A delegation of Black Lives Matter activists traveled to Rio de Janeiro last week to draw attention to rising police violence ahead of the Olympics. The six Americans met with campaigns and organizations addressing violence against black youth during their visit, standing in solidarity with activists and drawing parallels between police violence in the United States and Brazil.
The delegation was organized by Brazil Police Watch, an American organization that monitors extrajudicial police killings in Rio. Liz Martin founded the organization after her nephew Joseph was killed by an off-duty police officer in 2007, and spoke of her frustration that police violence in Brazil is often not represented in the international media. “We are learning about Olympic construction costs, dirty water, Zika and crime, but I want the world to know about the horror that is police killing citizens as part of Olympic preparations,” she said.
Government data demonstrates that police killings in Rio have indeed increased as the city scrambles to ready itself for the Games. One recent study reported that the 40 people killed by police in May represented a 135 percent increase compared with May 2015. This violence is disproportionately concentrated in Rio’s favelas, informal neighborhoods where 24 percent of the city’s population lives. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, three quarters of those killed by police in 2015 were young black men from favelas.
The Black Lives Matter delegation pointed to this data as demonstrative of the similar natures of police violence in Rio and American cities. “We have built these countries but are pushed into economic despair without opportunities to live our full lives,” said Brittíni Gray, an organizer and activist from Ferguson, Missouri. “The racism may look different but our ancestors are one. Our lives depend on our solidarity.”
Brazilian activists from Coletivo Papo Reto, the Youth Forum of Rio de Janeiro and the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence argue that the media is often complicit in criminalizing black youth, further perpetuating violence in poor communities of color. Representatives of these organizations also attributed the scale of violence in Rio to the evolution of law enforcement, particularly that of the Military Police which was founded in 1809 with the explicit role of quelling slave rebellions. Today, Military Police forces occupy 50 favelas through the state’s Pacification Program, a program heavily criticized by some residents.
“The Military Police is essentially a racist institution that was created to control black people,” said Débora Maria da Silva, co-founder of Mães de Maio (Mothers of May), an organization of mothers and family members of victims of police violence. “I don’t have faith in a dialogue with the state. I don’t believe in a dialogue with the military police. I believe in us for us.”
The Reverend Doctor John Selders echoed sentiments of solidarity between Brazilian and American activists. “It is of the utmost importance to understand that we are part of a global network of resistance. You’re not alone here in Brazil. We are you. You are us. We are one people. The struggle continues.”
On Saturday, Deborah Smalls, the founder and executive director of Break the Chains, spoke at a separate event organized by Amnesty International, where she drew a parallel between the difficulties faced by U.S. president Barack Obama and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who is currently suspended from office and awaiting impeachment. “I think in both cases, white people felt good about having those people in power because it made the country look better to the rest of the world, but they were not committed to having them be successful in their jobs.”
“I don’t know enough about Brazilian politics to common about how effective your president has been, but what I can tell you is this,” she went on. “The removal of (Rousseff) from office is more than just the removal of a woman. It’s about setting back the progress that Brazil has made to deal with inequality, to deal with racism, to deal with the need to push down the power of the oligarchs, in the same way that the desire to diminish Obama has been an attack on all black people in America.”
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Black Lives Matter and Brazilian activists gather in Rio de Janeiro to discuss police violence ahead of the Olympic Games.
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A crowd gathers to listen to activists speak about police violence ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
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Cecilia Olliveira, whose "Fogo Cruzado" (Crossfire) smartphone app records shootings in Rio de Janeiro, addresses a crowd gathered to discuss police violence ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "How many days were the schools closed in these areas where there are shootings? How many days were the trains not serving these neighborhoods because of the shootings? How many days were the UPAs (health clinics) closed because of shootings? We know that shootings happen, we are able to count the numbers, but we need to know the social price that we are paying for this."
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Marcelle Decothé, campaign assistant, Amnesty International Brazil.
"We recently launched the campaign, 'Rio2016, Violence has no part in these Games,' which highlights the human rights violations being committed by the military police within the Olympic context. We are questioning this Olympic legacy that will be left in the city of police violence; since 2009 when Rio was selected to host until 2016, more than 2,500 were killed by the military police (in Rio). We want to raise awareness: what type of legacy is this? what type of Olympic city is this?"
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Teenagers breakdance between speakers.
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Deborah Smalls and her translator address the crowd. "There are a lot of things that black Brazilians can learn from the African-American community and there are things that we have to share with you. But my experience here is of sadness too. I'm always struck with the contradiction of a country that is willing to embrace many aspects of its Africanness, but not willing to embrace African people. [...] Brazil will never be a first class nation in the world until it stops treating black people like second-class citizens."
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Activists pose with materials from Amnesty International decrying police violence ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
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Amnesty International volunteers tabling at an event in Rio de Janeiro to highlight police violence ahead of the Olympics.
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Activists pose with Deborah Smalls, founder and executive director of Break the Chains.