“Relax! The mask is because of Covid-19!!”: In three different states, reactions of police, security and people show how society sees ‘black men in masks’
By Marques Travae with information from Alma Preta, UOL and Notícia Preta
By now, the whole world knows that health specialists are advising everyone that must leave their homes to wear a mask to protect them against the pandemic of Covid-19. What these physicians and specialists may not have considered is the how the wearing of a mask in public could be interpreted differently depending on the skin color of the person wearing the mask.
In a society such as Brazil, where black men have already been criminalized for centuries, we had heard numerous reports of black men simply trying to protect themselves against the coronavirus but, possibly being due to the fear of seeing a black man in a mask, they are having to think twice about wearing masks in public. As black men regularly being ‘mistaken’ for criminals in Brazil is really the norm, being deemed as ‘suspect’ combined with the insanely high rates of black males being murdered by police makes protecting one self with a mask a possible choice of not so much life and death as much as it is death and death.
Are these men simply overreacting?
Even if one were to believe that the reactions to these black men wearing masks weren’t warranted by racist stereotypes, the very fact that people have to even consider the possibility that they are driven by racism demonstrates how deep the association of blackness with criminality has penetrated the psyche of the society. Let’s assume such reactions are in fact driven by racist stereotypes. As hard as it could be to prove this, what actions should be taken? Let’s take a look at a few incidents first.
On April 8th, an international relations student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Paulo Falcão, 21, was stopped by security guards while wearing a mask in a market in the Alcântara neighborhood of the city of São Goncalo, located in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
According to Falcão, on a social network, he heard a security guard yell for him to remove the hood of the jacket he was wearing. The professional claimed that he could not enter with his face covered, according to law No. 6717, of March 18, 2014.
Via Twitter, Paulo Galcão (@paulobrabissimo) published the following:
“Today, 4/8, at 2 pm, I went to the supermarket of the Carrefour chain – practically next to my house – to buy some items that my mother had requested. It was a rainy and cold day, I was wearing a hood, durag – a head accessory used for a haircut – and a mask that protected my nose and mouth, as recommended by the Ministry of Health in times of Covid-19 pandemic. Upon entering the store Americanas, I was approached rudely by a security guard from Carrefour who SCREAMED there was a law that forbade me to use the hood.”
“The law exists, in fact it is Law No. 6717 of March 18, 2014. The first article prohibits ‘the use of admission or permanence of people wearing a helmet or any type of cover that hides the face, in commercial establishments, public or open to the public’. In the second paragraph of the law, it is clear that ‘caps, hoods and hats do not fall under the prohibition’ unless they hide the face of the person, which was not the case. I also quote the third paragraph, arguably the most important; ‘The approach to users of caps, hoods and hats should take place’.
“I think this approach would have been different if I were a white customer,” said the student.
The supermarket Carrefour replied with a response that is pretty much the standard in such situations: it repudiates any form of prejudice and the responsibility for the professional is that of the shopping center where the unit is located.
This one is a tough call because it will depend on how the young man’s appearance is judged. While the hood he was wearing didn’t necessarily hide his appearance, combined with the mask, one could see how that could attract attention. Was he stopped because he was black? Hard to make this call. Perhaps had he removed his hoodie and security still stopped him, this would be probably easier to prove. We DO know that young black males wearing hoodies can definitely attract attention.
Then we have two cases from the northeastern state of Bahia.
With his voice shaken and permeated by pauses, the technologist from Bahia “DSS” 38, reported that one of the countless cases of racism he’s experienced. The difference in a recent incident that separated it from other situations was the fact that he was wearing a specifically for protection against the risk of transmission of Covid-19.
DDS detailed the ordeal in the following manner:
“My girlfriend and I stopped at a gas station. While I was filling up the car, she went to the pharmacy. Suddenly, I heard the radio of the police car parked next to me: ‘Black couple wearing a mask in an X car of color X’. That caught my attention immediately.”
