Note from BW of Brazil: Most of the posts on this blog keep you up to date on how race relations, racial politics, racism, identity, etc. play out in Brazil in a contemporary setting. But I also feel the need to occasionally share the history so that you can understand how the situation of black Brazilians became what it is today. Often times I hear people comment that black Brazilians seem like they are about 40 years behind on the advances made in the black American struggle for equality. It’s not really possible to be able to explain why it’s a big deal to see so many black Brazilian men and women wearing afros, and braids until you understand a slave era that started earlier, lasted longer and, for many historians, was more brutal than the same system in the US. It’s impossible to understand the black Brazilian struggle without understanding the Frente Negra Brasileira, unofficial segregation, the promotion of the policy of embranquecimento (whitening through miscegenation), the Military Dictatorship, the myth of a racial democracy and the oppression of any form of black militancy.
Below, in another piece on the 1970s black political/cultural movement, we will see how a black cultural producer, a black singer and just wearing an afro in 1970s were under the constant surveillance of a dictatorship that feared the rise of any sort of black power movement as what had taken place in the United States in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
During the dictatorship, the black man couldn’t even have an afro
How the military repressed and watched over the movimento negro (black movement) in the name of defending a “racial democracy” that never existed
By Cynara Menezes
I was a very small child, then around 1974. A tall, very stylish black guy, known to everyone in the small town where I lived in the interior of Bahia, had been arrested, accused of being a thief and hiding the product of the robbery inside sua bela cabeleira estilo black power (his beautiful afro hairstyle). He came out of the jail with a shaved head.
This type of violence against blacks was common in the years of the military dictatorship. The dictatorship decreed the “racial democracy” in the country and demanded that it be complied with on the basis of beatings. Blacks had to “behave” – and it was the dictatorship who established the rules of this “good behavior.” Militarized by the dictatorship, the police strictly enforced the 1941 “lei da vadiagem” (vagrancy law), which provides (it is still in force) the imprisonment of those who wander the streets or are simply unemployed – and whose maximum “criteria” was, as today, color, social class and “criminal” appearance.
“By assuming the myth of racial democracy as one of its ideological foundations, the military-enterprise dictatorship guaranteed, on the one hand, that the model of supremacia branca (white supremacy) and the privileges derived from it were untouched; on the other hand, it suffocated any possibility of direct confrontation of the non-white population about the violence it suffered,” says Thula Rafaela Pires, PhD in Law at PUC-Rio, in Estruturas Intocadas: Racismo e Ditadura no Rio de Janeiro (Untold Structures: Racism and Dictatorship in Rio de Janeiro).
If they tortured and killed the middle class, the favelado was on the same path, only with another bias. The bias of discrimination and marginality, right? For them, every favelado (favela resident) was a marginal.
“The reality of blacks men and women was, as a rule, permeated by (police) ‘blitzes’ arbitrary arrests, home invasions, expropriation of living quarters (removals), physical and psychological tortures, as well as living with the latent threat of grupos de extermínio (extermination groups). A criminal policy rooted in slave-owning colonialism, rooted mainly in favelas, suburbs, Baixada Fluminense (region of Rio) and other peripheral regions of the state,” she continues. “Any resemblance to the current reality of the autos de resistência (resisting arrest) is not mere coincidence.”
Two community leaders from Rocinha, Luis Antonio, aka Xavante, and Antonio Ferreira, aka Xaolin, told the State Truth Commission of Rio de Janeiro how it was: “They came in with military support, they came in and went down with us tied up like that type of fishing net, all lined up like a fish spine. Everyone tied up in the same rope, coming down the hill,” said Xavante (see second photo from top).
“This then has the issue of discrimination against the blacks and the favelados. If they tortured and killed the middle class, the favelado was on the same path, only with another bias. The bias of discrimination and marginality, right? For them, every favelado was a marginal,” said Xaolin. “And when it was ten o’clock at night where you were, you had to run from the police, if you didn’t run… After ten o’clock at night the guys would arrest you and depending, if you were arrested on Friday night, you would only leave on Monday.”
“For the black, he was already guilty by his face. So the first general was him. At that time it was leaning against the wall, that was the approach. And it was constant. Then from the moment the look of that black man changes, this police officer assaults.”
Asfilófio de Oliveira, DJ Dom Filó, from the Soul Grand Prix sound team, said that he had been stopped several time by police just because of the way he was dressed and his cabelo black power (afro hairstyle). “We received some manufactured combs, the picks… Because initially we had to produce them, taking some bike rims and making the comb. And we made ten a month and the police took the ten, because to them that was a weapon. So that was complicated, because my hair was big, so I needed a rim that they found… The wire was 30 centimeters in size, because the bigger the better, only to them it was considered a weapon. So you walked with it in your hair, they came and took it.”
