Lynchings, or On Racism in Brazil in 2015

A few days ago, in the northeastern city of São Luís in the state of Maranhão, Cleidenilson Pereira da Silva and an adolescent attempted to rob a store. While an attempted theft in one of Brazil’s smaller states rarely makes headlines, it was the particular outcome of the theft that turned into a national story and again brought to the foreground the ever-present specter of racism in Brazil. For while what Cleidenilson’s attempt was a crime, the greater crime was what followed:

The public lynched him.

The body of Cleidenilson da Silva, stripped and beaten.

The body of Cleidenilson da Silva, stripped and beaten.

Da Silva’s attempted robbery failed, and angry at the levels of crime, a mob of people gathered and ultimately bound Cleidenilson to a pole before beating him to death. They also bound his adolescent accomplice, but police arrived and saved him before he could meet a similar fate.

Police have begun an investigation into who was responsible, but whether it actually leads anywhere remains to be seen. And while the immediate responsibility falls on those who killed Cleidenilson (and likely would have killed the already-injured adolescent had they been given more time), the responsibility does not stop there. It falls on the Brazilian police and state which have, since abolition in 1888, targeted Afro-descendents through both symbolic and physical violence, often with impunity, be it through the criminalization of samba (for daring to be a cultural expression of the poor in the early 20th century), to the mobilization of “death squads” in favelas in the late 1960s, to the murder, with impunity, of favela residents from the 1970s to the 2000s. It falls on the Brazilian population that often looked the other way or even supported such violence, viewing the urban poor as parasites or tumors on society who only got what they deserved through such violence. It falls on the economic policies and systems of neoliberalism that only intensified the gap between the rich and the poor, failing to construct adequate social programs to integrate the urban poor into society and driving them to the types of criminal activity like that of Cleidenilson. It falls on a legal system that operates differently for the wealthy and the poor, and a prison system that, far from rehabilitating, often ends up with gangs running prisons (as Robert Gay has recently illuminated with stunning clarity) and serving as a “graduate degree in crime” (as Rio de Janeiro Archbishop Dom Orani Tempesta, himself a victim of a mugging, put it).

Some on the scene said that Cleidenilson had been behind several robberies, which if true, bear investigation, trial, and if guilty, prison. Yet to suggest that he got “what he had coming,” in the form of an extrajudicial execution, with a public blaming him rather than confronting the systemic or structural issues that allow Cleidenilson’s to exist, is absurd. And while the Brazilian media regularly labeled such actions “barbarity” and “savagery,” the comments threads on newspaper websites were often less-than-sympathetic.

Symptomatic of this divergence is Rio de Janeiro newspaper Extra’s strong stance in response to both the lynching and the public’s response to it. For anybody who’s spent any amount of time in Rio de Janeiro, Extra is rarely a newspaper of hard-hitting journalism or investigations. It tends towards the more sensationalist (the fact that the first section of the newspaper is devoted not just to news but to “the bizarre” does not exactly mask that reality), or towards Rio de Janeiro sports. Indeed, it is this mixture of frequent salaciousness and emphasis on soccer alongside news that makes it such a popular read in Rio.

And yet, this was the cover of Extra yesterday:

The cover of Extra, making an openly political and damning statement on racism in Brazil. The main headline reads, "From the [tree] trunk to the [light] post]," thus drawing a direct analogy between the history of slavery in Brazil, and the attack on Cleidenilson, an Afro-descendent.

The cover of Extra, making an openly political and damning statement on racism in Brazil. The main headline reads, “From the [tree] trunk to the [light] post],” thus drawing a direct analogy between the history of slavery in Brazil, and the attack on Cleidenilson, an Afro-descendent.

And as compelling as the imagery and the headline paralleling the treatment of African slaves in colonial and imperial Brazil and the treatment of Afro-descendents in 2015 is, the text underneath the image is just as compelling.

“The 200 years between the two images above serve for reflection: have we evolved, or regressed? If before the slaves were called to the plaza to see with their own eyes the justice that saved only the ‘men of blue blood, judges, clergy, officials and aldermen’, today we have advanced backwards. Cleidenilson da Silva, 29 years old, black, young, and a favela-dweller like the immense majority of the victims of our violence, was lynched after robbing a bar in São Luís, in Maranhão. If in 1815 the multitude impotently watched the barbarism, in 2015 the overwhelming majority applaud the savagery. Literally – as in the suburb of  São Luís – or on the internet. Of 1,817 comments on Extra’s Facebook page, 71% supported the contemporary overseers.”

And Cleidenilson’s case itself is horrifying; yet it is not isolated. Investigating, Extra found no fewer than 8 other cases of similar lynchings in São Luís since January 2014, four of them in the last 7 months. And while such scenes are emerging from São Luís, such sentiment can be found throughout the country as many (though far from all) Brazilians, implicitly or explicitly acknowledging the failure of Brazil’s legal system and drawing on centuries of racial inequalities, demand similar treatment of other members of the generally darker-skinned urban poor.*

Certainly Brazil is far from the only country continuing to deal with the awful legacies of slavery, racism, and systemic physical and symbolic violence against Afro-descendants, as any number of stories from the United States in the last several months remind us. The myth that Brazil was a “racial democracy” free of racism should have died a long time ago; that this type of violence still happens in 2015 is yet another reminder of racism’s pernicious survival in Brazil.

*For example, in Maranhão, the average monthly income for self-identified “blacks” in 2010 was $740 reais, or roughly US$250; for whites in Maranhã, it was nearly double that, at $1305 reais. And while the average monthly incomes vary widely from state to state, whites earn more than blacks on average across the country.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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