SÃO PAULO – In Brazil, the killing of a Black man by security guards in the parking lot of a supermarket in Porto Alegre has sparked protests against racism in several Brazilian cities and caused strong reactions in the media.
Forty-year-old João Alberto Silveira Freitas was buying groceries with his wife in a Carrefour supermarket on Nov. 19 and was taken from the counter area to the parking lot by security guards under still unclear circumstances.
A video released on the internet shows that he punched one of the guards at the entrance of the store’s parking lot. A violent confrontation began, and the two men violently beat Freitas, hitting his face and his head several times while a supermarket employee recorded everything with her smartphone.
In a scene reminiscent of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a video published by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo showed that Freitas was suffocated by the guards for almost 4 minutes. The emergency services were called and tried to revive Freitas, but it was too late. Preliminary forensic information reported by the police revealed that Freitas’ death was caused by asphyxiation.
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Freitas’s killing happened on the eve of the Black Awareness Day in Brazil, a national holiday in honor of the country’s Afro-descendants.
Marches that were already scheduled to happen in several were transformed into protests, with many people carrying signs that read Vidas Pretas Importam [Black Lives Matter.]
In Porto Alegre, about 2,500 protestors gathered in front of the store where Freitas was killed, with some trying to forcibly enter the establishment, but they were prevented by riot police.
In São Paulo, demonstrators threw rocks at the façade of a Carrefour store before forcing their way in and setting fire to items in the story.
Demonstrations also took place Brasília, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Belo Horizonte.
“That was a tense day. It’s usually a day to celebrate our culture and our heritage, but Carrefour’s managers took that right from us,” Father David Santos, founder of the Black NGO Educafro and a prominent member of the Black movement in Brazil, told Crux.
“We’ve been forced to organize protests after another brutal crime against Black people took place. Carrefour hired a security company without paying attention to its quality,” he said.
Santos also lamented the fact that the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) hasn’t immediately released a statement about Freitas’s killing.
“In regard to the Catholic sphere, I feel sad about the fact that no diocese has immediately released a strong declaration about Freitas’s murder. The Church continues to be very distant from the Black people,” he said.
He also criticized the Archdiocese of Porto Alegre’s statement about the incident published on social media on November 21. It said that it was a “brutal crime,” adding that “every life matters.”
“Everybody knows that every life matters. But what we [Black people] are denouncing is that part of the society doesn’t consider that Black lives matter. That’s a weak statement which doesn’t do justice to the Black people’s struggles all over Brazil,” Santos said.
Almost 56 percent of Brazil’s population has some African descent. According to a recent survey on religion conducted by the private institute Datafolha, people with African descent make up 55 percent of the total number of Catholics in Brazil.
Like the United States, Brazil had slavery dating back to its Portuguese colonial history. In fact, Brazil imported more Africans than any other country, and slavery was only abolished in 1888, shortly before Brazil’s monarchy was replaced by a republic.
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However, Brazil didn’t have the same history of legal segregation, and the country never developed the clear separation between Blacks and whites that existed in the United States. Despite the fact the majority of Brazilians have some African descent, only a little less than 8 percent identify as Black; most identify as pardo, meaning mixed ethnicity.
Along with 150 other Black organizations, Educafro signed a petition to federal and State prosecutors asking the application of several measures concerning the Carrefour supermarket chain.
The list includes the adoption of mandatory training of security guards by Afro-Brazilian activists, that Black managers and directors make up 30 percent of new hires, that 10 percent of profits be dedicated to actions against racism, that the company fund scholarships for Black boys and girls, and a fair compensation be provided to Freitas’ family.
“We’ll organize several demonstrations till November 30 against Carrefour,” Santos said.
On November 20, Carrefour’s CEO Alexandre Bompard tweeted that “internal measures have been immediately taken by Grupo Carrefour Brasil, especially in regard to the security company which had been contracted” and that there should be a “complete revision of the training actions of employees and subcontracted staff in regard to security, respect to diversity” and “repudiation of intolerance.”
The racial motivation of Freitas’s killing has been put in doubt by conservative voices who back President Jair Bolsonaro, with many claiming on social media that Freitas was killed because he acted violently.
On November 20, Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão said that “there’s no racism in Brazil” when he was asked about Freitas’ killing.
“For me, in Brazil there’s no racism. It’s something that they want to import to Brazil. It’s doesn’t exist here,” he told reporters after lamenting Freitas’ killing, according to the news website G1.
When journalists asked him again about the crime’s racial motivation, Mourão answered that “racism [is something that there’s] in the United States.”
“I lived for two years in the USA, and in the school where I lived there the colored people was separated. I had never seen something like that in Brazil. I left Brazil, went to live there, I was a teenager and was impressed with that. That was at the end of the 60s,” he said.
Archbishop Zanoni Demettino Castro of Feira de Santana, who’s responsible for the Afro Pastoral Commission in the country, noted that in Brazil now there’s a growing anti-racist movement, but also an “effort to negate it.”
“Many want to deny that racism is a concrete reality in Brazilian society, a consequence of centuries of slavery. This homicide is evidence that racism exists,” he told Crux.
Since the mass demonstrations around the world that followed George Floyd’s killing in May, the Afro Pastoral Commission has been public debating the issue of violence against Blacks and trying to raise awareness on the need to cherish the Afro-Brazilian culture in the Church, Castro said.
“We see the current moment as another step is that effort,” he said.