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How the Police Killing of a Black Brazilian Teen Sparked a Movement
Like most kids around the world last spring, João Pedro Mattos Pinto found himself on lockdown because of the raging coronavirus. Unable to go to school on May 18, the 14-year-old Black Brazilian joined his cousins at their house in a favela outside of Rio de Janeiro. When gunfire erupted in the neighborhood, he sent his mother a WhatsApp message: “I’m inside the house. Don’t worry.”
Suddenly, 10 police officers burst into the house, searching for a purported drug trafficker and firing off more than 70 shots. João Pedro was hit in the back. His relatives bundled the bleeding boy into a police helicopter, and he was airlifted away. The police barred family members from accompanying the minor and refused to provide the family with any more information. Police arrested no one in the operation.
João Pedro’s cousin, Daniel, put out a desperate message on Twitter, begging people for help locating him. The #procurasejoaopedro (find João Pedro) hashtag trended on Brazilian Twitter overnight. While more than 1,400 young Black men are killed by police every year in Rio, João Pedro’s disappearance grabbed the headlines. It took his family 17 hours to locate his body in a public morgue.
That was seven days before the world would see the haunting video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd; before Black Lives Matter uprisings erupted across the United States, spreading quickly around the world. These two events helped to spark #VidasNegrasImportam (#BlackLivesMatter in Portuguese) protests in Rio de Janeiro and across Brazil, the South American country with the largest population of Black people outside Africa, just ahead of the United States. And in an ironic confluence of events—Joao Pedro’s death combined with the coronavirus—police in Rio were forced to stop almost all operations, at least temporarily, leading to a stark decline in fatal police encounters.
In a world without coronavirus, João Pedro’s death wouldn’t have trended on Twitter, nor would it have been front-page news. But the pandemic and subsequent protests forced Brazilians to focus on anti-Black police violence, which they had long ignored or normalized. Rio activists and lawyers, who had been working against such violence for years, filed an emergency petition asking Brazil’s Supreme Court to stop police operations during the pandemic. And one Supreme Court justice temporarily ruled in favor—with startling results.
One month after Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin’s June 5 order barring police operations in Rio—except in extreme circumstances—killings by police had dropped 70% compared to the previous 12 years. A study revealed that the suspension of police operations in Rio’s favelas could save more than 400 lives this year alone.
On August 3, a majority of justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to uphold Fachin’s temporary ban on police operations in Rio—a decision that could have broader implications for addressing police violence across the country. The Supreme Court must still determine whether Rio’s state security policing needs to be aligned with national and international human rights standards.
“It is possible that if COVID hadn’t happened, we would not have had a [judicial] decision like we had,” said Wallace Corbo, a lawyer who works pro bono on behalf of the Educafro, an education and social justice nonprofit in Brazil. He started working on the Supreme Court case to stop Rio police operations last year.
“COVID and João Pedro changed everything,” Corbo explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic further unmasked the extent of racial inequities. Although it was the White and wealthy who brought the coronavirus to Brazil from their European holidays, the workers who live in favelas and periphery communities—the Black and poor—were dying at the highest rates. A recent study revealed that 80% of Rio’s coronavirus deaths were registered in the city’s most impoverished areas. And the hardest hit demographic group is older, Black, impoverished men. As of August 27, the country of more than 211 million people had registered more than 117,000 coronavirus deaths.
In many ways, Brazil has emerged as an almost mirror image of the United States, even down to the racial uprising that resulted from a police killing. It is second only to the United States in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus. And like U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the virus from the beginning of the pandemic, calling it a “little flu.” Between March and May, two health ministers resigned; their posts remain vacant. The country has yet to implement a national coronavirus plan.
Such lack of coordination and planning leaves favela activists such as Fernanda Viana Araujo, 40, scrambling to provide food and other basic necessities to people quarantined in tight quarters in these neighborhoods. Mothers who supported their families as domestic servants had to stay home. Fathers who earned a living as parking lot attendants had no work. Grocery store attendants continued to work, potentially exposing their families to the virus.