“Promptly, a policeman came over to me and asked me to get out of the car. I did. He asked for my documents and those of the car, again I complied. He told me to put my hands on the hood. I complied again. When my partner came over and asked what was going on, I explained. That’s when the policeman said, ‘If you keep talking too much, I’ll arrested you, you disgraceful black.”
Preferring not to reveal his real identity and embarrased by what happened, he and his girlfriend were silent during the entire trip to the house and that, even days later, they hadn’t even discussed the incident.
“You are the first person with whom I’ve talk to about this,” he said for the report. In his view, the use of a mask that partially covered his face enhanced the stereotype of a criminal.
Clearly thinking of what often comes to the minds of people in Brazil when the topic is black men, he believes it’s not possible to be shielded from racist intent in cases like this. “Even though I am at risk, people need to respect me regardless of my color. I prefer to continue protecting myself with a blue, white or black mask [than not wearing it].”
– “I won’t lie: I take off my mask because I can be mistaken (for someone) and die”
Also in Bahia, Cleber Xavier admitted: “I won’t lie: I take off my mask because I can be mistaken (for someone) and die”. Xavier works in a public institution with video monitoring in the capital city of Salvador and realized that the use of the preventive mask would not be so simple when going home from work.
“I was arriving at the bus stop and passed a car. Do you know when you cross your eyes in the driver’s rearview? He was looking at me and automatically started the car, and as I passed he followed me with his eyes. I realized that he was afraid of me and didn’t understand. I kept walking, and when I passed, he turned off the car and stayed in the same place. I stopped and rationalized about it, but moved on.”
Xavier thinks that it’s necessary to double down on the way he acts when wearing the mask in an attempt to minimize the risk that he could experience. “These days, in a pharmacy, it was just me, the saleswoman and a lady. As soon as I entered, it came to my mind: ‘you have the mask on, act calmly'”.
With this in mind, Cleber now he avoids wearing a hat and when he arrives in his neighborhood, on the outskirts of the Bahian capital. Rather than ignore existing social prejudice, he prefers to simply take off his mask to avoid being stopped the police are on the streets.
We also have reports from the city of São Paulo.
A decree published issued by the Government of the State of São Paulo makes the use of masks in public spaces, commercial establishments and transport by application mandatory, came into force on Thursday (7). The rule is valid for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new coronavirus, and must double the care of the black population when they go out on the street. However, there are reports of people who left home with a mask to protect themselves from virus contamination and returned with yet another case of racism.
That’s what happened to Gabriel Matos, creative director at BuzzFeed, who even before using the mask was already wearing a mask to protect himself from Covid-19. Matos describes what happened on the morning of April 29th:
“I went out in the morning to go to the market and got my mask, my earphones, sunglasses and walked a few blocks to get there. But when I realized that the market was closed, I went home. “
On the way back, Gabriel noticed that a police car was following him. “I paused the music so I could be more attentive in case someone spoke to me and walked towards my building. Throughout this trip, the police car followed me without saying anything, closely and slowly”, he says. Upon entering the building, the vehicle accelerated and drove away.
Distraught, he shared the situation on his Twitter account.
Twitter comment: Paulista não praticante@Sukitabr: “I went wearing a mask to go to the market and a car followed me for 7 blocks. I can’t take it anymore”
Matos revealed in an interview that he considers the mandatory use of the mask to stop the spread of Covid-19 important. For him, the problem is that use fuels racism rooted in society.
“The mask only attributes one more element of accusation to a portion of the population in which the color of the skin is a cause for suspicion. It’s a situation where you have to choose whether you want to die a natural death or a murdered. If we leave without a mask, we run the risk of getting the coronavirus, if we leave with a mask, we increase the risk of being approached by the police.”
To avoid being a victim of racial violence by the police, publicist Paulo Santos has adopted a strategy that, on the other hand, may decrease his protection to Covid-19. “Whenever a police car is nearby, I take off one side of the mask to make my face visible. Thus, I believe that I have less chance of being ‘mistaken’ (for someone) the police are looking for,” he says.
Cassimano Nanau, 37, is a graphic designer and resident of downtown São Paulo. In a recent interview, he said that he strictly follows social isolation, but that, after two weeks at home, he had to go to the bank and realized that there are more police on the streets. According to him, the presence of police vehicles alone makes him feel distressed.