“The police came and gave that general to the young people to see: what type of the turmoil did they do? It wasn’t just black, no, it was general. “For the black, he was already guilty by his face. So the first general was him. Ordering you to stop. At that time it was leaning against the wall, that was the approach. And it was constant. Then from the moment the look of that black man changes, this police officer assaults. Even more the black cops, the capitães do mato (captains of the forest) (see note one) who arrive and think they have to prioritize, to trample over that black man, you understand? So these (police) approaches went on,” said Don Filó.
Expelled from the Air Force, Daílton Lopes Soares, one of the persecuted military who gave testimony to the Commission, told of the daily violence suffered by his father for not having a job. “I remember, before I went into the barracks, my father was humiliated several times. Sometimes he would leave and forget his documents (ID) at home. And you know very well that at that time there was the vagrancy law. If you didn’t have this document in your wallet, you were taken to the police station. He went to the police station several times, we were desperate at home,” said Daílton.
“Sometimes my father would not come home for 48 hours and we didn’t know why. And he appeared with two swollen hands: ‘what happened, father?’, ‘I was arrested’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I didn’t have my document, they took me to the police station, I said I was a worker, I showed the hand full of calluses’, ‘the order here is this: anyone who is arrested without a document, so as to not to forget again, he has to take some blows of the batons in his hand’. Then he had to open his hand, and my father said he took three in each hand. It was with all the anger they gave. It makes you want to cry, you know? A citizen going out to look for a job, forgetting the document his home, being arrested… it even seemed that at the time our country was going on a job. I was lacking a job at the time of the dictatorship. Several times my father was arrested, humiliated in this way, abused.
The speech that we see used in the election campaign by the extreme right that “there is no racism in Brazil”, the need to impose a “social harmony” that never existed (and today accuse the PT (Workers Party) of “destroying”), hid the generals’ fear that racial antagonisms in society would be used by “subversive-terrorist organizations.” Not surprisingly, the entities of the black movement that began to emerge in the late 1970s were all monitored by the intelligence services (see here and here)
“In Brazil, for some years now, although with a certain rarity, there has been a veiled intention of the subversive movement to raise the problem of racial discrimination, with the support of the media. The subject lends itself to the idea of force of the subversive-terrorist movement, because it is sensitive to our population and contrary to the Brazilian formation. It is explosive and agglutinating, capable of generating conflicts and antagonisms, putting national security at risk,” says an official document of the time, reproduced in the Commission’s final report.
Another target of the repression of the military to blacks was the bailes black (black dances), where they infiltrated people to watch and then report. “There was a time that I remember very well, in which we were leaving the dance and there were those naval police who were making rounds there and we left and they came after us, understand? They ran, went after us, picked up our group, we’d leave Rocinha (Rio favela) and go dancing there. And then, boy, I had hair that was like that, it was a big afro, and the dudes cut our hair, they left people bald. They took us inside the barracks, gave us a cold shower. And we stayed there until the afternoon of another day. At the end of the 70’s, we preached at the time for the end of dictatorship at the dances, equality. And the black movement was discriminated against,” Filó recalled.
“From the testimonies collected by the CEV-Rio (State Commission of the Truth of Rio), what has been verified is that the vigilance at the door of the dances, the police pat downs, the seizures of the picks, the afro hairstyles, the arbitrary prisons, physical and psychological tortures were not restricted to the leaders of the sound teams or the black movement. It was enough to attend the dances to witness or to suffer directly these types of violations practiced by the agents of the State,” says the report.
This habit of shaving the heads of blacks to add an extra humiliation to the imprisonment goes back to the ravages of slavery in Brazil, when the sadistic chief of police of the court, Coelho Bastos, was nicknamed “rapa-coco” because of shaving the heads of blacks who were captured for fleeing to the quilombos or pro-abolitionists, whom were considered “troublemakers”.
There was a limitation of the right of the residents to come and go in and out of the favelas, exactly how the Rio de Janeiro residents have been living after the military intervention decreed by (former President Michel) Temer in Rio de Janeiro (and which can expand throughout the country with the election of Jair Bolsonaro). Surveillance of favelados, considered criminals until proven to the contrary, was constant.
One black artist with an afro was the target of the dictatorship’s repression and institutional racism: Tony Tornado. The military feared that Tony, influenced by the Black Panthers, would become a political leader against racism and consequently a threat to the system. In 1971, when the song “Black is beautiful” was sung by Elis Regina at the Festival Internacional da Canção (FIC – International Song Festival), Tornado raised his fist upwards, repeating the symbolic gesture of the Black Panthers. He came out of the Maracanãzinho stadium arrested by the Dops (Department of Political and Social Order). An Army document accused him of having a “dubious life.”
In the previous FIC, of 1970, Tony Tornado came out champion with the song “BR-3”. A rumor, however, was spread by O Globo social columnist Ibrahim Sued, placing the singer in the dictatorship’s sights: the song was a metaphor for heroin addiction. The song’s author, Tibério Gaspar, told Lou Micaldas of the Velhos Amigos site, that he was taken to SNI (Serviço Nacional de Informações/National Information Service) because of the story.
