I love walking through neighborhoods in Salvador. It’s a city of hills with surprises beyond each slope. During the summer of 2015, I took an alternative route on my walk to a shabby photography studio I was renting in Santo Antônio, two kilometers from my apartment in the neighborhood of Liberdade. Translating to “Freedom,” my home at the time was a historic area which began as a settlement for newly freed Africans following the abolition of slavery in 1888.
My destination, Santo Antônio, is known for a historic fort-turned-prison which housed the Africans captured at the end of the Malê revolt (Revolta dos Malês) in 1835. Led by a group of Yoruba Muslims descended from the Kingdom of Dahomey, and inspired by the Haitian revolution, 600 warriors attacked the Brazilian colonial forces. Before the rebellion was ultimately quelled, Brazil’s ruling class was permanently affected. They began to fear that they would share the same fate as the French in Haiti, setting in motion a public debate that would result in the abolishment of the slave trade in 1851.
Between these two barrios is Barbalho. To my knowledge, the neighborhood (named after a 17th-century Governor) is not known for much, except for a high level of crime. This shortcut to my studio led me to the mural pictured above. While snapping the photograph, I was surrounded by a sensation which has become a familiar one during my travels through the Black diaspora. A feeling of reorientation, irony and rhythmic pulsation in moments that feel like crossroads between my identity as a Black man raised in the struggle-nation we call America, and citizen of a larger, older body politic.
The mural is the creation of Brazilian street artist, Bruno Wiw. On a red background are the faces of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, along with the dates of their murders by police and their cities Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD, respectively.
The black and white portraits are referenced from Mike Brown’s graduation photo, highlighting his red tassel matching the background. Gray’s image was referenced from a grainy photo circulating news and social media outlets at the time. In the mural, Wiw adds what appears as a white scarf or neck brace, undoubtedly symbolizing the fatal spinal injuries from the murderous “rough ride” while in the illegal, terroristic custody of the Baltimore Police department. Between Michael and Freddie are the words “Somos Todos Iguais”. This translates to “We are all equal.” Under this is a dove floating above the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
Not the first or last transnational marker I would witness, but it is one that resonates with me in its direct show of solidarity, curiosity and respect for the very struggle that unfortunately defines modern life for me and most people I know and care about.
On a random alley in the middle of a Brazilian hood, it stands to this day as proof of just how hot the flames have burned on the streets of U.S. cities since the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. But murals like this one are more than a show of solidarity with the BLM movement in the States. They exist to not simply await the random chance that someone like me might pass it and post it up on my Instagram. It is a message to Afro Brazilians that their long struggle with police brutality is not one they must fight in isolation.
A frequently used term in the Vidas Negras Importam (Black Lives Matter) movement in Brazil is NECROPOLITICS. Popularized by Cameroonian postcolonial theorist, Joseph Achille Mbembe, it is the systematic policies promoted by the State which result in the death of certain groups in order to sanitize a society. His 2019 book of the same name was published in Portuguese and spread around Brazilian activist and intellectual circles like a travel guide for the violent State fantasy awaiting Afro Brazilians in the upcoming pandemic. Mbembe describes necropolitics as the State wielding the literal power of death over a society by giving State agents like the police the power to kill at will or reducing certain groups to ‘the living dead’ who are doomed to reside in ‘death worlds’ i.e. environments with subhuman living conditions barely fit for human survival.
In a country where police are responsible for 25% of murders and 80% of the victims are Black, it is clear why Necropolitica has become a dominant framework for analyzing the current political and social reality of Brazil. Brazilian police and private retail security killed nearly 6000 people in 2019 after the presidential election of a notorious right-wing populist- the openly racist, homophobic and sexist Jair Bolsonaro. He is often referred to as the “Tropical Trump”. Police killings under his administration have reached five times the amount of killings by police in the United States.
Whenever I pass the mural, a part of the disorientation comes from the trouble I have recalling if I’ve ever seen a mural in the States dedicated to the life of the many Blacks killed by police in Brazil.
In the midst of the global 2020 protests, in the city of Porto Alegre, a 40 year old father of four was murdered in a Carrefour grocery store by policemen.
João Alberto Silveira Freitas was strangled to death the night before Dia da Consciência Negra (Black Awareness Day) by policemen whose social media pages displayed their support for Bolsanaro. A year before on Valentine’s Day, security officers in another Brazilian supermarket, Hipermercado Extra, choked 19-year-old Pedro Gonzaga to death while his mother watched.
The same month, police attacked 34-year-old Crispim Terral while waiting in line at a local bank only a few minutes from my apartment. They nearly choked him to death while his screaming daughter recorded the horror. Video and photos of both killings and near killing spread across social media and were in a dreadful dialogue with the tragedies of Eric Gardner and George Floyd.
Afro-Brazilians have resisted racial oppression since the very beginning when we were all one people disembarking from the same boats but at different stops in the Americas. And since the access of popular media they have been saying “Vidas Negras Importam.” In her book, “Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won,” historian Kim Butler translates a 1920 article by José Benedito Correia Leite. While in his early twenties, Leite was a leader in the Black Press Movement and cofounder of the civil rights organization Frente Negra Brasileira (The Black Brazilian Front ) and the newspaper O Clarim d’Alvorada.
“… through history, the sublime courage of a race which, though enslaved, did not let itself be dominated in the struggle for its rights . . . The good name of our people depends on our actions. It is our responsibility to introduce the value of our race into the development of society …”
In other words,#VIDASNEGRASIMPORTAM. Searching that hashtag will feed you a steady flow of Black faces, many of whom you will recognize and many you won’t. In 2019 I began an ongoing art participatory art project inspired by the mural. I contacted Crispim Terrel and invited him to my studio to create life-affirming images together. We ate dinner and talked about his life. He spoke about the moment he thought he would die in front of his daughter and how he never imagined the community support that would follow.
After the shoot, we discussed how his traditional African spirituality guided him through the trauma. I told him that as a Black (North) American, I want my art to reflect shared identities in the Black Atlantic diaspora. It’s my way of reconnecting, remapping, remembering our scattered Black selves. The images we created reflect a sense of healing, power, and a collective black future.