A few days after that attack, a man in metropolitan Belo Horizonte was dragged through the street by a mob and fatally beaten with a piece of wood for allegedly stealing a cellphone. On the same day, in a district nearby, another man died after being stoned by a crowd. He had been accused of attempted robbery.
There is at least one lynching attempt per day in Brazil, according to the sociologist José de Souza Martins, who recently published a book on the subject. In the period since 2011, he reported 2,505 lynching episodes, many of them in the state of São Paulo. According to Mr. Martins, lynching has become part of Brazilian social reality. There is even some public support for the notion of “mob justice.”
Last year, a news anchor said on national television that the severe beating of a black teenager in Rio de Janeiro was “understandable.” After being accused of mugging a pedestrian, the boy had his clothes torn and was tied to a post by the neck with a bicycle lock. Firefighters had to use a blowtorch to free him. “Since the local government is weak, the police demoralized and the legal system a failure, what is left to the good citizen but to defend himself?” the newscaster, Rachel Sheherazade, asked. She said she considered the attack a kind of “collective self-defense.”
Of course, interpretations like that of Sheherazade willfully overlook the fact that the police themselves have undermined their authority via abuse, repression, and a general impunity. And when mobs themselves feel emboldened “beyond justice,” that sense of impunity extends to society itself. They may believe the legal system “protects criminals,” but in reality, their own actions only reinforce a system of impunity that further hurts not just criminals, but the socially, economically, and racially marginalized of Brazil.