Note from BW of Brazil: Is there an undeclared war on Brazil’s black population on the part of the State? Perhaps a better question would be, if you have been following the situation in various states throughout Brazil for more than a few years, perhaps a better question would be, would you be surprised if there was? In a recent story featured here, we presented the brutal murders of two more black males in Rio de Janeiro in a police operation called “Operation Black Machine III”, which we re-dubbed “Operation Black (Killing) Machine” on that post. So what’s really going on Brazil? Is it simply a case of death having a preference for darker skin? Is there a blatant policy of genocide of the nation’s darker elements? Is it because within every battalion of the Military Police there is a death squad? Are the victims simply always in the wrong place at the wrong time? Due to Brazil’s historic treatment of its black population, it would appear that all of the choices apply. And the wrong place at the wrong time excuse doesn’t actually hold up as Brazil’s police always enter poor, predominantly black communities with guns blazing and as such, someone will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time! They surely don’t enter upper crust, majority white areas with this demeanor!
Meanwhile in Bahia, one of three states in Brazil that report a black population of over 76%, prominent activist Vilma Reis also sees something more sinister at play here. But before we get into, we must share a recent victory for Reis and the black population that she has fearlessly represented for so many years.
By four votes to two, the candidate Vilma Reis was elected the new General-Ombudsman of the Bahia Public Defender (DPE/BA) on the morning of Thursday (30). Vilma ran for election against historian Marcos Rezende and replaces the current General-Ombudsman, Tânia Ramos, who held the position for two terms.
In a statement, the elected Ombudsman pointed out that “It’s the first time that an election process for general ombudsman of the Public Defender stirred the country. Many collectives came together, came forth to build together with us in this election. This was a moment of many silenced voices rising.” Vilma Reis’s induction ceremony will take place on May 22 at 9am at Escola Superior da Defensoria Pública – Esdep, on Rua Pedro Lessa, in the region of Canela.
Note from BW of Brazil: Congratulations are definitely in order for Vilma Reis! But even before this victory, she boldly spoke out on the situation of Afro-Brazilians in one of the nation’s blackest states. Speaking out after the bloody massacre of 15 black males in Salvador (Bahia’s capital) by Military Police (only the latest in a long history of police violence), Reis didn’t bite her tongue!
“The police are being used to support the narco state” says militant in the OAB-BA
by Bruno Luiz
In an interview with Bahia Notícias, Vilma Reis, president of the Conselho de Desenvolvimento da Comunidade Negra do Estado da Bahia (CDCN or Black Community Development Council of the State of Bahia) said she believes that the speech of the Governor Rui Costa on a police action that killed 12 people in Cabula (neighborhood in Salvador) is the same as giving license to kill. She attended the public hearing held on Thursday (26) by the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil – Seção Bahia (OAB-BA or Bar Association of Brazil – Bahia Section) to discuss the fact. “The speech of the governor was disastrous. He ran over all legal prerogatives. A governor is the commander in chief of the police. He cannot, before any investigation, anticipate and take legal mechanisms, protocol and release the troops because, if he does, it opens the breach to illegality,” she said. Vilma also said that the police are being used “to support the narco state, the narco parlament and sustain the narco communication.” “The police attacks and the state feels alleviated. We will not admit this,” she said. The president CDCN said that the police live in a “historical misunderstanding” and that the war against trafficking is actually a “war against blacks.” “They don’t understand that they are pawns. They think that they have the power, they have to fight the population, treat the poor black population as an enemy,” she said.
And she went on to say that “the police should be the last resort to get the communities, but it has been the first and only often times. It is important that the police policy be the last, not the first. And the population is very, very afraid. How does one live with everyone? You’re always on edge, because you have a force in your community who put a label on everybody. Brazil has no death penalty. We will not allow that a narco parliament sell fear to society and move with helicopters clogged with cocaine and establishing terror in the communities,” she said. Vilma also said that she participated in the manifestation that occurred on February 11 against the action and she could see that residents are frightened. “They don’t want to comment on anything. If they ask about how this could have happened. In the manifestation, there were mothers of which all that they could do was cry. There was a lady who only repeated the phrase, “My God, I just sent him to buy a pizza.” The youths had great vigor during the demonstration. Then had to be taken by the older ones, because we knew that they were infiltrated by police,” she said. “This is absurd. I mean, we have to fight inside the democracy to achieve democracy. I still hope to see a restorative justice in this country rather than criminal justice,” she concluded.
