black lives matter growns in rio: we want to breathe

March 5, 2019
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In the classic Brazilian song, “A Carne (The Meat),” the legendary Samba singer Elza Soares belts out lyrics that critique an unjust Brazilian society.

“A carne mais barata do Mercado é a carne negra.” Translated: “The cheapest meat in the store is the black meat.”

Those lyrics address the value placed on Black life in Brazil. Everything is more difficult with Black skin — going to a good school, getting a good job, being healthy, having loving relationships, staying alive. In recent years, these words have been used to explain why Afro-Brazilians suffer disproportionately from murder, especially at the hands of police and security. So when a 19-year-old Black man was strangled to death in a supermarket in Rio de Janeiro on February 14, these lyrics came true in a vicious way. Pedro Gonzaga’s murder in the Extra supermarket proved that the cheapest meat in the store is Black meat and that Black lives are in worthless in Brazil. The image of his death shared thousands of times across social media, provoked Afro-Brazilian influencers and political leaders to react swiftly and organize a nationwide “Vidas Negras Importam” (Black Lives Matter) protest, reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Many Afro-Brazilians think this event could mark the beginning of a bigger, more effective Black Lives Movement in Brazil.

On Thursday, February 14, Pedro Gonzaga accompanied his mother to a grocery store in an upscale neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. Her son, whom she says suffered from drug addiction, ran in the direction of a security guard. But instead of helping the young man, the security guard, Davi Ricardo Moreira Amâncio, threw him on the floor, suffocating him until he lost consciousness. Dinalva tried to stop the security guard, but he pushed her away. Gonzaga did not leave the store breathing. Store security cameras captured everything. By the evening of the 14th, a photo of Gonzaga being strangled by the security guard began circulating on the Internet.

“Racism kills every day but we often lack the proof to speak about it, “ said Rene Silva, a journalist, and leader of the recent protest. “This time we had videos and for the hundreds of others who die we never have images.”

The Brazilian images were an eery reminder of the murder of Eric Garner, who was strangled to death by police in Staten Island, New York. His murder reenergized the American Black Lives Matter Movement, which had gained steam after the Trayvon Martin trial. Indeed many Afro-Brazilian’s say this influenced their response.

“In a way, we are reproducing American protests,” said Cosme Felippsen, an activist and tour guide. “The last Brazilian government increased opportunities for Afro-Brazilians to go to college. And now with this education and exposure to other movements, we are ready to fight, we have rage and we will not go away quietly.”

Pedro’s murder capped off a deadly week in Rio de Janeiro in which police and security murdered at least 15 people — most of them Black. On February 8, police killed 13 young men in a favela in the center of Rio de Janeiro. All the men were shot in the back, indicating that they were executed. Eleven-year-old Jenifer Cilene Gomes was shot and killed on February 14 when they entered her street spraying bullets from a machine gun. A bullet hit her in the chest. Gonzaga’s murder was the only one captured on video by surveillance cameras.

As soon as the images began to circulate, a clandestine digital protest against the Extra Supermarket emerged. Using the red, black and white branding of the store, the digital protestors produced fake advertising that said “A Carne Mais Barato do Mercado é A Carne Negra,” and used the hashtag, Vidas Negras Importam. Another used the Extra logo alongside the word, extrangulamento, a take on strangle in Portuguese.

By Saturday, February 16 a group of Black leaders had organized protests to take place in front of Extra stores on Sunday throughout five cities — Fortaleza, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Belo Horizonte and Mato Grosso do Sul. In Rio de Janeiro more than 300 Black people, famous actors, recently elected politicians and young social justice activists, protested in front of the Extra store. Protesters created yellow supermarket sale signs that offered “carne negra” and “jovem negro” for sale. They chanted “Vidas Negras Importam.”

This was the first major Vidas Negras Importam protest after the October 2018 election of rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro. During Bolsonaro’s campaign, he vowed to give police officers a license to kill whenever they felt threatened. His “good thug is a dead thug” rhetoric appears to be having an impact on police in Rio de Janeiro. Rio police killed 160 people in January — most people in a month since 1998. The Facebook page of the security guard, Davi Ricardo Moreira Amâncio, showed that he was an avid supporter of Bolsonaro.

But Bolsonaro’s national election was countered locally in Rio de Janeiro by the election of three black women state deputies who campaigned on a platform of racial and social justice — Monica Francisco, Renata Souza, and Dani Monteiro. These three Black women constantly use their platforms to shed light on the injustices in Brazil and Gonzaga’s murder was the first test of their influence. All three attended the protest, sharing videos and photos from the event.

“We want to breathe!,” wrote Monica Francisco on her Facebook page. “We humans think that the life of every human being matters so much, we can not breathe. We cannot take it anymore! We cannot stand the logic of the “a good thug is a dead thug”! We cannot stand the sight of young people being killed like worms! We cannot stand the spectacle of violence! The violence, the political promise of our president and governor, is suffocating us!”

Despite media reports, a Black Lives Movement has long existed in Brazil. In 2015, the Washington Post published an article asking why Brazil does not have a Black Lives Matter Movement. The article failed to acknowledge the decades of work of Brazilian non-profits and activists. In 2014 Amnesty International Brazil launched a campaign called #JovenNegroVivo – Living Black Youth— to bring attention to the fact that 77 percent of the young people killed in Brazil each year are Black and that a young Black person is killed every 23 minutes. The organization, Reajá ou Será Morto (React or Be Dead), has protested against police violence in Salvador since the mid-2000s. It last organized a March against the genocide of Black people in 2016. Abdias Nascimento, a playwright, academic and politician considered to be Brazil’s most influential civil rights leader, wrote a book called The Genocide of Black People, that explained all the ways that Brazilian society terrorizes blacks and minimizes their livelihood.

But none of these efforts have yet to amount to a movement that mobilizes large swaths of black people across Brazil.

“We are still waiting on our Selma, but it was a good start,” Francisco said.

The security guard was charged with manslaughter for the murder of Gonzaga and was released from jail on a $2,667 bail. On February 25, another Black man in Salvador was almost suffocated to death by a security guard inside of a bank.