democraciaAbierta: Opinion

#BLM beyond the US: Anti-racist struggles in Latin America

One year after the assassination of George Floyd, people are starting to acknowledge the systemic racism that runs through all of Latin America

Inés Pousadela
26 May 2021, 12.00am
Protesters in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, at a Black Lives Matter event against racism in Brazil
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Fernando Souza/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

In the year that has passed since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has circled the globe. In country after country, people have stood up to oppression and demanded an end to systemic racism. A year on, those movements for justice remain active.

Something about the way George Floyd’s needless and cruel death was widely documented and shared on social media, made it resonate. What might have initially seemed to be one more dreadful case in the long and routine string of murders of Black people by US police had unexpected consequences, and far beyond the USA.

People not only protested in solidarity but were also empowered to share their own experiences of racism in their countries. They mobilised for George Floyd but also for countless others who lived anonymous lives and died anonymous deaths. They said the names of those killed, made the invisible visible and demanded acknowledgement and redress. They claimed a different life for themselves and others whose lives should matter but were treated like they did not.

In Latin America, newly energised responses built upon decades of activism. In Brazil, half of whose 211 million people are Black (described either as ‘pretos’ or ‘pardos’ in the country’s terminology), protests largely focused on the human rights violations committed by the police in informal settlements, overwhelmingly against Black people.

The longstanding Brazilian movement for racial justice aims at dismantling Brazil’s founding myth that it is a ‘rainbow society’ free of racism – a myth that proved to be enduring in the government’s response to protests unleashed by the November 2020 killing of a Black man, Beto Freitas, by private security guards working at a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre.

According to Brazil’s vice president, this killing had nothing to do with race, because racism was not a Brazilian issue but a foreign import. In response, activist Sheila De Carvalho of the Black Coalition for Rights denounced the prevailing apathy towards racial injustice in Brazil, and pointed out that, “When there are international cases like those of Michael Brown, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they have repercussions here. But when the same happens here, it seems that people don’t care.”

A similar challenge came in Colombia, when activists demanded justice for Anderson Arboleda, an Afro-Colombian man who died at the hands of the police, but faced the barrier of winning recognition that racism was not only a US peculiarity but also a burning domestic problem: in the words of David Murillo from Colombian advocacy agency, DeJusticia,  a much-needed first step to tackle it would be for people “to understand what racism is and that it really exists”, followed by the establishment of “transnational networks to give visibility to what is happening in Colombia”.

In the Dominican Republic, a tribute to George Floyd doubled up as an opportunity to voice demands of equality and redress for Dominicans of Haitian descent, the usual victims of racism in this Caribbean nation that shares a border with Haiti. In 2010, generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their Dominican citizenship, legally sanctioning the systemic exclusion that they have long faced, which – as elsewhere – also disproportionately made the impacts of the pandemic worse for them.

Speaking from her own experience of exclusion, Elena Lorac of human rights movement Reconoci.do says that “in the Dominican Republic it is believed that all Black people are Haitians. If I am Black and have curly hair I am constantly questioned even if I have identity papers, and if I am unable to produce an ID, I can be deported because I am assumed to be Haitian. There have been cases of Black Dominicans who have been deported because of their skin colour.” On 9 June 2020, Reconoci.do organised a socially distanced event to commemorate George Floyd, but faced backlash not only from the police, as has been the norm elsewhere, but also from a right-wing nationalist group that mobilised a vitriolic reaction.

Black people in every corner of the world are part of a global movement for Black rights and Black lives that is here to stay

Movements such as these and many others are working to overcome such resistance, and are producing an unprecedented shift in public discourse, away from an understanding of racial discrimination as pertaining to individual attitudes and towards the recognition of racism as systemic.

They are refocusing attention on the political, economic and social structures that produce and reproduce exclusion on the basis of race. As well as denouncing police brutality as one of the most vicious expressions of systemic racism, they are demanding the recognition of the persistent impacts of colonialism and slavery, which continue to stain lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, and calling for change in the social and economic structures that make access to education, employment, healthcare, housing and social services extremely unequal and perpetuate historical exclusion.

Whether they mobilised around the BLM banner, repurposed it to fit their needs, or adopted a different identity that resonated better in their contexts, anti-racist movements around the world have taken advantage of the visibility of the global movement to capture the spotlight and obtain attention for grievances and demands that had long gone unheard. The global spotlight enabled Black people themselves – many of them young, female and LGBTQI+ – to take the microphone and tell their own stories in their own voices. And for once, they saw the chance that their voices might be heard, their words understood and their arguments given due consideration.

One year on from the events in Minneapolis, the urgency of demands for change remains. It could be seen, for example, in protests in Brazil earlier this month, in which thousands mobilised against racism and lethal police violence on the anniversary of the country’s abolition of slavery, following a police raid on a favela in which 28 people died.

Those who continue to mobilise, around the world and across the region, have renewed hope in the global movement and the opportunity it brings to weave regional and international links and garner international support based on the recognition, in Sheila's words, that “this is not only a Brazilian situation or a US situation, but is the experience of Black people globally.” Or, as Elena puts it, that Black people in every corner of the world are “part of a global movement” for Black rights and Black lives that is here to stay, and will continue challenging systemic exclusion until all Black lives truly matter everywhere.

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