“I was called to SNI because there was a rumor that the “BR-3″ song was the vein of the arm, it was the drug addict’s anthem. This was news forged by Ibrahim Sued, with the partnership of a general, already deceased. I was called in to the SNI to clarify not only this fact, but also the fear they had at the time that Tony Tornado was a black leader that could cause social turbulence,” said Tiberius.
“Behind this was the launch of a book called Tóxico, from the general named Jaime Graça. And this general placed the “BR-3″ as being a toxic song. In the passage that reads ‘There is a rocket ripping the sky, crossing space. And a Jesus Christ made of steel, crucified again,’ he said that I meant that it was a syringe coming from the sky, crossed over the arm, a needle made of steel to prick again. He transcribed this in his book. I couldn’t defend myself because all civil rights at that time were curtailed. Only through military court.”
“I paid very dearly for commanding the Black Rio movement. They thought we were inciting racism and they called me a crioulo comunista (communist nigger),” Tony told the Almanaque Brasil periodical. To Trip magazine in 2001, he commented that he had heard from a colonel: “I can’t understand, você crioulo e comunista (you nigger and Communist)? There is no crioulo comunista.” “Deus Negro” (black god), the 45 from 1976 that contained the song “Se Jesus Fosse Um Homem de Cor” (If Jesus Were a Man of Color), was censored. “Você teria por Ele esse mesmo amor (Would you have that same love for Him) /Se Jesus fosse um homem de cor? (If Jesus were a man of color)?” he questioned the song, at the same time disturbing the church and the military.
Tony Tornado sang the song with his fist raised and ended up intimidated into testifying, as the co-author Claudio Fontana told Paulo César Araújo in the book Eu Não Sou Cachorro, Não. “They called us back at the Federal and asked me to explain what I meant by that; if Tony Tornado and I wanted to make some protest movement in Brazil and such. ‘Do you want to play blacks against whites?’ Of course, we said no or we would have been imprisoned right there.” In all there were nine run ins of the black idol by Dops. Tornado eventually went away, going into exile in countries like Czechoslovakia, Chile, Uruguay, Egypt and Cuba.
They asked me if Tony Tornado and I wanted to make some protest movement in Brazil. ‘Do you want to play blacks against whites?’ Of course, we said no or we would have been imprisoned right there.”
In 1988, three years after the return of democracy, questioning racism continued to be considered “subversive.” The Rio de Janeiro Military Police forcefully repressed the marcha dos negros (black march) against “the farce of Abolition,” the 100th anniversary of which had passed occurred on May 13th. In order to finish enraging the uniformed, the organizers had alluded to the platoons of black soldiers placed by Duque de Caxias (Duke of Caxias, Luís Alves de Lima e Silva), the army’s patron, to die in the Paraguayan War. And Dom Hipólito, bishop of Caxias, also suggested changing the name of the Rio de Janeiro city. The fury of the military simply prevented the realization of the march from Candelaria to the bust of Zumbi dos Palmares.
“And the Army put people in the Central do Brasil, everywhere, anyone with a paper in hand, with a flag in hand, would really take a beating, they did,” says Januário Garcia, then president of the Instituto de Pesquisa das Culturas Negras (Research Institute of Black Cultures). The military destroyed the mounted structures, destroyed banners, posters, everything… The crowd advanced as far as they could walk.
In the sound car, the announcer shouts: “We’re going as far as racism lets us.”
Among the blacks who actually entered the armed struggle, the São Paulo Truth Commission estimated that there were more than 40 on the death and disappeared list due to repression. The CEV-Rio report cites Gerson Theodoro de Oliveira, a militant of the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (VPR – Revolutionary Popular Vanguard), who died in 1971 at DOI-CODI in Rio; Geraldo Bernardo da Silva, a trade unionist, committed suicide as a result of the torture he suffered in 1969 at Vila Militar; Carlos Marighella, a militant of the Aliança Libertadora Nacional (ALN – National Liberation Alliance), was assassinated in 1969 in São Paulo.
In addition to Marighella, another famous guerrilheiro negro (black guerrilla) is Osvaldo Orlando da Costa, known as “Osvaldão”, an activist of the PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil). Born in Passa-Quatro, Minas Gerais, a graduate if Electrical Engineering in Prague, in the then Czechoslovakia, Osvaldão was involved in the Guerrilha do Araguaia (Guerrilla of Araguaia) when he returned to Brazil between 1966 and 1967. Handsome, cultured, almost 2 meters tall (6’6½”), he gained the fame of being “immortal” among the riverside inhabitants. And to combat it, when he was captured, in 1974, had his head cut off and put on display as a trophy. His remains have never been found.
In 2015, Ana Petta and André Fernandes released the documentary Osvaldão, about the life of the “invincible giant” that could turn into stone, a tree, and wind.
Source: Socialista Morena
- During the slavery era, the duty of the captain of the forest was to hunt down fugitive slaves and return them to their masters. Nowadays, black Brazilians apply the term to any black Brazilian who is judged to be a “sell out” that works against the interests of the Afro-Brazilian community.