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Brazil’s Anti-Racism Movement Looks to Martin Luther King Jr. and Marielle Franco for Inspiration

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Fifty years separate the assassinations of the great United States civil rights defender Martin Luther King Jr. and Rio city councillor Marielle Franco. Yet the discussion of racism has never been more paramount for the people of Rio de Janeiro. Last Thursday, April 5, an event organized by the youth movement RUA (STREET) in partnership with the Theater of the Oppressed led an inspiring discussion at the Theater’s center in Rio’s city center. The panel included Ronilso Pacheco, member of the Coletivo Nuvem Negra black student group at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC); Daniella Monteiro, member of RUA and the Unified Black Movement (MNU); and Wesley Teixeira, also from RUA and the popular college exam prep program +NÓS. The evening also included a range of musical talent in honor of Marielle Franco, including Grupo Maracatu Baques do Pina, Banda XIX, and Supremacia Records among many others.

Ronilso Pacheco, member of PUC’s Coletivo Nuvem Negra, opened the debate by presenting numerous reasons why racism is so persistent in Brazil. One of his points was the uniqueness of racism there as compared to the United States and how it is necessary to develop a comparative discussion. Historically, racism hasn’t been confronted in the same way as in the US, where explicit discrimination through the Jim Crows laws and racial segregation led to an intense and organized civil rights struggle, in which Martin Luther King Jr. played an integral role. The lack of this confrontation, Pacheco reasoned, has allowed the issue of racism to be discarded from the modern day debate in Brazil surrounding topics to which it is highly related, such as public security, health, and education. In the words of Pacheco, these conditions have created an “efficiency of racism” throughout his country’s history. The “strategic” avoidance of racism consequently attributes inequality to solely social reasons, when in fact, he argued, class and race are intimately intertwined in Brazil.

Brazil’s “peculiarity of racism,” as Pacheco described it, is exacerbated through the role that race plays in police violence. He highlighted that the US features cases of oppression by predominantly white local police forces against black communities. However, in Brazil, a large proportion of the police are black, which conveniently obscures the racial aspect from the argument as the perpetrators and victims of police violence often come from the same racial group. Pacheco also emphasized the institutionalized nature of Brazil’s racism and how the efficiency of racism is furthered by “the professors at our universities” who are “continuously white.” He referred to how the “work and creative capacity” of black people is habitually “gentrified.”

The issue of inequality that stems from institutionalized racism was also addressed by Wesley Teixeira: “Our country has a lot of wealth but we never benefit from this wealth.” According to Oxfam, currently, Brazil’s six richest men hold the equivalent wealth of the bottom 50%. Racism “robs” the black people of Brazil, the RUA activist argued. He also highlighted the lack of recent change in Brazilian society as “the elite has always made slow and gradual changes.” He contrasted this with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “sense of urgency” for change through peaceful resistance and pointed to the need to replicate this in Brazilian society. Teixeira stressed that just like both Franco and King “we cannot choose another path,” as their actions “give us meaning for our lives.”

RUA activist Daniella Monteiro offered a powerful image of black women being at the “bottom of the social pyramid” and “not recognized” in society. She attributed this social inequality to the lack of black, female government representation, reminding the audience that Rio’s previous black female City Councillor before Franco was in office more than a decade ago. Marielle Franco, holder of a Masters degree in Public Administration, city councillor, and coordinator of the state government’s human rights commission, was a clear example of an individual personally overcoming and then working to break down such structural racial barriers. Monteiro called on people to use Marielle Franco’s legacy and emulate her persistent defiance of social expectations throughout her career to fight systemic racism.

As the evening drew to a close the discussion shifted towards possible future responses to racial inequality by the younger generation. Reflecting on the duration that Franco spent fighting specific issues such as gender violence and the federal military intervention, members of the group in attendance suggested a need for “mass movements” and persistent resistance to the State. Wesley Teixeira presented the example of Rosa Parks’ role in organizing and sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, describing boycotting as a form of “art” from which we can gain “practical learning.” Ronilso Pacheco drew on a positive institutional example from the United States where there are historically black universities that have produced “intellectuals and revolutionaries.” The replication of such ideas and strategies would allow for the construction of “alternative pathways” for young black Brazilians, he said.

Just as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had different strategies in the US civil rights movement, some audience members questioned whether the kind of peaceful tactics employed by Martin Luther King Jr. are enough to dismantle racism. In response to diverging opinions among the group in attendance, panelists stressed the importance of ongoing debate and openness to variation in strategy. As Brazil’s black youth increasingly look to the legacies of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and now Marielle Franco, the proverb, “They tried to bury us but didn’t know we are seeds,” resonates even more powerfully. Tying struggles against racism around the world together, Pacheco concluded, “we are confronting one racism and… fighting for one dream.”