The fight for diversity is a democratic fight: anti-racism and anti-fascism on Brazilian streets

July 1, 2020

In recent weeks, there have been numerous anti-racist demonstrations in the world. These protests, triggered in the United States, were due to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, killed by asphyxiation during violent police action in late May.

In Brazil, there have been several demonstrations in favour of Bolsonaro’s government since March, which included the president’s participation. The demonstrations have several anti-democratic elements, such as requests for military intervention.

More recently, anti-racist demonstrations have taken over the Brazilian streets. In response to Bolsonaro’s authoritarian advances and against the federal government, protests with an anti-fascist flag resurged throughout the streets of Brazilian cities. The new wave of protests has garnered support in several sectors, but it has also generated controversy, given that the health crisis caused by the new coronavirus remains.

In this sense, several social actors have raised questions, in the case of Brazil, about how – and if – the anti-fascist, anti-racist and pro-democracy flags are articulated. Next, we will explore the link between the struggles against racism and democracy. 

Protesters take to the streets against police violence and inequalities

The police approach that led to George Floyd’s death was recorded and the video spread around the world. This led to a wave of protests, which began in June and followed suit in several countries, whose main themes were the fight against racism and police violence. Not even the pandemic prevented protesters from taking to the streets.

One should highlight the diverseness of actors and political agendas that joined in with these demonstrations. In Belo Horizonte, they started in the same period and were leveraged by Black Lives Matter movements and organized supporters, such as those of the teams “Atlético”, “Cruzeiro” and “América”, celebrities and a few political parties. Taking proper sanitary precautions, the protesters wore masks during the demonstrations and tried to maintain social distancing.

The anti-racist agenda in Brazil is marked by sequences of violent police approaches and killings of black people, an emblematic unsolved case is that of councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was killed by militiamen two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, according to investigators. In addition, it is possible to list numerous cases in which the work of officers resulted in the death of black people. Only recently, the deaths of Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, 46 years old, killed with 80 shots fired by army soldiers; Ágatha Vitória Sales Félix, 8-year-old girl shot by military police; João Pedro Matos Pinto, a 14-year-old boy, killed at home by an operation by the Federal, Civil and Military Police.

In Brazil, in addition to protests being primarily anti-racist, another agenda under discussion in the protests was anti-fascism. The presence of this agenda was due to constant demonstrations in favour of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, which expressed sentiments of an anti-democratic nature, such as the implementation of a new Institutional Act nº 5, an apology for the dictatorship (1964-1985) and against democratic institutions, calling for the closure of the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF) and National Congress. Acts in favour of Bolsonaro have been repeated during the pandemic and have caused agglomerations, which are not recommended by health authorities. The president promotes these acts of support on his social networks and frequently attends them, however, he states that he is not responsible for making the rallying call.

The call for anti-racist and anti-fascist acts happened with some controversy among leaders of social movements. Due to the alarming number of deaths from coronavirus, voices from the Black Lives Matter movement, like the rapper “Emicida”, advise caution in going to the streets, saying that it is necessary to reconsider agglomerations in the midst of the health crisis. In contrast, for the rapper “Djonga”, after seeing anti-democratic attitudes on behalf of government supporters and, due to age-old racism on behalf of the State, showing up to protest is indeed called for.

In the midst of anti-fascist and anti-racist protests, President Jair Bolsonaro called members of these social organizations “terrorists” and said that such movements “have nothing to do with democracy”. In his speech, Bolsonaro criticized the press, saying that it distorted the nature of the demonstrations in favour of his government by classifying them as anti-democratic movements.

In this sense, it isn’t difficult to find common ground between fascist and racist projects. Take for instance the group that calls itself the “300 of Brazil”, which marched to the STF, in an allusion to fascist, Nazi and white supremacist groups linked to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), firing offenses and threats against the ministers of the Court.

“As long as there is racism, there will be no democracy”

Anti-racist movements in Brazil are by far novelty. Events such as the “Malês Revolt” and the resistance of the “Quilombo do Palmares”, among others, are examples of the struggle for justice and racial equality in a period when the Brazilian State officially maintained slavery.

The fight against racial discrimination, even with the abolition of slavery in 1888, is a constant in the country’s history, resisting authoritarianism and seeking to build a democracy with social justice. This characteristic of anti-racist movements played a fundamental role in the demonstrations against the Brazilian Military Dictatorial regime (1964 – 1985). Amid widespread state repression and declarations by authorities that “there was no racism in Brazil”, the military sought to brand the demonstrations of black movements as anti-patriotic, stigmatizing them.

Despite the regime’s successive attempts at silencing the struggles against racism, the black movement mobilized itself on two fronts, intertwined amongst themselves, during the period: culture and politics. In the 1970s the political front witnessed several mobilizations on behalf of black leaders, such as the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (MNU), formed by black university militants who played a central role in organizing protests against racism. Through its annual congresses, the MNU discussed topics such as mass incarceration of black people and police violence in peripheral communities. In 1978, the movement declared support for amnesty which should be granted to all black ‘common prisoners’ since they were frequently persecuted and discriminated against by police authorities, in addition to having a legacy of marginalization and lack of opportunities. Therefore, the group considered the imprisonment of black people as political imprisonment.

The Federal Constitution of 1988, in its article 5, item XLII, reads:

“The practice of racism is an unspeakable and imprescriptible crime, subject to penalty by imprisonment, under the terms of the law.”.

This statement, in addition anticipating racism as a crime, it was a milestone in social rights gains for historically oppressed peoples, in a show of societal concern in facing this issue. However, it is a fact that racism still persists in Brazilian society, in a structural way. According to data from the Brazilian Public Security Forum, between 2017 and 2018, deaths that occurred due to police violence against black people represented 75.4% out of a total of 6,220 in record and according to IBGE’s data, the black population makes up 55% of Brazilians.

It isn’t just today that we are alerted to the structurally racist aspect of security forces in the country. However, the claims aren’t limited to this. One of the arguments in favour of the demonstrations during the pandemic is that “the conditions of isolation were not guaranteed for the majority of the poor and black population, who continue on the streets, on buses, in stores and in factories.”

It is impossible to say that there is a full enjoyment of fundamental rights by the entire Brazilian population. The right to education, health, housing and work are rights that the UN Human Rights Commission stipulates to be applied by countries in a non-discriminatory way, that is, without distinction of social class, ethnicity or economic power. The denial of these rights in Brazil, so that only part of the population can fully enjoy them, violates the principle of equality, provided for in the Constitution.

Thus, the anti-racist struggle, more than merely anti-fascist, is the struggle for democracy more broadly. The recently launched manifesto, “With racism, there is no democracy”, calls on the democratic sectors of Brazilian society, institutions and people to participate in this struggle in a coherent way, in order to eradicate racism and seeking a true democracy that guarantees equality to everyone, regardless of skin tone, regardless of religion and regardless of gender.

As the Manifesto shows, without a commitment to anti-racism, democracy cannot be talked about. It requires commitment to fight for most of the Brazilian population, which has its rights disproportionately violated, remaining underrepresented in spaces of power and continues to be discriminated against daily in the country, even and – especially – when it touches upon our privileges.

By Mariana Rezende [1], João Victor dos Reis Leandro [2], Laura Teixeira [3] e Henrique Oliveira [4]

For more information:

[1] Master’s Degree in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[2] Undergraduate reading Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[3] Undergraduate reading Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[4] Undergraduate reading Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).