Racism’s deadly cycle

Leonardo Sakamoto on his country's lethal pattern of racism.

When Moïse Kabagambe, a Congolese immigrant, was murdered at a beach kiosk in Rio de Janeiro in January, security camera footage of him being set upon by a group of men armed with sticks went viral. It managed to disturb a portion of Brazilians who sell the fiction that we live in a racial democracy – the belief that we are a society free from racial discrimination.

Moïse came to Brazil eight years ago with his mother and brothers, escaping conflict as political refugees. The family claims he had gone to the kiosk where he worked for daily wages to collect a delayed payment.

Variations of his murder keep recurring in a country founded upon slavery and defined by structural racism at all levels of social interaction. The difference now is that the assaults and executions are seen by millions on their cell phones.

It is not the first time a Black person has been tortured or killed in public spaces. And it won’t be the last, considering that many still feel comfortable taking on the role of the plantation foreman who beats and kills Afrodescendants to put them ‘in their place’.

For example, in April 2021, Bruno and Yan Barros, accused of stealing meat from an Atakadão Atakarejo supermarket in Salvador, were found dead with signs of torture and gunshot wounds.

In November 2020, João Alberto Silveira Freitas was murdered in a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre. Immobilized, he was suffocated and beaten to death by a private security guard and a policeman.

In February 2019, Pedro Henrique Gonzaga was killed by asphyxiation by a security guard at an Extra supermarket in Rio de Janeiro. People shouted that the young Black man was suffocating, but the assault continued in front of his mother.

In July 2019, a 17-year-old Black man was stripped, gagged and whipped by two foremen after trying to steal chocolate at a Ricoy supermarket in São Paulo. As in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, the torturers themselves recorded the scene.

It would be great for the Brazilian conscience if these people were devils. Because then the evil would be far from us. However, the truth is that they are our friends, co-workers, family members and even ourselves, who reinforce the system that normalizes these atrocities. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, an ordinary citizen may become an Adolf Eichmann depending on the context.

Not to discount other social and political agendas, but Brazilian racism is more than enough reason for us to occupy the country’s streets in protest, as Black movements did after Moïse’s killing. But that does not happen. Not that the death of Black people isn’t worth the effort of protest; it’s the loss of privileges for non-Blacks that would come with the end of structural racism that isn’t palatable. It is easier to repeat the lie that the Congolese was just another fatality.

And there’s the flipside: when teachers decide to discuss, in the classroom, the reason why young Black people are the primary victims of violent deaths, far-right militants harass and threaten them, accusing them of brainwashing children.

After Moïse’s death there was much agonizing about the footage being shared. In my opinion, the video pains us and, therefore, should be shown in schools to foster debate on who we are as a society. And to ensure that young people do not reproduce the crimes of several previous generations.