Brazil must reckon with its violence against black youth

Will something be done about police violence in Brazil now that another child is dead?
Photo: André Gustavo Stumpf/ CC BY 2.0/ Flickr

“Mom, I know who shot me, I saw who shot me. It was the police, mom. Didn’t they see my school uniform?” These are the words that Marcus Vinicius Silva said to his mother before he died.

Silva was 14, he was shot and killed last 20th June as he was walking to school in the community of Maré, one of the biggest shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Guardian reported that a police helicopter fired indiscriminately at the densely populated area during a security operation – a claim that is supported by cell phone footage.

The autopsy showed that Silva was shot in the back and the bullet perforated his stomach. Despite being called to the scene immediately, the ambulance took over an hour to arrive because of a police blockade. He died on the way to the hospital.

The current scenario of black youth deaths in Brazil

The death of Silva is a blatant example of the violence against black youth in Brazil.

According to UNICEF, 31 children and young people are killed every day in Brazil – one in every seven minutes. Furthermore, black young people are three times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts. The number puts Brazil as the 7th country in the world for the killing of children and young people between 10 and 19 years old.

Since his death, several NGOs, national and international, came forward to denounce the Brazilian state in its disregard for black youth lives. The NGO Rio de Paz, which focuses on organising projects in low-income areas and organising demonstrations against human rights violations, has put up over 50 signs around the city symbolising children that died in Rio de Janeiro in the last 10 years due to gunshots.

Activism and reaction after the death of Silva

Local media reported that a week after Silva’s death, members of the Maré community organised an act of remembrance for Silva. They carried T-shirts and signs protesting his death and the death of other black youth and asking for answers from the police.

Rio de Janeiro’s Homicide Division of the Civilian Police is investigating Silva’s death, and they have recently declared to local news channel R7 that the key witnesses had been listened to and that the next step was to organise a reconstruction of the scene.

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Nonetheless, the day after Silva’s death, teachers and students at his school organised a small march to protest his death. El País Brazil reports one of his teachers describing how their march was surrounded by masked policemen who verbally and physically assaulted students, who ended up fleeing the scene.

This raises questions regarding the investigation being organised by the police, as well as the level of police involvement in the crime. Silva’s last words, blaming the police, have been on the cover of almost every Brazilian newspaper since the incident.

All this commotion is not new, but simply marks another chapter in the history of violence against black communities in Rio de Janeiro.

A brief look at the history of violence

Silva lived in the community of Maré, which was also the community where human rights activist Marielle Franco, killed in late March, lived in. Franco was a city councillor for the state of Rio de Janeiro,  an outspoken critic of police brutality and extra-judicial killings.

She was killed in a four-shot drive-by on March 14th and her death became a further demonstration of the risks black people face in Rio de Janeiro. Words in the Bucket wrote on her death and discussed the use of police ammunition on her murder, as well as the emergence of fake news that justified her death by linking her with gang violence.

Franco’s death was not the only case to make headlines before this latest incident.

Amarildo de Souza was a bricklayer who lived in the community of Rocinha, the biggest slum in Rio de Janeiro. In 2013, he disappeared after being taken by the police to the UPP (Pacifying Police Station) and was never seen again.

In 2014, domestic worker Claudia Silva Ferreira was shot during a police operation in the community of Congonha. Police then put her in the trunk of their car and drove off, during which she fell out and was dragged for over 250 meters, according to the reports given to major news channels like G1. Police declared that she was alive when they reached A&E, but hospital staff denied that claim, stating she was declared dead on arrival. The three police officers involved in the case have not gone to trial and keep working in the police force.

Activism for black lives: a reward of silence

In 2015, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International declared that the lethality exhibited by the Rio de Janeiro police is staggering, with over 8,000 deaths between 2005 and 2015. With the state of Rio being under federal intervention due to the war on drugs and in a state of emergency since 2016, the prospects are not good for the maintenance of human rights in the state.

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UN Brazil has started a “Black lives” campaign to support the end of violence against black youth in the country, and the community NGO Redes da Maré, which fights for an improvement in the human rights and social development of the community of Maré wrote a public letter against the use of armoured helicopters in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Despite the efforts of activists, the country, which has over 50% of its population identifying as BME, still perceives police brutality and the vulnerability of the black community as secondary issues in a country undergoing a massive economic and political crisis.

Every year there seems to be a new tragedy that sparks the headlines for some weeks before dying down in the mainstream media and political debates. But incidents pass and are left behind, just like Silva’s case was quickly forgotten in the media, and impunity leads the way.

Human RightsOpinion
Joana Midena Perrone

Joana Perrone is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where she researches feminicide in Brazil. She has a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex and an MSt in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford. Her main research interests are gender-based violence and human rights, especially in Latin America. You can find her on twitter at @jollyjellyfish_
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