“She’s black! She stole it!”: In less than a week, three accusations of theft against innocent black people show why black skin is still ‘a sin’
By Marques Travae
Such is the experience of being black in Brazil. Blackness denotes a whole host of negative stereotypes that are accepted as the norm in Brazil. One of those stereotypes associates black skin with theft and criminality in general. Simply put, if something is missing, and a black person is around, it’s a foregone conclusion that he or she is the guilty party. Need more proof of this? The three stories below all happened within less than a week.
In the first case, a black couple shared details of a situation incident they went through while standing in line at a movie theater in the Rio Sul shopping mall in Botafogo, of Rio de Janeiro’s south zone. According to Paulo César dos Santos, a mechanic, he and his wife were approached by a man with two children who claimed that he couldn’t find his wallet.
“He turned to us and asked if I had found a wallet there. We said no. We moved away and started looking. Then we went for a walk in the mall and he asked: ‘Aren’t you going to watch a movie?’ My, wife, naive, told him that we would, but we’re going to wait for another time, with a place for the two of us,” said Paulo César.
But with this, the man got more aggressive with what he was getting at, demanding that the couple give up the wallet that was missing, and demanding to see the contents of Paulo’s wife’s purse.
But guess what happened then. At that very moment, a mall employee showed up and said that the man’s wallet had already been found, having fallen on the ground near an escalator.
“It’s important to say that most of the people there were white. It was a predominantly white environment and he went straight to this couple,” said a witness to incident who didn’t want his identity revealed.
The Military Police (MP) was called so that the couple could register the case at a local police station under the classification of racism.
“The agreement with the MP who arrived was that two vehicles would come – one would come with us and one with them. And, we arrived here at the 10th DP (precinct) (Botafogo), with a siren on, where was the one accused of racism? Where is the person who committed racism? He was released!” says the witness, who also went with the couple to the police station.
The witness further revealed that the police actually tried to convince the couple not to file a complaint. “I lost my day, I lost my time out – because my wife and I are on our honeymoon, we just got married a short time ago – and all this happened.”
In the end the case was registered as a case of libel due to a false charge of theft. Regarding the accusation that the police tried to talk the couple out of filing the case, the police revealed that the agents took the couple to the station and that there would be no charges filed against them. The couple? But what about the person who made the accusation?
Shopping Rio Sul reported that “it provided the necessary assistance and is willing to cooperate with future investigations”.
Also in Rio, on Tuesday, January 14, in Sahara, a popular shopping spot located in the city’s downtown, Vanessa Coelho was stopped in the Unistar Presentes store by an employee and accused of shoplifting. The store employee told Vanessa to put back the wallet that she had in her bag.
According to Coelho, a university student, she and a friend entered the store and looked around, but as she didn’t see anything she liked, they started heading for exit. Vanessa was carrying a bag of vegetables that the employee claimed she was hiding a wallet that was for sale at the store. Upon leaving the store, the employee standing by at the door approached her and softly said: “’Give me the wallet in your bag’. I asked her to repeat it, and she didn’t repeat it,” she said.
Soon seeing her error in judgment, the employee admitted her mistake and apologized. “She came up saying that she hadn’t said that, that she was just indicating that the wallet cost BRL 15. In the end she accepted that she was wrong, that she was mistaken and apologized, that she could admit what she said, but that it didn’t involve the store,” said Vanessa.
Still shaken up by the incident, Vanessa exposed what happened via her social. “She mistook whether I had stolen or not. We won’t let them mistake us as MARGINALS anymore. We have already been mistaken, enslaved, humiliated, subjugated for 300 years officially,” she wrote.
After having gone through what was surely an embarrassing incident, Vanessa decided to take the case to the police as she felt she was clearly approached because she was black. Arriving at a Military Police location, she was told that they didn’t address this ‘type of conflict’, and that she needed to report the case at a police station.
On Wednesday the 16th, Vanessa went to the 5th DP (precinct) (in Mem de Sá), and there she was also met with resistance as the police refused to classify the crime as a racial injury/slur, opting to record the incident as slander. Coelho also says that she also went to the Police Station for Racial and Intolerance Crimes (Decradi), but was again unable to report the incident as a racial crime. “The system remains flawed for racial issues,” she lamented.
Asked for comment on the situation, the manager of Unistar Presentes, Julia Ji, claims that the employee who stopped Vanessa was on probation and had been employed at the store for about a week and a half and had been dismissed since the incident. The manager expressed regret for what Vanessa went through and explained that the security should only stop shoppers when there is certainty that a crime was being committed. “You have to look at the camera first, and check well to be sure and then talk to the person,” said Ji.
But the accusations of black people having sticky fingers didn’t stop there. On Sunday, on a bus in Curitiba, in the southern state of Paraná, yet another black woman was accused of theft
Caught on video, the situation quickly went viral on social media. In a clip of situation, the victim is seen being approached by the police after many passengers on the bus accused her taking an elderly woman’s wallet. The video can be seen here.
Having been approached by the police, the accused said that she had done nothing wrong. A short time later, a man who had witnessed the whole scene pointed out that another woman, white, was actually the one guilty of the theft. Upon analysis, the wallet was effectively found in the hands of that same woman.
One of the passengers on the bus, saleswoman Evelyn Duarte, recorded the video. Duarte shared the details of what she saw:
“The moment came when those involved went to the bus driver and the elderly woman who had her wallet stolen said she would call the police. This lady’s husband, a white man, repeated all the time that the black woman they were accusing was responsible for the theft. She even said that he had seen the girl commit the crime (…). Whoever got on the bus started to accuse her unfairly without knowing what had happened, as well as all the people who were already inside.”
Sympathizing with the accused, Duarte further expressed what she saw and how she felt as the situation unfolded:
“Everyone was watching the action, but nobody got involved. When the truth came out and they saw that the other woman was to blame, the old man didn’t even apologize for the first suspicion. His wife came to apologize to me, but it wasn’t me she owed an apology to (…). Who was judging was the society, the people on the bus, without even knowing it. It hurts, it hurts a lot. I kept crying because black women have to be strong all the time, but we never can. I wanted to give this woman a lot of strength and, mainly, that she didn’t have to go through this alone.”
In the video, Duarte is also heard accusing the other passengers of racism and expressing her outrage with the situation:
“Racism is a crime also. …You have no right to accuse someone without knowing…It’s not right…No one is robbing here…No one deserves this…Our color goes through this every day, every day….You have to have certainty to accuse…”
After police frisk the white woman and find the stolen item, we hear Duarte again: “You’re gonna accuse the black woman, huh? Why would that be, huh? Am I wrong now?”
Duarte’s comments are very telling of what it is to be black in Brazil. These stories remind me of a phrase that has long been used to describe black people in this, Latin America’s largest country: cor de pecado. What does it mean? Literally ‘color of sin’. Totally makes sense. Because, as these three separate cases show us once again, in the eyes of Brazilian society, black skin is a sin.
With information from Notícia Preta, Mídia 4 P and Revista Fórum