Note from BW of Brazil: For Afro-Brazilian activists in the state of Bahia and around Brazil, Vilma Reis is a well-known activist in the black struggle. But most of our readers have probably never heard of her. Below, we present a brief life trajectory from Vilma herself that first appeared online back in September of 2009.
Vilma Reis: “The most privileged places are under the control of ‘whiteness’”
Childhood in Nazaré das Farinhas
I was born in the neighborhood of Marechal Rondon, Salvador (Bahia), and at two years of age I went to Nazaré das Farinhas. I grew up in the Recôncavo (region of Bahia) with that pride of all black families there. I was raised by a very strong woman, my grandmother. She had already raised 13 children and then eight grandchildren, because of interruptions imposed by racism on her sons. My father was a railroad worker and had an accident on the railroad. He left the hospital and signed a series of documents that made him lose many workers’ rights. He couldn’t handle the pressure and ended up in a sanatorium. So I went to Nazaré. My grandmother is for me the principal example, she my first (example of) Movimento Negro (black civil rights organizations). She worked daily in the homes of wealthier families and told us: ‘You will not clean the houses of whites’. Her speaking made me shiver. So I have this responsibility to produce knowledge outside the control of the casa grande (slave master’s/big house).
Work as a maid
Even with this battle of my grandmother, I was a domestic worker in this town until the 17th of February 1988. I arrived here at almost 14 years and up until 19, almost, I did domestic work to survive. We fell into a very dramatic situation of poverty with this blow that my father suffered. I worked in Cidade Nova, Massaranduba and the last job was in Monte Serrat, and there, there was already a relation of really working for the middle class. But I always kept studying. That voice of my grandmother never left my mind. I left this house in the middle of the Friday of Carnival. I was looking for my father, who was living in Itinga, and I left my things with him. I went to Arembepe…It was that after he left the east, my father was a barraqueiro (1) of street festivals, and I was always helping him. Every year after Carnaval my father took the barraca (tent) to Arembepe. Sometimes we didn’t have any money to go back and we stayed one, two months there. It was the most beautiful place I knew, so I went. I arrived there on the shore of the lake, sat down, it was really a rite of passage. On the way back I got a job as a apontador de jogo do bicho (pointer to the numbers game) and I came to live here in a boarding home on Dois de Julho (avenue). At the end of the year I decided to go to São Paulo. I worked at Xerox of Brazil, but it didn’t work out, I didn’t have any support networks in São Paulo. I returned and enrolled in Colégio Central. And there politics was really in my veins. I became president of the guild, in a disputed election. Later I founded the Coletivo de Mulheres Negras da Bahia (Black Women’s Collective of Bahia). Then I was getting much more of a mind in the Movimento Negro, in women’s movement, in the student’s movement.
Arrival at college
In ‘92 I graduated from high school. I took the vestibular (college entrance exam) for Letters in English at Uneb of Caetité. But I didn’t take the course because I won a scholarship to a women’s NGO in Austria and went to live there. I spent a year and a half in Vienna. I studied German, took a course focused on communications and gender, participated in an NGO with Brazilian women, that was very important. In ‘95 I went back to Bahia and then took Social Sciences at UFBA (Federal University of Bahia). At the end of graduation, I competed for a scholarship and went to do a specialization along with two other black women, in a pioneering experience at Howard University in the US which is a black university founded in 1865. Imagine that, Brazil today is still struggling to have quotas.
