A seemingly endless crowd of people marched slowly up the long Porto Alegre street on Saturday. They were silent except for the sound of a lone bass drum. Those gathered held their fists high in the air, and most wore masks. A woman carried a large piece of cardboard with the words: “Black Lives Matter. João Freitas.”
This was the funeral procession for João Alberto Silveira Freitas, a 40-year-old Black man, who on Nov. 19 was beaten and killed by security guards at a Carrefour supermarket in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the southernmost state capital.
The brutal video of his beating went viral, sparking outrage on the eve of Black Consciousness Day in Brazil.
The day was founded 49 years ago by a group in Porto Alegre to commemorate Black pride and resistance. The date marks the death in 1695 of Brazil’s most historic Black hero, Zumbi dos Palmares. He was the leader of the country’s largest settlement of people who escaped enslavement in the 17th century.
This year, the day took on an even more urgent meaning when protests erupted at Carrefour supermarkets around the country. People marched into a store in Belo Horizonte, chanting “murderer” and “racist.”
At a store in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, protesters rallied as a Black man lay on the ground, his arms outstretched, a demonstration representative of Freitas’ killing.
“We are protesting racism and demanding an end to the genocide against the Black community.”
“We are protesting racism and demanding an end to the genocide against the Black community,” said activist Hellen Frida, who attended the protest. “Another Black man was brutally killed by two security officers, and the violence has to stop.”
Thousands turned out for one of the largest protests in Porto Alegre since the beginning of the pandemic in front of the supermarket where Freitas was killed.
In São Paulo, a mass of people raided a store as night fell, breaking windows and knocking things to the ground. Videos of these protests were shared widely over social media. During his speech to the G-20 summit over the weekend, President Jair Bolsonaro denied the existence of racism in Brazil and lashed out at protesters.
“There are those that want to destroy [Brazilian unity] and put in its place conflict, resentment, hate and racial division, always masked as the fight for equality or social justice. All in search of power,” Bolsonaro said.
Speaking to reporters, Vice President Hamilton Mourão denied that the killing was racist.
“No, there’s no racism in Brazil,” he said. “That’s something they want to import.”
Some Brazilians say that since US-style Jim Crow segregation never existed here, then, there’s no racism in Brazil — the mythology of racial democracy. But others say just the opposite, that racism is happening all over the place, all the time.
“Racism in Brazil is endemic. It’s everywhere. It’s every day.”
“Racism in Brazil is endemic. It’s everywhere. It’s every day,” said Reginete Bispo, a longtime member of the Black movement in Porto Alegre and a sociologist who leads the Black women’s institute AKANNI.
“Racism in Brazil is recognized across the globe because this is one of the countries that most kills Blacks. More than 50,000 young Black men and women are killed every year in Brazil,” Bispo said.
Freitas’ death was all the more tragic coming just days after the election of five new young Black city council members in Porto Alegre. It was an important win in what is considered one of the most racist cities in the country.
“We have to make sure that Joao Freitas’ death was not in vain,” said 29-year-old Matheus Gomes, one of those just elected to the city council. “There can be no justifying the killing. The brutality reminds us of the tradition of lynching of Black men and women since the time of slavery. And the violence continues. Every 23 minutes, a young, Black man is killed in Brazil.”
For many, Freitas’ death was strikingly similar to that of George Floyd’s in the US this past spring. After Freitas was repetitively beaten in the head, one of the security guards knelt on his neck for four minutes. The cause of death was asphyxiation.
“This death by asphyxiation, like we saw in the case of George Floyd in the United States, also happens here. The police and security forces have a practice of using this,” Bispo said. “It’s a technique of killing and, in particular, killing Black people.”
This is only the latest round of Black Lives Matter protests in Brazil. Like in the United States, they’re sparked by each new killing. Advocates say it’s getting worse, and Bolsonaro is at least partially to blame.
“Bolsonaro is directly responsible for what has happened, through his hate discourse, for his attempt to ignore the racial problems and for being part of those that today instigate violence in different ways, particularly through the police and private security.”
“Bolsonaro is directly responsible for what has happened, through his hate discourse, for his attempt to ignore the racial problems and for being part of those that today instigate violence in different ways, particularly through the police and private security,” Gomes said.
The security guards — one of them, a reserve member of the military police — are currently in prison. The Carrefour supermarket chain has said it would end its contract with the security company responsible for Freitas’ death. It said it would also fire the store manager. But according to reports, this is just one of a string of racist incidents and labor violations committed by the supermarket chain.
Freitas was a welder. He left behind five children. More protests and events demanding justice are expected in the coming days. Activists across the country have vowed to continue to fight against the racist violence and death that continues to plague Brazil.