(CNN) — Brazilians outraged by the death of a black man after being beaten by security guards at a supermarket have protested in the country’s main cities, chanting a phrase familiar to Americans: “I can’t breathe.”
Images from the security camera of a Carrefour supermarket in the southern city of Porto Alegre obtained by the Brazilian news outlet Fantástico show two security guards escorting João Alberto Silveira Freitas out of the store on November 19. Freitas, for reasons that are not clear, appears to hit one of the men.
The guards then beat him, including blows to the head, knocked him to the ground and pinned him face down with the knee of a security guard against his back and neck. After several minutes immobilized by the guard, during which numerous shoppers, employees, and other guards appear to be standing still while Freitas groans and struggles, he stops moving.
The police chief investigating the death said Freitas appeared to have died of suffocation, according to CNN Brazil, an affiliate of CNN. A preliminary analysis by the state General Institute of Forensic Medicine indicated that the death was due to asphyxiation, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported. Freitas’ father called the death a “murder” in an interview with CNN Brazil and demanded justice.
The two security guards have been arrested but have not been charged. Carrefour quickly announced that it had suspended its contract with the private security company that employed the guards and that the manager on duty had been fired. An attorney for one of the guards told CNN Brasil that his client did not intend to kill Freitas and had only sought to “contain” him after he was called to respond to a “dispute” between Freitas and an employee. The second guard reportedly fired his lawyer on Tuesday and CNN has been unable to reach his new legal representation.
Freitas, 40, a father of four, died on the eve of Black Awareness Day, an official holiday in many Brazilian cities that honors the country’s African heritage. Waves of protests have followed, but Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed them as imported “foreign tensions.”
Protesters in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, on November 20, 2020, on Black Awareness Day.
‘Those of us who live in the favelas see this violence on a daily basis’
The brutal images, which featured many passive bystanders, have helped precipitate protests in a country where the treatment of black Brazilians is increasingly under scrutiny, according to Thiago Amparo, a professor and coordinator of the University’s Justice and Racial Law Laboratory. Getúlio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.
“There is an increase in mobilization in Brazil due to the death of black people, especially by groups of the black movement,” he said. “When Freitas’s death occurred, it occurred in a society more mobilized around structural racism.”
Many Brazilians reject the idea that their country is a democratic melting pot free from discrimination, pointing to racial disparities in many facets of daily life, including deadly violence. In May, as the United States grappled with the death of George Floyd, protesters in Rio de Janeiro protested at the governor’s mansion with the banners “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Killing Us” to denounce the alleged police murder of a young black man. 14-year-old in a favela on the outskirts of Rio.
Protesters on November 20, 2020 during a protest against racism.
According to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security (FBSP), a São Paulo-based research group, black and mestizo Brazilians make up a little more than half of the general population, but constitute 79% of the people killed by the forces. law enforcement in a country that averages an extraordinary 17 police murders per day.
Asked to comment on the FBSP’s conclusions, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice responded that any incident involving the military police that enforces public security “must be investigated within the scope of the different competent bodies.”
Protests over killings by the police are so common in Brazil that they have a distinctive look: T-shirts adorned with photos of a lost loved one and the date of their death, painted banners demanding justice.
Ana Paula de Oliveira, a mother and activist whose son entered those daily statistics after he was shot in the back in 2014, said there is a pattern of violence against poor and black Brazilians.
“Those of us who live in the favelas see this violence every day: a slap when the police search you, breaking into your house without a warrant. And if I question it, they beat me, ”he said about daily life in Rio de Janeiro in low-income communities.
Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled that police can enter people’s homes without a warrant if they have “good reason” to believe that a crime is being committed.
Poverty is a disproportionate burden for Brazilians of color. More than 40% of black and mestizo Brazilians live below the poverty line, compared to less than 20% of white Brazilians, according to the Brazilian Census Bureau (IBGE).
Protester at a protest against the death of Joao Alberto in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on November 23, 2020.
Marisa Feffermann, coordinator of the Network for Protection and Resistance Against Genocide, an organization of social movements that protests against state violence, attributes police aggressiveness in the country in part to the fact that officials responsible for public safety on the streets They are officially part of the Brazilian Armed Forces. “The military police must stop because the whole world suffers from this rhetoric of war,” he said.
Considered preventive law enforcement bodies, the military police in Brazil are independently controlled by each state and the capital district of Brasilia.
Marketing himself as a relentless supporter of public safety has been central to President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing brand. Campaigning for the presidency in 2017, he gave an interview in which he sought to defend the police and encourage Brazilians to arm themselves, saying that “a policeman who does not kill is not a policeman.”
The Bolsonaro government has said that the administration does not advocate police violence.
Meanwhile, many conservative Brazilians deny that racism is a systemic problem in the country.
‘Racism does not exist in Brazil’
Amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests this weekend, Bolsonaro blamed “foreign tensions” that had been “imported into Brazil” during a speech to the G20. He described Brazil as a culturally rich and mixed-race nation, adding: “There are those who want to destroy it and replace it with conflict, resentment, hatred and division between races, always disguised as’ fighting for equality or justice. Social'”.
He did not mention Freitas by name and never has.
Bolsonaro’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, has also insisted that race did not play a role in Freitas’ murder. “Racism does not exist in Brazil,” he said when asked by journalists about the incident the day after Freitas’ death. Mourão, a retired army general, said police violence in Brazil was linked to income inequality, though he acknowledged that Brazilians of color are more likely to be poor.
While she did not mention Freitas’s skin color, Bolsonaro’s human rights minister, Damares Alves, took a sober tone and tweeted: “The life of another Brazilian was brutally taken away in the parking lot of a supermarket in Rio Grande do Sul. The images are shocking, and we are outraged.
However, the French-owned supermarket chain where the crime occurred has linked Freitas’s death to racism. «The death of João Alberto should not be in vain. That is why today we are committed to helping combat structural racism, ”said Noel Prioux, general director of Carrefour Brazil, in a video message. The supermarket chain also announced that it would donate all of its proceeds from nationwide sales the day after the murder to anti-racism projects.
While public outrage has made Freitas a national name, Oliveira, the mother and activist of the favelas, said that she also protests in memory of her son and other victims of racial violence who have been forgotten.
“Those who died many years ago are forgotten,” he said. As long as I breathe, I will be my son’s voice. They were victims of a state, of a country that is racist, that kills its black people.
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