Rio De Janeiro’s Deadly Police Need To Be Demilitarized

Standing in the middle of a blocked-off intersection, lit only by the stoplights changing from green to red, leaders of the march told protesters, “if you’re scared, go home.” The police had live ammunition and were not afraid to use it. This message came after police fired tear gas into the crowd a few days earlier. I had never been so scared in my life. But then I realized the fear I was feeling will not surmount to the fear Black people feel every day.

The #BlackLivesMatter protests are a hard shift from the social distancing and quarantining we have been going through since the beginning of 2020. Fears of gathering have been put on hold because the fear of losing more innocent black lives is greater. 

Sem Justiça, Sem Paz

The protests against police brutality in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are not exclusive to the United States. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians are also protesting for basic human rights, in tandem with the U.S. protests. “We can’t accept this genocidal state, which thinks we can die for nothing,” student Mykaella Moreira said at a protest in São Gonçalo. “We are also people. We also have a right to live.” 

A week before Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto was shot by police on May 18th. He was playing in his cousin’s backyard with his friends when police raided the favela, searching for drug traffickers. “The front window was full of bullet holes. The television was all shot up, the sitting room, the bedroom, everything… It was horrible,” João Pedro’s aunt, Denize Roza Matos Pinto, saidPinto also said there was blood in the home where João Pedro was shot.

The Government’s Call to Kill

Favelas are what many underprivileged Brazilians call home. They are also one of the main targets for Brazil’s military police because many drug traffickers and gangs also live there. When Wilson Witzel assumed power as the governor of Rio in 2019, he promised an assault on drug gangs who lived in the favela. Both President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor Witzel have encouraged police to kill more criminals. Witzel said a rise in police killings “isn’t difficult to justify.”

Although often criticized, Witzel shows no remorse for his actions. Instead, he blames the killings on activists who prevent policing strategies. “These corpses aren’t on me, they’re on you, who don’t let the police do the job that needs to be done,” Witzel said. “And the more you defend these narco-terrorists, the more corpses you will be to blame for.” 

Ubermilitarized Police

A 2019 report from the Brazilian Public Security Forum estimates that only 55 percent of the population are people of color, while from 2017 to 2018, 75.4 percent of victims from police deaths were black. From January to April of 2020, Rio police killed 606 people. In 2019, Rio police killed 1,814

In Brazil, police are allowed to use lethal force only when confronting an imminent threat. But when the New York Times analyzed 48 police killings, they found that at least half of the victims were shot in the back. In 20 of the cases, the victims were shot at least three times. Only two officers reported any sustained injuries: one was a self-inflicted gunshot, while the other officer tripped and fell.

Besides seeing someone’s back as an imminent threat, a quarter of the police in the NYT study had previous charges of murder. One officer was given a psychological test after finding he had fired more than 600 rounds in a year. Rodrigo dos Santos, a 16-year-old, was killed after police shot at him 38 times in 2019. One of the officers involved, Sergeant Sergio Britto, was on trial for murder but still remained active duty. 

Racism is an international issue

Racism permeates into police forces, even on an international level. “Like it or not, there is a racial side to [the murder of João Pedro] … and it shouldn’t be like this,” Pinto said. “[But] if you’re on the bus and the police get on, they’ll search the people of color first … If a black man runs, he’s guilty. We’re tired of seeing this kind of thing happen.”

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other innocent black lives that have been murdered have caused a state of civil unrest within the U.S. Unfortunately, police brutality is not unique to one country. The death of João Pedro, Rodrigo dos Santos, and other young Black Brazilians have infuriated Brazil’s favela communities for years. But the unprecedented tension towards the police in Brazil was heightened by the situations in the U.S., public safety expert Ignacio Cano said. “It’s sad in a way that part of Brazilian society has to look at the U.S. to realize that the problem exists at home,” Cano said. 

What should be done?

Many countries right now are dealing with protests against police brutality. However, not every country is willing to acknowledge that police brutality is an international issue. Leaders and civilians should be coming together to redefine the role of the police. From Hong Kong, to Minneapolis, to Rio de Janeiro, police forces are abusing their power. Black lives should not be cut short. Rio police in particular have a habit of cutting lives prematurely. Just in the past few years alone, many black teenagers have been killed at the hands of police.

Say Their Names

Brayan Mattos dos Santos was killed in May 2019. He was 19 years old.

Gabriel Pereira Alves was killed in August 2019. He was 18 years old and on his way to school. 

Dyogo Costa was killed in August 2019. He was 16 years old and was going to football practice.

Henrico de Menezes Júnior was killed in August 2019. He was 19 and was going to pick up his motorbike.

Margareth Teixera was killed in August 2019. She was 17 and was carrying her 22-month-old baby on her way to church. 

João Pedro Matos Pinto was killed in May 2020. He was 14 and playing with his friends in a backyard.

Rodrigo Cerqueira was killed in May 2020. He was 19 and distributing food baskets as a result of COVID-19.

These are just a few of the many black Brazilians that have been killed by police. With over 1,800 killed last year and 600 killed so far this year, 2020’s death toll will surely pass 2019’s.

Maria Kuiper


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