WorldThe murder of João Alberto as a symbol of racist violence in...

The murder of João Alberto as a symbol of racist violence in Latin America

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João Alberto Silveira Freitas was killed by racism. Two white men who worked as security guards in a supermarket in Porto Alegre smothered him. Beto, as his friends called him, was 40 years old, father of four children (one girl and three boys) and died like George Floyd, but not with a policeman’s knee on top, but with those of two men who remained for more than five minutes on his body lying on the floor. It took place on November 19, on the eve of Black Consciousness Day, created in Brazil precisely to celebrate black resistance against slavery.

The Rio Grande do Sul Court has already accepted a complaint against six people for the death of Freitas —the two men who assaulted him and four other supermarket employees named as accomplices—, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has put his name on the list of cases of violence against black people in the Americas. The commission points out that this is not a simple incident, as the authorities wanted to treat immediately after the crime, but a pattern that is repeated throughout the region.

In Colombia, Anderson Arboleda was killed by police with blows to the head for being on the street when the pandemic’s confinement was decreed. He was 24 years old, and his death, says the IACHR in a report published on Tuesday, showed that the racial violence carried out by the authorities are not isolated cases. In the final months of 2020, the Commission documented other murders of Afro-Colombian youth. Harold Morales, a 17-year-old African descendant, died after being shot in the back by a police officer; Julián González, 27, was shot in the abdomen in a protest.

The IACHR also recalls the case of Alberth Sneider Centeno, leader of the Garifuna (Afro-Indigenous) Triunfo de la Cruz community in Honduras. He and three other men, all black, all Afro-Indigenous, were kidnapped on July 18 of last year in what appeared to be a police operation. More than a year has passed and nothing is known about them, while the Government has not shown much commitment to finding them. The Commission asks the Honduran State to investigate the case.

Protests against racism in Brazil. Luis Alvarenga / Getty Images

“The Commission also noted that due to the conditions of poverty and extreme poverty to which Afro-descendants in the region were exposed, they are increasingly vulnerable to situations of armed violence”, states the document, which, despite applauding the efforts of countries such as Colombia for the implementation of collective reparation programs for ethnic groups, calls for a greater effort. “In Colombia, among the 8 million Colombians registered as victims of the armed conflict, more than one million belong to black, Afro-Colombian communities, rootsales and palenqueras, being this racial ethnic group the one with the highest number of victims”, observes the report.

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Black people are not only raped when white men subject them to death, as in the case of João Alberto Silveira Freitas, but also when they are exposed to poverty and inequality just because they are black. The IACHR says that, with the covid-19 pandemic, racial disparities have aggravated, and this has affected to a greater degree Afro-descendants, who “experience high risks of contagion and death due to factors such as place of residence and physical environment. ”. The Commission reiterates what communities in the Colombian Pacific or in Brazilian favelas have been demanding since the beginning of the health crisis: how to guarantee social distance when living in agglomeration? How to wash your hands if there is no running water? “In the case of Brazil, the IACHR noted with concern the disproportionate impact of covid-19, particularly given the high number of cases in geographical areas where this ethnic-racial population is concentrated, such as favelas and quilombola communities.”

According to figures cited in the report, in Rio de Janeiro, where 1.5 million people live in favelas, crowded and unsanitary conditions make it difficult to adopt isolation measures to contain the pandemic; in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, one in four people examined had already been infected with the virus in June 2020. In February this year, 1,897 infections and 192 deaths were registered in quilombola communities. The neglect that these populations suffer also kills. “It is not ‘being Afro-descendant’ that facilitates contagion by covid-19; on the contrary, it reaffirms that the structural and systematic discrimination historically faced by the Afro-descendant population makes it more vulnerable to infection”, stresses the Commission.

The IACHR recalls that Afro-descendants mostly inhabit areas with low levels of development, which is particularly evident in access to public services and education. In Haiti, for example, half of those over 15 years of age are illiterate. In other places, like Argentina, there was an attempt to deny the Afro people. “The belief that there are no people of this ethnic-racial origin, a product of the historical denial of citizens of African descent in the formation of the nation, has become natural”, points out the commission, which counts more than 5,000 complaints of victims of racism in this country in 2008 and 2019.

In the case of women, in addition to the same racial discrimination that men suffer, they have little space for their voices to be heard. The commission notes that Afro-descendants “continue to face profound challenges in exercising their civil and political rights and, compared to the rest of women, are notoriously under-represented in decision-making bodies such as in the region’s parliaments.” Nor do they have much space in the media, and when they do, they are stereotyped under the label of exotic. “These representations have an aggravated impact on their stigmatization, persecution and criminalization,” says the IACHR, which is concerned about what happens in Brazil, where, it says, cases of deadly violence against Afro-descendant women grew 15%, while the murders of non-Afro-descendant women decreased 8%.

During the last decade, the Commission report points out, there have been advances in public policies in favor of Afro people, but they have not been enough. Poverty as a consequence of historical and structural discrimination continues to make life difficult for black communities in Latin America.

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