and in Brazil, the Reaja movement was preparing for its Third International March against the Genocide of Black People.
Rather than the U.S.-based Black Lives Matter movement “expanding” to Latin America, this current moment is one in which protests around anti-black racism in countries throughout the Western Hemisphere are converging. In some cases, the participants in these different locales are working in solidarity with each other, as we saw with the recent Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network/Black Lives Matter fundraising effort in Colombia.
What the recent upsurge in mobilizations throughout the Americas share in common is that they serve as a wake-up call. They provoke us not only to take these individual publicized cases of state violence seriously, but they force us to ask deeper questions about the structure of militarized policing and the criminalization of black bodies.
Brazil’s React or Die Campaign affirmed in a recent statement: “If you want to fight for power and you are oppressed by a colonial power that denies your full humanity, you have to first fight against that power.”
That is exactly what activists throughout Latin America have been doing. The names of Rodrigo Martins de Oliveira, Edward Murillo, or Matteos Alves dos Santos may not be as familiar to a U.S. audience as those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray. Nevertheless, across the Americas, activists are forcing governments to take notice of their deaths, even if their humanity was not recognized during their lives.