Despatch from São Paulo | International

Young, black, poor and dead

Residents of the Paraisopolis slum take part in a demonstration asking for peace, in São Paulo, Brazil, earlier in December.

Residents of the Paraisopolis slum take part in a demonstration asking for peace, in São Paulo, Brazil, earlier in December.   | Photo Credit: Nelson Antoine


The death of 9 black youth in police action at a slum in São Paulo has triggered mass protests

Paraisópolis is home to 1,00,000 people who live in a cluster of brick houses and shanties perched on hills, just across the leafy lanes of Morumbi, where million-dollar houses sit behind high walls in southern Sao Paulo. Every weekend, young folks of Paraisópolis gather for a night of “Baile Funk”, a party form developed in the slums where they play hip-hop music. On December 1, the state military police (PM) stormed the party, causing a stampede that left nine persons — all young, black and poor — dead.

As the favela (slum) boiled with anger, the police claimed that they were chasing two criminals who fired at them and it led to the confusion in which the victims got trampled. But witnesses said the police came in firing bullets and tear gas into the crowd. Within a day, videos shot by favela residents began to emerge online. In one video, cops are seen kicking a boy as he lies on the ground. In another, an PM officer shouts, “Everybody is going to die”, as another one strikes the youth with an iron bar.

The Paraisópolis incident has once again exposed the racial fault line that divides Brazil, where the blacks — mostly poor — are often at the receiving end of violence by police officers, mostly white. This division came to a boil last week as thousands of Paraisópolis residents took to the streets as the State government dithered in taking any action. “It was not a tragedy! It was murder!” residents shouted as they marched towards the office of Sao Paulo Governor João Doria. “The police come here only to beat us and to create problems and not to protect us. They do not like our parties. This time they went too far, causing the death of innocent people,” says Julio Neto, 21, a slum resident wearing a T-shirt that read “Justice for the 9 of Paraisópolis.”

Even as Paraisópolis waits for justice, a study has revealed how blacks and mixed-race people, who form 56% of the Brazilian population, face discrimination at every step of life. According to a report released by the country’s top research firm in November, blacks represent three out of four people in the poorest group; in the richest group, blacks are only one in four people. The positions, said the report, with the highest salaries are held by a white majority. In 2018, for every seven white people in top positions, there was only one black woman. In the field of IT, the blacks have just 4% representation, the report said.

The only place the blacks have more representation than the whites is the country’s notorious prison system, where they make up 64% of the inmates. According to a Ministry of Justice report published in 2017, a typical prisoner in Brazil is a “male, under 30 years of age, black and uneducated”. A report released by Amnesty International in 2017 showed that of the 56,000 homicides in Brazil every year, 77% of the victims were young, poor, male and black.

Right-wing black

Despite such high inequality, a large number of Brazilians live in complete denial of race-based discrimination. In a shocking statement last month, Sergio Camargo, the head of Palmares Foundation whose mandate includes working with the Ministry of Culture to support “policies for the inclusion of Afro-descendants in the process of development”, said racism in Brazil was only a “leftist propaganda”. Mr. Camargo, a black man who supports President Jair Bolsonaro, also called for the abolition of the Black Awareness Day, celebrated every year on November 20. “Black Awareness Day is a shame and needs to be relentlessly fought until it loses its relevance and disappears from the calendar,” said Mr. Camargo, who calls himself a “right-wing black who is against political correctness”.

But the young Afro-Brazilians, like the ones who died in Paraisópolis, are not willing to take it lying down. For the past two weeks, they have been raising slogans against the police and campaigning on social media. Their effort forced Governor Doria, who initially defended his police force, to meet the family members of the victims and community leaders. In the past 10 days, Mr. Doria has removed 38 police officers, who were connected with the incident, from street patrolling and instructed the police to review their protocols while dealing with people. “I was very shocked when I saw the video of a PM unnecessarily beating young people out of a confined space,” Mr. Doria said, adding that PM officers would be present at Baile Funk parties on Saturdays.

Paraisópolis residents, still fighting for justice, hope the police will be there for their protection, and not to crush the party.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:54:37 PM |

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