I heard the revving of the engine as we walked in front of his car. When I startled and looked into the front window, he stared directly back at me. He had dead eyes and a snarled lip. He was wearing a full Brazilian military police uniform. It made him look bulky and crammed in the driver’s seat.
We were crossing the cobblestone street near our hotel, behind the taxi we arrived in and in front of the unmarked car containing the police officer. His bright headlights struck us, making our clothes white as we crossed. The moment we were out of the periphery of his car, he sped off down the one-way street.
It was a warm night. We were returning from Porto da Barra Beach where we ran into the dancers from an Afro-Brazilian folkloric dance showcase we had seen the night before. Our delegation of Black folks had filled the entire front row of the theater. At the end of the performance, when we gave a standing ovation hooping and hollering, I turned around briefly and noticed that the entire audience behind us calmly clapping in their seats, was white. The performers called out to us when they recognized us on the beach the next day. We proceeded to visit and laugh together for hours--them speaking no English, us speaking no Portuguese. In the cab back to the place where we were staying (a former colonial convent, turned hotel), I’d asked our cab driver the question that had been lingering on my mind since the night we arrived. Riding into Salvador, I saw several graffiti markings that held enough similarities to words in Spanish that I understood. A rough translation said, “someone was killed here by PM”.
“What is ‘PM’?”
In retrospect, I could have anticipated the answer based on context clues. I was still filled with terror by his response,
“Police Military, Military Police”
I felt goose bumps raise up on my scalp and the beginnings of a tension headache rearing at the base of my neck as we rounded the tight corner at the bottom of the hill near our hotel.
There was a deep quiet in the car as the reality set in for each of us hearing the answer to the question about “PM”. Before long I began to spiral into questions about the military police: How many of the boarded-up houses had I seen on the narrow, winding roads with this message on the front? How many people passed the words each day as a warning and reminder? How many people saw the graffiti and remembered their neighbors? How long had the houses been left that way, un-lived in and closed up and boxed off (filled with the too-soon-dead ghosts of families?) Who all died? Were there children?
Brazil was the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery (in 1888). Slavery lasted there for about 300 years and worked to terrorize more than 4 million African people brought to the country as slaves.
Brazil’s current population is estimated at 209.29 million people.
Based on the 2010 census (when the population was 190.7 million people), more than half of the population identified as Black or ‘Brown’. Brazil’s census addresses ethnicity and race by categorizing people racially, primarily by skin color-- people identify themselves in the categories: black, brown, white, or yellow. This is a controversial process within Brazil. This process challenges our ideas of Blackness in-context and contributes to the project of global anti-Blackness. Because of this way of identifying, just 7% of the population identified as ‘Black’ with more than 47% identifying as ‘Brown’.
I got my organizing start as a teenager in San Francisco doing outreach work. At the time, I wanted independence (read: to make my own money). But as I began to gain vocabulary for my lived experience as a kid in a highly policed community, as the kid of an incarcerated parent, as someone living in a neighborhood without the resources we needed, someone who was accustomed to navigating systems for survival, someone with a trauma gut—I knew I was getting more than a paycheck, I was being put on with a form of knowledge that has shaped my life. I began seeing the signs of injustices everywhere and I couldn’t stop talking about it. My tolerance to feel powerless was lower and lower. Over time, I went from attending community meetings and reporting back the impacts to youth in my community to doing youth outreach, to leading trainings, to testifying at the capitol, to learning direct action strategies, to writing policy, and I’m still at the intersection of all of those places, with a more open heart (read: regularly heartbroken) and resilient determination for a future where Black folks are free here in the United States and around the world.
I heard about the trip exactly a month before I got on the plane to go. When I read about the purpose of the trip I was so excited about the idea of international building and solidarity with Black folks that I had a hard time keeping my feet on the ground. The trip had a particular focus leading up to Brazil’s National Day of Black Consciousness, a day when Afro-Brazilians celebrate identity and raise awareness about the struggles of Black folks in Brazil. On our delegation’s preparation calls we spoke about our dreams to merge strategies toward Black liberation organizing and were hopeful about the opportunity to coordinate efforts/actions/campaigns that might amplify our voices, eventually, on a global scale.
On the day of the Black Consciousness parade, tens of thousands of people showed up.
There was a police line (made up of officers who were not visibly Black) that marched on either side of the massive group. There were several types of drums and shakers and bell sounds everywhere as chants turned into songs that became call and response. When we paused at an intersection, I heard some commotion and felt space being made by the bodies around me. There were two Black men dressed up as bruised and bloody boxers, fighting each other. They pantomimed sparring violently before pausing at a point in their bout to raise their fists in unison. After the brief moment, they were suddenly jolted by the imaginary striking of a bullet before falling to the ground. I watched this mini-performance happen at least five times as we marched. I was moved to tears each time they started back up, picking themselves up from the ground to fight again.
When he revved the engine, he was invoking the violent reality of what happens to black people in this place (in Brazil), and whether he meant to or not--what happens to Black people all over the world. Last year, across Brazil, 76 percent of the victims of police killings were Black, and 80 percent were between the ages of 12 and 29.
On another ride back to the hotel later in the week in Salvador, we were coming from a late night of dancing when we passed a funeral parlor that had a storefront on a main street. It was lit up with bright lights like a booth at a carnival. Caskets of all sizes were leaning up against every wall. There were people in line talking to the owner in the doorway. There was a child on someone’s hip. It was after 2am.
Like the United States, in Brazil, slavery exists as an ancestor to incarceration. Like the United States, the vast majority of incarcerated people in Brazil are Black. Like the United States, to be Black and breathing in Brazil, is to hold fear and celebration and grief in one hand, juggling. Like the United States, to be Black and breathing in Brazil is to live precariously at the mercurial whims of state sanctioned violence at all times--to know the metal taste of terror too well, to know the lingering scent of loss clinging to all of the clothes in your closet as a house scent.
It is clear to me that the work that Black folks in Brazil do to get free, is inextricably tied to my own freedom.
In Brazil, there are Black people that look like me. There are Black people that look like you. Black people make the rhythm of Brazil and I didn’t have to speak the language to know that. We know us when we feel us.