João Pedro Matos was in his uncle's garden on May 18 in São Gonçalo, near Rio de Janeiro, when Brazil's Federal Police stormed in. Police claim officers traded shots with armed drug traffickers, though the Matos family denies this. A bullet fired by an officer hit João Pedro, who was taken away in a helicopter and reported as missing. His parents were only told the next day that he had died. João Pedro was 14 years old.
The victim's father, Neilton Pinto, addressed Rio de Janeiro state governor Wilson Witzel on television. "I want to say, mister governor, that your police force didn't just murder a 14-year-old boy with a dream and plans," the UOL newssite reports. "Your police force killed an entire family, it killed a father, it killed a mother and João Pedro. This is what your police force did to my life."
João Pedro's death is just one reason why the protests against police brutality aimed at people of color — which began last week in the U.S. after officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis — have also flared up in Brazil. The anger has found particularly fertile ground in Brazil, a country with several historical and political parallels with its North American neighbor.
People gathered outside the headquarters of the Rio de Janeiro government on Sunday, May 31 to protest against police operations in Rio de Janeiro's low-income neighbourhoods, known as favelas. Protesters marched with banners chanting Vidas negras importam, the Portuguese for "Black lives matter", and Parem de nos matar, ("Stop killing us'). Later, as some protesters lingered after the end of the demonstration, police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse them, causing a stampede, O Globo reports. Dramatic footage showed an officer holding a protester at gunpoint with an assault rifle. Similar scenes were seen in São Paulo and other major Brazilian cities.
Bolsonaro was elected promising a ‘licence to kill" to police officers
Police violence against people of color in favelas has been a problem for years in Brazil, a country that shares with the U.S. a tragic history of slavery of African populations. Just over half of the country's population identifies as black, but black Brazilians represent more than 75% of the victims of police operations. According to BBC Mundo, Brazilian police forces kill up to 21 times more black citizens than their U.S. counterparts.
But many believe that the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has exacerbated the problem. "Bolsonaro was elected promising a ‘licence to kill" to police officers," writes Folha de São Paulo columnist Ilona Szabo. Since Bolsonaro's election, police killings have reached new record highs. Police killed 1,810 people in Rio in 2019 – the highest number since records began in 1998. In the first four months of 2020, Rio de Janeiro police have killed 606 people, by their own count.
Like Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro has appeared to fan the flames after the first protests, calling black rights protesters "terrorists, idiots and drug addicts', Folhareported. A high official appointed during Bolsonaro's time in power was recorded calling the black rights' movement "scum", months after claiming that slavery had benefited black Brazilians. Bolsonaro's sons Carlos and Eduardo, both politicians, publicly endorsed Trump's promise of a hard line stance against protests.
Also like in the U.S., the racial tensions in Brazil have been mixing with a rising death toll from a very poorly managed coronavirus outbreak. This week, Brazil overtook Italy as the world's third worst hit country in the world. On Friday, Brazil's Supreme Court temporarily halted police raids in favelas during the pandemic, though critics of the government cited the ruling as a response to the recent killings of blacks Reuters reports.
Popular protests in Brazil against the police have thus far not escalated, though new demonstrations are expected on Sunday.