“The street was empty and shops were closed. I went into the bank wearing a mask and, when the security guards saw me, they held their guns, waited for my attitude, watched what I was going to do. I approached the revolving door to ask for information and I felt that they were clearly on the alert.”
Guilty until proven otherwise
The PhD student in sociology at IESP and a specialist in the topic of black masculinity, Henrique Restier states that, with the mandatory use of masks, cases like these will not be isolated and are part of the life history of black men.
“This is a secular story in which contexts change, but the threats remain the same.” For him, the classic stereotype of the bandit wearing a hood, cap and mask is part of the construction of the image of the black man during colonization in Brazil and is still represented in advertisements, novelas (soap operas) and cinemas.
Restier says that, over the centuries, “a legal body was created to criminalize these people, their cultural practices, and an imaginary was created around their bodies, which carry negative stereotypes that associate them with crime and violence”. For the researcher, this is still reflected in Brazilian society today.
The fear of wearing the mask is also, according to the researcher, due to the consequences that this man suffers when he is accused of a crime. “In the case of the men interviewed, I believe that it does not only imply being mistaken for a thief, but also its consequences: they not only experience humiliation and embarrassment, but also suffer physical violence and, in some cases, are killed,” he says.
“The black man lives the reverse of the idea that he is innocent until proven otherwise, he will always be guilty and before his innocence is proven; he has already experienced a series of violence.”
A fine for those who do not wear
The use of the mask should not be ruled out as it is essential for people to protect themselves from the contamination of the virus when leaving home, as recommended by the Ministry of Health. In addition, in São Paulo, those who break the decree can also be fined up to BRL $276 thousand for committing a violation of a sanitary measure and a crime of disobedience. The offender may even face one to four years in prison.
According to lawyer Bruno Candido, for rules such as the mandatory use of masks that don’t discriminate against any group, it’s necessary to consider the reality of society. “Otherwise, it is just a way to increase the discriminatory abyss of fundamental rights”.
Candido considers that allocating public health issues like Covid-19 to public security and criminal policy strengthens the repression of the black, peripheral and homeless population, which are not read socially, according to him, as deserving of rights such as life, health and housing.
“It’s also to think that due to the criminalization and historical demonization of the black population, treating pandemics as a public security plan, and making the use of masks mandatory without considering the diversity and stigmas of Brazil, it is to allow errors of the police activity that often ‘mistakes’ black people with criminals who should be shot’, he stresses.
What do you do if you are a victim of racism?
In Brazil, there is no legislation dealing with the crime of racism in situations of epidemiological crisis such as that of Covid-19. People who experience racist situations in the midst of a pandemic, however, have the means to prevent the perpetrator from going unpunished. One of the ways pointed out by lawyer Bruno Candido is to resort to the Police Station for Racial Crimes and Intolerance Crimes (Decradi) or the common police stations.
“People persecuted for racism in commercial establishments, for example, must ask the police authority for surveillance images of the place to prove the persecution or the impediment of access. It is also important, at the time of the fact, to write down all the contact details of the witnesses present, confirming whether they realized the reason for the discrimination’” he warns.
In reality, racial crimes tend to encounter institutional barriers to proper conduct and, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, another impediment to solving the case may be the priority for crimes considered urgent. So it’s important to have the assistance of a lawyer.
Candido points out that, with the due investigation of the crime, the individual who committed will be able to answer criminally and the establishment also, in the civil scope. In both cases, the victim can be compensated. It is also possible, depending on the location where the crime occurred, the imposition of an administrative fine by the state or municipality that has an institutional provision for combating racism, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
When we consider all of the stories featured above, anyone who has never experienced being treated differently due their phenotype could simply dismiss the reactions of the men in the reports. But given everything that’s going from Covid-19, racist behavior and fatal police actions, black men in Brazil simply don’t have the luxury of ignoring the possibilities. And in these scenarios, two very real possibilities are dying from complications of the coronavirus or dying due to a mistaken identity associated with skin color.