The CDCN is a collegial body of Sepromi (Secretaria de Promoção da Igualdade Racial do Estado/ Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality of the State), of which I am president, and it is very important to say that there are 21 people that are volunteers. Our role is to recommend and monitor public policies of confronting racism that are undertaken by the government. We are trying to bring the Council to the interior (of Bahia), in the past year we visited 20 cities. There are questions that we are discussing, like the need to deal with the issue of power, which is extremely white in Bahia. The most privileged places are under the control of whiteness. At the university it’s also like this, in industry. We have an industrial park in Bahia and almost all of it is controlled by the Eixo Sul-Sudeste (south-southeast axis). The rich people of Bahia, they are so affected by racism that they don’t even trust the handing the administration of their money to other white baianos (peoples from Bahia). This is very serious. The other issue has to do with land. Bahia has the largest number of quilombolas (persons living in maroon communities) in the country and we have many problems of the titling of these lands, with very serious conflicts, as is the case of São Francisco do Paraguaçu. For the ruralist caucus in Congress, it’s a matter of honor defeating nationally the demand for the titling of this land. The two main leaders died victims of harassment by security forces and from the Courts. There are 11 farmers in dispute over one quilombola territory. It’s because there are many things underneath that land, right?
I joined Ceafro (2) in March 2000 and I’ve been in coordination since 2004. 2010 made 10 years with Ceafro. We have several fronts: a project called “Escola Plural – A diversidade está na sala” (Plural School – Diversity is in the room),” in which we shape the teachers to work with the contents of Law 10.639, which instituted the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian History and Culture at all levels of education. We also produce educational materials. There’s another line which is a public policy for black youth, to strengthen these youth in coping with the institutional violence. And there’s a third line, with affirmative action policies in higher education, in which we engage with quota students. Because we understand that the quota student has to go back to their community and make another 100 young people feel a desire to go to UFBA, to Uneb, to UESB…
From 2000 until 2006 we did a study with young maids. Unfortunately they are not recognized as a labor category. If there is something in this country that denounces that the rules of colonization are still alive in Brazilian society, it’s how domestic work is treated. And we’re talking about a category that has 9.5 million people in the country. In Bahia, there are 500,000 domestic workers, 50,000 alone are in RMS (Metropolitan Area of Salvador). Under 16 years (of age), the Brazilian law doesn’t allow. We did a survey in partnership with other institutions, in 2002, and found that there were children 10 to 17 years of age working. It’s not possible that a person that respects herself, that raises her children will let their children watch another child being subjected to humiliation, symbolic, physical, psychological, often sexual violence. This survey revealed that 33% of girls suffer some level of violence. It’s a very high rate, and 47% of them had left school. By 2006, we had worked with 360 adolescent domestic workers, after that there were no more resources. But of this universe, only one received a salário mínimo (minimum salary). And even then, that one didn’t have a carteira assinada (formal work contract). 70% of them received between R$50 and R$100, in a reality in which the salary was already at R$350 (3). The project was crucial. Today many girls keep in touch with us, many were able to get into college. There’s a girl who lived in the region of the Jardin Cruzeiro and when she passed the first phase of the vestibular at UFBA, the women of her street got together to throw a party. It was the first time anyone on that street passed the entrance exam of UFBA, even in the first phase.
We need to decriminalize it. The girl gets pregnant, but nobody discusses the boy who impregnated her, or the man. Black girls are so disrespected by the State, by men, that sometimes having a child is when they cease from being nobody to being the mother of that child. This understanding is very important to have, so that this doesn’t only remain the conversation of socio-educational measures for boys who are in conflict with the law and the criminalization of teenage pregnancy. Some people still say: ‘Wow, with so many anti-contraceptive methods today …’ These campaigns don’t have the face fo these girls. They find a blonde model! There’s a breastfeeding campaign now that has a blonde singer from Bahia that’s featured in the campaign. Jeez, it’s clear that women don’t see themselves in that campaign.
1. Street vendor that sells products under a tent in popular street fair.
2. CEAFRO is the education program for racial and gender equality of CEAO – Center for Afro-Oriental Studies, a unit of extension of UFBA – Federal University of Bahia, in development since 1995. When we started, our main commitment was to establish a dialogue between the Federal University of Bahia, the Public School and the Black Movement organizations of Bahia.
3. At the time of this article (September 7, 2009), the US Dollar was worth about $1.84 Brazilian Reais. Thus, the totals for R$50, R$100 and R$350 would have been US$27.17, US$54.34 and US$190.21.