Curtain Raiser

Brazil’s Torn by Lynchings, Colltalers

Aside clichés that Brazilians tolerate about themselves – nation of Carnival and football; racial democracy; their supposedly natural indolence and blissful disposition -, there are others that they not just wholeheartedly despise but are also stung by.
The overwhelmingly reality of past decades, however, is that Brazil’s one of the world’s most violent places, and even to the few hardened but pragmatic of its citizens, the rise in public lynchings as a form of popular justice is an absolutely abjection.
The mounting evidence was only enhanced last week when no less than four mob lynchings were reported all over Brazil, most of them resulting in the horrible death of the accused, who was given no chance or right to a fair trial.
The trend has been heatedly argued on Brazil’s press and social media, and a tabloid has published a remarkable cover, displaying side by side the depiction of a black slave’s flogging and the lifeless body of Cleidenilson Pereira da Silva, who was killed by a mob, both tied up to poles and surrounded by a crowd. The staggering fact is that 200 years separate both ‘sentences.’
That was the rhetoric but pertinent point of the Extra story: in over two centuries, ‘have we evolved or regressed?’ And just as on cue, another brutal lynching followed, whose perpetrators will likely remain unaccounted for, just like the ones preceding it.
Even more disturbing, this cycle of vigilantism and impunity, of ‘taking matters into one’s own hands,’ regardless the corollary of likely social causes and context, has a vocal and organized support system, both on social media as in the echelons of power.
In fact, many a politician and religious leader, popular talk show host and ‘expert’ on the press has openly supported the ‘right’ of citizens to act as their own police, when the police itself is too afraid, or corrupted, to act on their behalf. Of course, for such a rationale, whether the accused is guilty or innocent is besides the point. What counts is the brutality of the gesture.
Thus, there have been documented instances when the accused was indeed innocent, which did not prevent them from being punished either by death or by suspicion, which from the standpoint of someone’s life and reputation, are virtually the same.
In one of the most tragic cases of travesty of justice and mistaken identity, a São Paulo state housewife was beaten to death last year, accused of having abducted children. The baseless claim spread out from a Facebook post with a sketch of the alleged abductor, inciting a ravenous mob to gather and seek the victim. To this day, the real kidnapper has not been identified.
To USP sociologist José de Souza Martins, who’s just published ‘Linchamentos – A Justiça Popular no Brasil,’ lynchings are far from being the exception, and his 30 years of research produced 2,000 documented cases. More likely, they’re the norm.
He found that cases of violence against individuals are the most numerous. And to study them, he created a ‘protocol’ to trace the arch of events leading to lynchings. From the chase of the alleged culprit, to stoning, beating, direct physical aggression, to mutilation and, the limit, the burning of the still alive victim, such arch is in itself a depraved chain of criminal incidents.
Even admitting that the full protocol is rarely fulfilled, Martins writes that, if not contained at its beginnings, a lynching goes very quickly from indignation to anger and hatred, at which stage stopping the crime becomes extremely difficult.
He goes on to analyze context and circumstances making such a horrendous crime common, including lack of confidence on the judicial system and its slow pace to determining criminal accountability, its ever present risk of convicting innocents, along with social status and income as contributor factors to impunity, and the country’s cultural environment in which it occurs.
Thus, while in Mozambique, for instance, accusations of witchery are common triggers for lynching, and in Tanzania, being an Albino is enough to put anyone at risk to death at the hands of the mob, in the U.S., they were motivated by racial prejudice.
In Brazil, the explosive mix of chronic police corruption and law enforcement underfunding combines with how easy false claims spread through social media and extremist talk shows, to reinforce the notion that justice is for those who can afford it.
As it’s disproportionally staked against the poor and the dispossessed, such populist discourse does little to help addressing Brazil’s staggering income gap, racial tensions, and other easily identifiable causes for social unrest, and a lot for the banking accounts of many a political and religious leader. Their incendiary claims often distort and control the debate over criminality.
As if to illustrate the myopia of such debate, the right wing-dominated Brazilian Congress is on the verge of reducing the age of criminal responsibility, from 18 to 16, after a spate of violent teenager crimes transfixed the nation. A final vote is expected this month. It’s another misguided legislative grandstanding that focuses on the effect, while ignoring its possible causes.
Brazil is not unique on this, of course. Neither it has the monopoly of violence, or social unrest, or a particularly parasitic political class, not afraid of fanning extremist claims for self promotion. As the opposition to President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party continues strong among the affluent and the middle class, dysfunction is the currency of choice in Brasilia.
But going back to clichés mentioned above, if there are two things that irk the most Brazilians, about their country, culture, and standings in the world, one is how it misperceives itself as a land of opportunity and a nation well suited for its dreamed future.
The other is about the Amazon Rainforest, but let’s not get into that now. The commonality of lynchings, and their periodic placement in the inner pages of major newspapers is what seems to be finally coming into focus, for and about Brazilians.
Given that clichés are by definition exaggerations, or gross misrepresentations of reality, Brazil’s acceptance to what it is known for around the world should be taken, well, with a grain of salt. It’s of little relevance for those who live and breathe within its borders, because that same reality often extrapolates the constrains that worn old sayings can capture or express.
But for a wounded nation, whose pride has been assaulted by an economic slump, its rate of growth currently being the lowest among Brics nations, and with a large segment feeling left out by the government’s socialism-tinged programs, such sobriquet is one characterization too many, if not exactly unfair. No redeeming qualities for such a less than wholesome public image.
With three to four lynchings weekly, in Martins’ estimates, Brazil can’t waste time arguing over what kind of adage it’d rather be known for. Even as Marin writes that ‘lynching is an altruistic crime, that is, a social crime with social intentions,’ it’s still a crime, one that doesn’t even appear in Brazilian Penal Code. Thus the difficulty of estimating the precise number that it occurs.
A recent U.N. report, comparing the urban violence in Brazil to the Syrian civil war, was specially upsetting to those already predisposed to be suspicious to negative reports and blog posts about the country by outside organizations, or expats.
But the systematic brutality of mob lynchings, their regularity, complicity from law-abiding citizens, and obvious bias towards the disfranchised, along with a tactic support by those in position to make a difference and prevent them, must not be ignored. And if it takes an international uproar to at least provoke a rightful sense of indignation, and desire to change it, so be it.
In the era of fictional superheroes, there’s no lack of desire for vigilantes, and some may even see sense in impersonating justice when its agents fail to fulfill their responsibility. However, the mob rule, so popular in the bible and other so-called holy texts, has produced some of history’s most sanguinary times and tyrants, often ruining social harmony and true justice.
There’s constant blabber in Brazil about it being the nation of the future, and how it’s being groomed and primed to be the world’s leader. But behind such grandiose myth, there’s the arrogant belief that it has already achieved what it takes to earn such a self-serving accolade. And the assumption that no matter how flawed its dreams may be, it’ll all work out in the end.
It won’t, and the fact that we’re deploring the rise in lynchings in a 200-million plus nation, fast approaching its 600 hundred years of history, is but a small sample of how misplaced such drive really is. For it simply ignores the thousands of citizens weekly martyred in the streets of Brazil, by the worst possible form of punishment, torture, and death, and with absolute impunity. Have a safe week. WC

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