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How Many Acts of Genocide Will it Take to Call the Extermination of Black Brazilians a Genocide?

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This is the fourth article in a year-long partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University to produce a series of monthly favela-sourced human rights reporting from Rio de Janeiro on RioOnWatch.

Genocide, as defined by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is composed of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The word genocide conjures images of the Holocaust, or of Rwanda, and the word was in fact created by a Jewish lawyer in order to refer to the Holocaust. The Holocaust occupies a critical position in human memory as history’s most substantial genocide. Meanwhile, the case of the Rwandan genocide is crystal clear and accepted as the atrocity’s paragon.

However, way too many conflicts in the world today are attributable to ethnic, racial, and religious differences. The use of the word genocide is often avoided in these cases, perhaps, as such a designation calls for drastic measures in response. The United Nations Security Council maintains, in fact, the obligation to intervene in scenarios of widely recognized genocide. It was for this reason that, in 1994, amid hesitation by a portion of the Security Council and members of the United States government to call what was taking place in Rwanda “genocide” (and when US Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson advised instead to state that “acts of genocide may have occurred”), Reuters journalist Alan Elsner asked then-State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley: “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”

The history of the formation of the Brazilian State is one characterized by the extermination of both bodies and knowledge. This took place first during the project of colonization in the Americas, reaching the diverse ethnicities and communities grouped under the “indigenous” umbrella in the European imaginary, and second, during the project of slavery, in the deliberate extermination of not one, but myriad peoples and groups, linked only by their color and geographic origin.

Neither movement ceased with the end of colonization or slavery. Throughout the 20th century, the extermination of indigenous peoples has continued, with environmental conflict over resources and to make way for large development projects, with indigenous populations having reached their lowest level in the mid 20th century (having fallen from an estimated 3 million in 1500 to some 70,000 in the 1950s). In Brazil, genocide was recognized as a crime beginning in 1956 via Law 2,889, with the country’s most well-known case of genocide taking place in 1993: the Haximu massacre, in which a Yanomami encampment was attacked twice, leaving 16 people, including women and children, murdered and mutilated. Between 2003 and 2015, 742 indigenous people were murdered, and such numbers are now increasing under the Bolsonaro government’s mining plans for the Amazon and the obstruction of indigenous land demarcation—the sum of which has already triggered a 150% increase in invasions of indigenous lands and a wave of attacks on indigenous peoples since the 2018 election.

With respect to the black population, 2019’s Brazil has seen not only the deliberate killing of black bodies, including at the hands of the State, but also diverse restrictions on rights and an unequal distribution of goods and services, which have had direct and indirect effects in the extermination of black people. Key to understanding this process is the portion of the United Nations genocide definition that includes not only “Killing members of [a] group” and “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of [a] group,” but also “Deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” and “imposing measures to prevent births within [a] group.”

This process can be understood through Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s term, necropolitics—a concept that has gained momentum recently, employed by Brazilian social movements to characterize governments that fetishize death, such as that of current Rio governor Wilson Witzel. Meanwhile Witzel has used the word genocide to describe killings by drug traffickers in Rio. Necropower refers not only to the power to control life and produce life (prolonging, multiplying, disciplining life such that it produces value), but also to the power to trigger death and allow death to occur in select groups—as in when the State does not provide sufficient health services to treat illness among the poor, or when it does not provide adequate water and sanitation services in certain areas to prevent disease, or when it in any way exposes some individuals to a higher risk of death. Necropower in Brazil is informed by State racism—a criterion for deciding upon which bodies the power of death may be exercised—in choosing who lives and who dies.

As such, in 2019 Brazil faces the following question: how many acts of genocide will it take for us to call the extermination of black people genocide?

How many more black people must die for us to call the extermination of black people genocide?

According to the most recent Atlas of Violence study, published by the Institute of Applied Economic Analysis (IPEA), in 2017, 75% of all people killed in Brazil were black (in Rio the percentage is 78.4%). This despite 56% of the population being black. That is, 49,000 people in a single year—and as the rate of murder of non-black people falls, the murder of black people has grown over 23% in the ten-year period from 2007 to 2017. At this proportion and scale, in 10 to 20 years, the number of black people killed will equal that of the Rwandan genocide (an estimated 500,000 to 1 million deaths). One study in Rio de Janeiro found that black people are at a 24% greater risk of homicide than other groups, and that the percentage reaches a peak of 147% at age 21. The Index of Youth Vulnerability to Violence and Racial Inequality has shown that a black youth in Brazil is nearly three times more likely to be killed than a white youth.

How many more massacres?

Rio de Janeiro has experienced 400 massacres in the last decade alone, with 1300 dead. Eight were killed by Rio’s special operations unit (BOPE, akin to the US’s SWAT) at a party in Rocinha, in the city’s South Zone, in 2018, the majority of them black youth. Five were killed in the Greater Rio city of Maricá, also in 2018, in a social area of a public housing complex constructed under the Minha Casa Minha Vida program, all of them black youth, members of local rap-poetry circles and socialist youth groups. Five black youth were killed by the police, shot 111 times inside a car in the North Zone neighborhood of Costa Barros in 2015. Eight youth living on Rio’s downtown streets were killed by the police in the emblematic Candelaria Massacre of 1993, the majority of them black. Since then, 44 of 70 youth identified as living on the street in the Candelaria area in downtown Rio have died, the majority of them black. These are just a few of the devastatingly frequent massacres experienced in Rio and they all follow a profile, as do police confrontations: their targets are most often young black men.

