Last week, Brazilian police forces murdered three Black women who were bystanders during two of the frequent raids in Black, working-class neighborhoods. Together they tragically represent three different generations of Black women’s lives in the diaspora. In the same manner as Breonna Taylor, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, and others were murdered — these women were the victims of botched, illegal, and over-the-top police operations under the guise of drug enforcement.
Maria Célia de Santana, 73, and Viviane Soares, 40, were killed last weekend in the neighborhood of Curuzu in the city of Salvador.
If you have been following this series, you may remember Curuzu and the neighboring Liberdade as the home of Ile Aiye, the Pan-African organization which provided a cultural backdrop to the Afro Brazilian political movement. These neighborhoods are symbolic of Bahia’s history of Resistance against colonialism. They are also famous for their unique event, the annual Black Goddess Pageant “Deusa do Ébano” which celebrates the African beauty of Brazil.
Both women were struck by balas perdidas or “lost” bullets in front of their homes while the police barreled through the narrow hillside favelas. The elder, Maria Célia de Santana, was a retired government worker. She was talking to her neighbor and friend, the younger Viviane Soares when the police, who were reportedly pursuing a stolen vehicle, sprayed shots at the women who were chatting in the doorway on an ordinary Friday evening.
Viviane was still in mourning over the death of her seven-year-old nephew, Railan Santos da Silva, who was also killed seven months earlier by the police while watching a soccer game in the same neighborhood. Her sister and Railan’s mother, Fernanda Evangelista, deplored:
“I had a 7-year-old son, I took care of my son, so this happens to my sister now? That’s wrong, folks!. And now, who are they going to say the bullets belonged to? To say that my son was armed!? My son was 7 years old. How would my son be armed? Stop that. You have to stop that. My son was 7 years old and he’s been dead for seven months now.”
A taxi driver on the scene testified to the media, “ There was only one person in the car. They didn’t arrive to board the car, they already arrived shooting. They killed two mothers, and now they leave this sadness on the street.” Afro Brazilians took to social media to protest the murders and fight for the memory of these women using the hashtags:
#VidasNegrasImportam (Black Lives Matter)
#ParemDeNosMatar (stop killing us)
#BastaDeViolencia (end the violence)
The third murder sparked a new hashtag due to the popularity of the victim. The following Tuesday, the military police carried out another “special operation” on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It was there that 24-year-old designer and social media personality, Kathlen Romeu, was visiting her grandmother in a neighborhood named, Lins de Vasconcelos.
A few miles away is the neighborhood of Jacarezinho, where police launched a bloody assault just weeks before that became the city’s deadliest raid ever killing 25 residents, many of whom the police could prove no ties to drug gangs.
Kathlen’s grandmother told the press that while she was taking a walk with her granddaughter, “Before I realised, there were police officers everywhere.” After they heard the gunfire, she watched as Kathlen fell to the ground.
Kathlen was three months pregnant. That morning she posted a message to IG, “Bom dia neném” (Good morning, baby.)
The police are investigating themselves and residents expect the usual lack of accountability. Rio and Bahia rank first and second in deaths by police operations according to the Violence Monitor. The reports also recognize the role of race, with some people more likely to become victims of police violence than others. In Bahia, 97% of those killed were Black people. Data shows that about 75% of women murdered in the first half of 2020 in Brazil are Black.
After news of Kathlen’s death circulated, activists staged a protest by blocking off a major nearby highway for two hours. Accompanying the previously mentioned hashtags, was a new hashtag in honor of her death:
#kathlenRomeuPRESENTE (Kathlen is here)
#JusticaPorKathleenRomeu (Justice for Kathlen Romeu)
Her popularity as a social media influencer may be the one factor that transcends the mundane process of naturalizing the death of Black Brazilians like these three women. Law enforcement officials and many media outlets (both liberal and conservative) emphasize the police action as necessary for public safety, or the mistakes of individual actors.
Government officials remain silent.
Afro Brazilians recognize this as systematic racism and misogynoir. Kathlen’s mother is requesting for human rights organizations not to allow her daughter to be treated as a perpetrator or casualty of drug trafficking. She pleads that the world remembers her daughter’s death. We can help by exploring the hashtags and reposting articles to your social media pages. Most importantly, include the hashtag #VidasNegrasImportam whenever you use #blacklivesmatter.