democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Racial cleansing in Brazil: a 21st century genocide?

The indiscriminate killing of blacks and the poor is a historical and institutionalized event in Brazil. What we are living today is the perpetuation of an attempt at racial cleansing impregnated in our history. Español, Português

Manuella Libardi
27 September 2019, 12.01am
Policías militares en Río de Janeiro ocupan una favela después de la caída de uno de sus hombres, Río de Janeiro. PA Images.

Genocide. This particular word has been circulating on social networks to describe the increase in police violence in Brazil. The use of the term has seen an uptick this week as the country tries to describe its astonishment at the killing of 8-year-old Ágatha Félix, who was apparently shot in the back last Friday, September 20, in a poor community of Rio de Janeiro.

“Genocide. This is what's happening in Brazil with this government. The worst! With the support of US government! Not only people are [being] killed. Entire ecosystems are [being] destroyed by this [system]. Nothing will be left.. only hate and misery”, one Instagram user wrote on a post by The Economist about the case.

Another comment just below simply read: “Its a Genocide”.

Are we living a genocide in Brazil? The term was coined in the mid-20th century by Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the massacre of Jews during the Holocaust. In 1948, the United Nations classified genocide as a punishable crime with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

For a crime to be tried as genocide, the UN has established a set of criteria that defines it as such. This strict and specific definition includes killing members of an ethnic, religious, national or racial group; causing physical and/or mental harm; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life to bring about its physical destruction; imposing measures to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It can be argued that the license to kill that the Brazilian army and police forces have applies to almost all, if not all, of the aforementioned criteria, although proving intent or premeditation is judicially complex.

The systematic death of black populations is not an event we are going through now, but a permanent reality

But if we look at the classic cases of genocide – the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide – we see that they are characterized by specific events that occurred during a given period. In this context, the Brazilian reality differs from other cases.

The systematic death of black populations is not an event we are going through now, but a permanent reality, which has occurred since the first Africans touched the indigenous shores of Pernambuco in 1539.

The life expectancy of a black man at that time was very few years old. They died exhausted and were replaced by blacks in better conditions, newly brought from Africa. After centuries of systematic abuse, slavery culminates in efforts to eliminate the black race through theses of racial whitening, which arose in the mid-19th century, even before the prohibition of slavery in Brazil.

It is not surprising that among the host of Brazilian intellectuals who defended the thesis of racial whitening, one of the most prominent was precisely an anthropologist and doctor from Rio de Janeiro. In 1911, João Baptista de Lacerda participated in the First Universal Races Congress in London, to which he contributed with the article Sur les métis au Brésil. In it, he defended miscegenation as a way of making European traits prevail over Africans and indigenous features.

The racial whitening theses lost academic and institutional support after World War II, largely thanks to the efforts of international organizations such as the UN. As blacks still compose more than 50% of Brazilian population today, it is evident that miscegenation failed to achieve its purpose.

The redemption of Cam. A Brazilian family gradually becoming whiter. Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, we have since taken the project down the violent road, in which miscegenation is replaced by the criminalization of populations, creating institutional justification for indiscriminate murder.

Ágatha, when she is struck by a bullet in the back inside a van while returning from an outing with her mother, becomes another victim of this attempt to eliminate the poor black populations of Rio de Janeiro. When President Jair Bolsonaro says that "a good bandit is a dead bandit," we all know what he means by "bandit".

Returning to the definition of genocide, one of the criteria includes inflicting a lifestyle that puts the group’s survival at risk. Is this not covered by our historical institutionalized discrimination of black people, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty? The favelas are the result of the country’s exorbitant social inequality, an issue the government doesn’t seem worried about in the slightest.

We force blacks into poverty and then blame them for drug trafficking. This is the result of a historical criminalization policy, which is nothing more than a justification for systematic murder. At this year's Ocupa Política event in Recife, a participant in a dialogue round titled, "Anti-prohibitionism as a strategy to protect black lives," rhetorically asked the group if racial cleansing had really ended in Brazil.

The answer is no. We, Brazilians know this. It is no accident that Ágatha's death has revived discussions about the anti-crime legislation that Justice Minister Sergio Moro has been fighting to pass. The package sought to include legal protection for police and armed officers who kill civilians in the fight against crime, which would have been the case in Agatha's death.

Last Wednesday, September 25, a working group of the House of Representatives revoked the so-called exclusion of illegality proposed in Moro’s anti-crime legislation. But even in the shadow of the Ágatha tragedy, Moro continued to defend his project.

For every policeman killed, 89 civilians lose their lives, a record-high correlation

Our fears are confirmed by the numbers. Deaths arising from police interventions in Rio de Janeiro increased by 46% between January and June of this year compared to the same period last year. For every policeman killed, 89 civilians lose their lives, a record-high correlation. This year alone, five children under 12 were killed by police in operations in Rio de Janeiro. The death toll from police interventions in the city is the highest in the last 20 years.

We can discuss the government’s intentions and its measures all we want. But the numbers point to a systematic murder of the favela population, which is mostly black. Genocide? The Brazilian case goes further. What are the chances that these victims are recognized and that those responsible for their suffering are brought to justice? I would say none.

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