How many more “acts of resistance”?

In its “You Killed My Son” report, Amnesty International analyzed all cases of auto de resistência (acts of resistance, a Brazilian legal designation for an event in which someone is killed by police in a confrontation, whereby the police claim they acted in self-defense) in Rio proper between 2010 and 2013: four out of every five cases of auto de resistência, now called homicídios decorrentes de intervenção policial (homicides resulting from police intervention), were black men. According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety’s 2019 bulletin, in 2018, three out of every four victims of auto de resistência were black. The majority of police killed on- and off-duty are also black (including suicides)—black officers made up 51.7%% of all police killed in Brazil in 2018.

How many more must be imprisoned for us to realize we are a hotbed of necropolitics?

Brazil is home to more than 800,000 prisoners. One 2016 study found that 64% of prisoners in Brazil (of those providing racial information) were black. In Rio de Janeiro, the same statistic was 72%. Drug trafficking is the most common reason for incarceration in Brazil (one in every three prisoners). Here, in the absence of legal determinations stipulating the quantity of drug possession that separates personal use from trafficking, sentencing decisions are left judges, often biased by a racist perspective. The case of Rafael Braga is emblematic. The black adolescent arrested at a protest for carrying a bottle of cleaning detergent in his backpack was sentenced to 11 years in prison, while white youth caught with drugs go free: in São Paulo, black people are more likely to be sentenced for drug trafficking, and with lower quantities of drugs than white defendants.

Concerning incarceration, even putting aside the violence involved in restricting an individual’s liberty simply for the possession of drugs, people are six times likelier to die in prison in Brazil than outside of prison. On top of poor conditions in Brazilian jails, including a lack of hygiene and inadequate nutrition, violent confrontations take place with prison guards and between drug factions. Massacres are not uncommon: in July of 2019, 57 people were killed in five hours in a massacre in a prison in the state of Pará, 16 of them decapitated. In Rio, 257 died in prison in 2016, mainly from tuberculosis and HIV-related complications.

How many more living on the streets?

The 2008 National Study on the Homeless Population remains the most comprehensive and trustworthy data source on the Brazilian population living on the streets, a number that tripled between 2014 and 2017. In 2008, 67% of all homeless Brazilians were black. In addition to the dangers and difficulties present in living on the street in terms of access to public services and employment, the homeless are also subject to violence, murder, and, in the case of women, sexual violence. In 2017, Rio had the third highest number of registered notifications of violence against homeless people among Brazilian capital cities. Of these, the majority involved violence against black people (55%) and women (51%). Between March and August of 2017, Brazil registered 69 cases of homeless people murdered, and between 2015 and 2017, 673 notifications of sexual violence.

How many more must commit suicide?

According to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, the suicide rate among black youth (up to 29 years of age) is 45% higher than that of white youth. Afro-Brazilians suffer from the psychological impacts of racism. They are also often more vulnerable to the psychological impacts of poverty, lack of representation and belonging in spaces, and the accumulation of productive and reproductive work, among others. Furthermore, they have less access to mental health professionals, either owing to the expense of such treatment, stigma (mental health issues are seen as “someone else’s problem”) or to unpreparedness of Brazilian mental health professionals in dealing with the impacts of racism, as well as low levels of black professionals in the field of psychology.

Some argue that the case of Brazil does not involve deliberate and systematic extermination and that thus we should not engage in the term genocide. More common is the use of “war” to describe urban violence in Rio de Janeiro, a term which has gained new momentum since the 2017 creation of a “war editorial” page in the newspaper Extra. This image of war is reinforced by a security policy based on the “war on drugs” and armed confrontation, endorsed by the governor when who encouraged the police to shoot anyone armed, rather than attempting to disarm them, part of a project of both constructing an enemy and dehumanizing that enemy.

“War” contributes to the legitimation of violent practices and crimes that are in fact committed discriminately against black, poor, and favela populations—including the invitation of the use of the Brazilian armed forces to act in urban scenarios around the country, such as in the federal military intervention of 2018, and the frequent use of the Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO) provision—masking the failure of institutional public policies, attributing responsibility instead to “enemies,” construed as irrational and blood-thirsty.

We can thus argue that the case of Brazil is closer to genocide than war, as, in addition to the data presented above, war assumes a minimum of parity between parties, a mutual project of destruction—not for destruction in itself—but in order to attain a clear objective. In Brazil, it is undeniable that black people are left to die or even targeted because they are black—not only from hate crimes and autos de resistência, but also indirectly, through their marginalization in the economic system and negligence in terms of access to health and education. This State racism, which dictates the color of a constructed “enemy” and dictates the color of those bodies whose deaths are deemed acceptable, stands as proof of intent.

It is therefore important to use the accurate term, genocide, in order to create pressure, both nationally and internationally, to demand public policies for confronting this extermination, from non-racist drug policies, to health policies directed specifically for black populations, affirmative action policies in education, and policies for taking on racism in police institutions (including in the investigation and punishment in cases of auto de resistência). And yes, reparations.