In defense of the racial democracy: Military Police acknowledge stopping more black people but deny that racism influences such actions
By Marques Travae; images courtesy of Recruta Almeida
The fact that Brazil’s Military Police are much more prone to stop, frisk, mistreat and kill non-white citizens has been one of the most glaring methods of measuring how racism functions in Brazilian society. Whether so-called pretos (black) and pardos (browns) are actually approached or simply walk the streets in fear of being approached, there is a clear difference in the attitude of cops when a suspect, or just someone living in a majority non-white area, is in the vicinity.
But why is this?
Are cops just playing off of society’s stereotype that if the skin color isn’t white, a citizen MUST be up to something no good? Is there some unwritten policy in police manuals that train law enforcement to treat one person different than another? Are these cops simply reproducing a prejudice that underlines Brazilian society as a whole? Do they even realize they treat pretos and pardos differently? Whatever the answer, this difference is often a matter of of life and death.
According to a new study from the city of Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, 60% of police actually realize that pretos and pardos are enemy number one when the topic is routine police stops. But even admitting this fact, they still don’t see this selection process as being racist. The data was found in the Federal University of Pernambuco study entitled “Quando a polícia chega para nos matar, nós estamos praticamente mortos: discursos sobre genocídio da população negra no cenário de Recife-PE” (When the police arrive to kill us, we are practically dead: discourses about genocide of the black population in the scenario of Recife-PE) by Joyce Amancio de Aquino Alves.
Alves has a very clear understanding of this issue at hand when she states that, “Addressing the genocide of the black population is not a simple task if we do not tie it to the understanding of racism in Brazil, linking to that the specificity of our racial relations.” In the view of Alves, there is no way to separate racism in everyday Brazil from the random violence that makes Brazil one of the most dangerous countries in the world and thus is a key element in understanding what it means to be black (preto or pardo) in Brazil.
One of the main issues in being able consider the ramifications of how race plays out in police actions, approaches and violence is the decades long belief and promotion of the idea of Brazil being a “racial democracy” in which all are treated equally regardless of skin color/phenotype. For several years now, Afro-Brazilian activists have labeled the higher rate of homicide among blacks as “the genocide of the black population”. For Alves’s study, the definition of genocide that was applied was “any act that was committed with the intention of destroying a national, religious, ethnic or racial group, in whole or in part”, and was also based on the Nancy Scheper-Hughes concept of “genocidal continuum”. For Scheper-Hughes, “genocidal continuum” is “comprised of a multitude of ‘small wars and invisible genocides’ conducted in the normative spaces of public schools, clinics, emergency rooms, hospital wards, nursing homes, court rooms, prisons, detention centers, and public morgues.” (see note one)
The myth of a “racial democracy” represents a major issue that Brazil’s Movimento Negro has confronted over the decades of struggle in struggling to force Brazil to recognize itself as a racist nation. In Joyce’s opinion, “thinking about racist police policies is still urgent”, considering that the institutional racism that underlines the country also manifests itself within police forces that act as the enforcement arm of the state. And in a state that seeks to enforce public order, there is a target of such enforcement and then there is the population that demands protection. And both of the target and the population demanding protection have a color and class.
The call for the end of the genocide of the black Brazilian has been a flag issue of the Movimento Negro since its founding back in 1978 and now, 40 years later, data show that the issue is as important now, or even more, than it was four decades ago. Consider, for example, the fact that a black Brazilian is six times more likely to die as a result of a firearm than a white Brazilian. Should this be considered a mere coincidence? And according to the study, the state from which the study itself came from, Pernambuco is actually the most lethal for young black people.
The goal of the study is to get to the bottom of how police can simultaneously acknowledge that they are more likely to stop non-white citizens than white citizens but still deny how race factors into the very discrepancy that they admit. Why the denial? In 2013, an official with the Military Police in the city of Campinas also openly admitted to ordering police forces to stop and frisk pretos and pardos.
How are populations constructed in the policing and approaches of everyday people, in poor, primarily preto and pardo neighborhoods and what does this say about the race factor in general? How do police forces continue to recognize but still deny the racial question when anti-racist activists continue to produce data, studies and experiences of this population that detail such racist actions and place the Military Police at the front and center of an apparent policy of genocide?
To address the issue and get some answers to some of these questions, 10 interviews were conducted, five with Military Police and five activists of the Movimento Negro from the city of Recife. While I am interested in knowing the results of the study, I don’t expect the findings to change my view of the situation in any significant manner. Brazil has long had an objective of eliminating its black population through a number of actions that have been discussed on this blog in detail and police and military forces are the most lethal weapons at the disposal of the state.
With this in mind, why
does it seem is it that Brazil’s pretos and pardos are prime targets of Military Police forces? Is it really hard to tell?
- Campbell, D. Grant and Martin I Nord. “The Materiality of Documents and the Genocidal Continuum”. The University of Akron, December 2017. Available online. Accessed on August 31, 2018. Link.