In the U.S. and in Brazil, police violence is barely the tip of the iceberg of structural racism

Co-written with Thais Detoni, attorney at CEJIL.

In recent weeks, the world witnessed the massive protests held in honor of George Floyd, a man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, and other african-american victims of police violence. Millions joined the Black Lives Matter movement in solidarity across the world to denounce structural racism, and the historic use and abuse of deadly police force that targets African American communities.

In the wake of this recent global movement against racism and police violence, the lethal impact of these forces in Latin America cannot be ignored. In Brazil, for example, both threats disproportionately affect millions of black people. In its 2018 on-site visit, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that poor afro-descendant youths living in the favelas and peripheral communities are particularly at risk.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased police violence in Brazil. In the Baixada Fluminense region in the state of Rio de Janeiro, from the start of the state government’s social isolation decree through May 19, 58 police operations led to five deaths and 15 injuries. Baixada wasn’t the only place where murders of Brazil’s afro-descendant population occurred during the pandemic. On May 15, at least 15 people were killed after an armed attack by the police in Complexo de Alemão in the city of Rio de Janeiro. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, these deaths follow a pattern of Brazilian police activities which killed 5,804 people in 2019 alone—4,343 of whom were Black.

The pernicious demonstration of discrimination and racism goes beyond the disproportionate use of force in armed confrontation. The government’s current operating logic sees the afro-descendant population in general as dangerous or in opposition. As a result, black children die, victims of neglect and ineptitude in the execution of violent police operations. In 2019, police shot and killed five children under the age of 12 and 43 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. One of those killed was 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos. He was hit by one of the 72 shots fired by police near his home in Complexo do Salgueiro last May.

More often than not,  investigations of police violence aim to confirm the police department’s version of events, with officers rarely held responsible for deaths resulting from their interventions. In that sense, racism is also expressed in the police impunity found in all of these cases, as it is supported by mechanisms that exclude any possibility of finding the officer behaved illegally for “legitimately defending themselves.” As reiterated by the UN Human Rights Council Expert Group on Afrodescendant Peoples in their 2016 United States recommendations report and quoted in the June 5 statement issued in relation to last week's protests, “the murders of afrodescendant people by the police are just the tip of the iceberg of widespread racial prejudice in the justice system.” In Brazil, as well as in the United States, impunity is the result of a bigger problem.

Sadly, this pattern of behavior has been entrenched in the Brazilian police for decades. The IACHR, in its Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Brazil in 1997, the Merit Reports of the cases of Jailton Néri da Fonseca in 2004, and Simone André Diniz in 2006 all recognized that the Black population was the most likely to be suspected, persecuted, prosecuted and receive criminal convictions. This demonstrates the discriminatory actions across police and judicial sectors and establishes a clear link between racism, police violence and impunity. In an analysis of the Favela Nova Brasília Case, in which the Brazilian State was condemned for impunity in two massacres that took place in 1994 and 1995 in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that "the investigations looking into the deaths that occurred in both raids began with the assumption that police officers were acting in compliance with the law, and that the deaths were the result of clashes that occurred during the raids.” The Inter-American Court recognized that there is still a context of structural violence, noting “police violence represents a human rights problem in Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro where among the fatal victims of police violence, the majority are young, black, poor and unarmed.”

Despite countless historical, socioeconomic and cultural differences in the black populations of the United States and Brazil, it is nonetheless possible to observe the common consequences of racial inequality and racism in both countries. Specifically, Black people in both countries share similar experiences with police violence, the practice of racial profiling, the disproportionate use of force and consequent police impunity. It goes without saying that in both countries it is necessary to combat racism so that, at last, police violence can be reduced. As long as public security is deployed to guarantee the rights of a select, mostly white few at the expense of black, indigenous people and migrants, violence and racism will remain a constant throughout the region.

Brazil, the United States and other countries in the region must develop goals and policies to reduce the lethality and occurence of police violence and recognize structural racism as an obstacle. The Brazilian State must comply with its international obligations by implementing the judgment in the Favela Nova Brasília Case and immediately establish public policies and mechanisms to control the use of force by the police in accordance with Inter-American guidelines. Likewise, other States in the region, who are party to the OAS Charter and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, must act diligently to guarantee their founding principles of equality and non-discrimination.

This important work must be done in coordination with Black and afro-descendant movements and with those experiencing police violence in their communities. Because of their role in denouncing and raising awareness against structural racism and in recognition of their historical leadership of social change, they deserve to be at the forefront of this movement. For us, the commitment to continue defending the human rights of the black and afro-descendant population and supporting the fight against racism must stem from solidarity, joint work, and the dedication to the whole society, always keeping in mind that #blacklivesmatter.