The burial of a Black man who was choked to death by supermarket security guards on Saturday has sparked protests in Brazil that echo those of the racial justice movement in the US.
Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas, a 40-year-old father of four, was buried yesterday wearing a white T-shirt in the southern city of Porto Alegre. His coffin was draped in the flag of his favourite football team, EC Sao Jose.
“I just want justice,” his partner, Milena Borges Alves, told Globo news. “That’s all. I just want them to pay for what they did to him.”
She said they had planned to formally marry in a few days after living together for nine years.“It was an episode of racism, just look at the strength of the aggression,” Freitas’s father, Joao Batista Rodrigues Freitas, 65, told Folha de Sao Paulo.
He said he had lost the person he loved the most, and told reporters that Beto Freitas – as his son was nicknamed by friends and family – dreamt of buying a car to start working as a courier.
Demonstrators enraged by Freitas' death painted “Black lives matter” on the pavement of Paulista Avenue, one of the most famous streets in Sao Paulo, following a series of protests across the country, many of them at branches of the Carrefour supermarket chain.
More than 1,000 demonstrators attacked a Carrefour Brasil supermarket in Porto Alegre on Friday. Others handed out stickers depicting the supermarket’s logo stained with blood and called for a boycott of the chain.
Some protests turned violent on Friday evening, with demonstrators smashing windows in stores in several cities.
Demonstrations continued Saturday. Military police used pepper spray to disperse protesters outside a supermarket in the northeastern city of Recife.
The outrage was fed by a widely circulated video and by the timing of Freitas’s death, on 19 November – the day before Brazil’s Black Awareness Day.
Footage shows one guard restraining Freitas as another hit him repeatedly in the face while at least 15 bystanders watched and a supermarket supervisor discouraged witnesses to film the scene.
Another clip later showed a guard kneeling atop Freitas’ back for minutes in the store’s parking lot in Porto Alegre.
On Saturday, a political movement that had backed conservative President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted a video that appeared to be from earlier in the confrontation, showing the two guards escorting Freitas out of the store without touching him when he suddenly punched one of them, and both then grabbed him.
Both of the guards are in pre-trial custody and face possible homicide charges.
The France-based CEO of the Carrefour supermarket group, Alexandre Bompard, sent tweets Friday calling the video images “unbearable” and vowing to go beyond the “insufficient” steps already taken by the company's Brazil branch.
“My values and the values of Carrefour are not compatible with racism and violence,” he said.
Carrefour earlier said it would end its contract with the security company and fire the store manager who was on duty.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made no direct reference to the case. But in a video speech to the G-20 Summit on Saturday, he denied Brazil suffers from racism and complained of an unspecified movement seeking to “divide” Brazilians.
“As a man and as president, I see everyone in the same colours: green and yellow [the colours of the Brazilian flag],” he said.
“There is no better skin colour than the others. What exists are good men and bad men, and it is our choices and values that will determine which of the two we will be.”
Asked by reporters, Brazilian vice-president Hamilton Mourão said on Friday that the attack was “deplorable” – but not an episode of racism. He said it was a case of “totally unprepared” security guards.
“For me, racism doesn’t exist in Brazil,” he told reporters. “This is something they want to import into Brazil. It doesn’t exist here.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s five sons and an elected MP, posted on social media accusing Brazilian leftists of using Freitas as “their George Floyd”, a reference to the man whose death at the hands of police sparked a wave of racial justice protests across the United States and then the globe.
“The culture of hate and racism needs to be combated at its source and the full weight of the law should be used to punish those that promote hate and racism,” Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, wrote in a tweet.
Black and mixed-race people are about 57 percent of Brazil’s population but constitute 74 percent of victims of lethal violence, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, a nongovernmental organization.
Black and mixed-race Brazilians account for 79 percent of those killed by police.
At least 6.375 Afro-Brazilians have died at the hands of police in 2019. The figure represents a 188% increase since records began in 2013, according to Correio Braziliense.
It is a likely underestimate because some Brazilian states do not report the skin colour of the victims.
Additional reporting by AP and Reuters