Araujo said her focus recently has shifted to providing COVID-19 testing to residents of Maré, a favela with the highest number of both COVID cases and deaths overall in Rio.
“We normally focus on building our community through culture, art, public policy, and education,” said Araujo, who works with the nonprofit Rede da Maré, which is in the Maré favela. “But we realized we needed to do something to help our people stay alive. And that means giving them food for their table.”
From March until June, as the coronavirus spread, residents and activists in communities similar to the one where João Pedro was killed faced an onslaught of anti-Black police violence. In April, the city of Rio registered a 43% increase in murders by police compared to last year, which was also a record year. In 2019, Rio police killed more than 1,800 people in confrontations—about 80% were young Black men—making Rio’s police the deadliest force in Brazil. This recent uptick in the lethality of Rio’s police force is just a continuation of what Brazil’s Black activists have historically called the genocide against Black people.
“They kill Black people because this is the structure of Brazilian society. This is the genocidal practice of killing ‘Black meat,’” says Aline Maia, referring to Elza Soares’ famous samba song, “A Carne.” Maia is the executive coordinator of Observatório de Favelas, a research institute focused on public policies in favelas. “[This genocide] is something that generates money, and it produces a spectacle that makes White people feel more secure because it’s happening someplace far. It helps politicians get votes.”
This violence isn’t limited to Rio. Brazilian police killed more than 5,000 people last year during police operations—five times the rate in the U.S. Bahia, a state with a population that’s 80% Black, in Brazil’s poorer Northeast, ranks second behind Rio in number of police operations that result in deaths. For the last seven years, the Reajá ou Será Morto (React or Die) social justice group has held an annual March Against the Genocide of Black People in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city.
João Pedro wasn’t the only young Black male who disappeared in Rio on May 18. Police tortured and killed Iago César dos Reis Gonzaga, 21, and family members found his body in the morgue the next day. During that same week, João Vitor Gomes da Rocha, 18, and 19-year-old Rodrigo Cerqueira—both Black—were killed during police operations that happened amid the delivery of food baskets. On May 13, Rio police massacred 13 people in a favela.
On May 24, the same day that George Floyd was killed, a coalition of Black movement groups led a massive digital protest—#JustiçaporJoãoPedro. The next day, lawyers working on behalf of Black and favela social groups filed a petition with Brazil’s Supreme Court to halt police operations for the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This petition dates back to a November 2019 Supreme Court lawsuit filed by the Brazilian socialist political party that called for Rio de Janeiro’s state security policing to align with national and international human rights standards. The lawsuit states that Rio de Janeiro’s deadly police encounters “are the result of a public security policy that encourages armed confrontation and exposes residents of conflicted areas to profound violations of their fundamental rights.”
In April, before João Pedro’s death, lawyers entered an urgent injunction to the original lawsuit, requesting the state of Rio develop a new public security plan, among other measures. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on this, or the original case filed in November.
While the police have defied the pandemic court order and continue to invade vulnerable communities, the number of deadly confrontations have declined.
The Supreme Court case against the state of Rio de Janeiro also made history through the first-time participation of favela collectives such as Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, Coletivo Papo Reto, Redes da Maré, Coletivo Fala Akari, Mothers of Manguinhos, and the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative. In the meantime, the organizations and government entities participating in the lawsuit have launched a media campaign to inform the public of the ongoing Supreme Court case, known as “ADFP das Favelas.”
There is also hope that this first favorable ruling will reverberate throughout Brazil, because Rio is considered a leader in public security policy nationwide.
“This lawsuit is the special key,” Maia says. “It will open doors for other states to implement similar lawsuits.”
Kiratiana Freelon is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her work about Brazil has been published in The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The Root, The Christian Science Monitor and others. She also runs the Coisa de Preto newsletter about Afro-Brazilian news, culture and history. Kiratiana speaks English and Portuguese and is a member of NABJ, IRE, and SPJ.