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Brazilians Protest Over The Deaths Of 2 Black Boys, Denounce Racism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The anti-racism protests in the U.S. are reverberating in Brazil. They've prompted fresh debate among Brazilians about racism within their own society. NPR's Philip Reeves says there is particular anger there about two recent deaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This street protest is about a black child called Miguel Otavio. It happened last week after Miguel died. He was 5.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

REEVES: This crowd is outside a luxury apartment block near Recife in northeastern Brazil. The white wife of a local politician lives there. She let the 5-year-old ride an elevator alone to the ninth floor, where he stepped out, somehow found his way outside and fell. Miguel's mom worked for her as a maid. She was out walking her employer's dog when her son fell. Heartrending security camera footage of the little boy alone in the elevator is causing an outpouring of grief and anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRTES RENATA DE SOUZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Miguel's mother, Mirtes Renata de Souza, has appeared on TV mourning her son. His death is raising uncomfortable questions about the gap between Brazil's mostly white elite and the multitude of poor and often black domestic staff who work for them. De Souza's employer is facing criminal charges. She's out on bail. De Souza says if it was her and not her boss who treated a child so negligently, she'd be in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

REEVES: Protesters from Black Lives Matter were out on Brazil's streets yesterday. Some carried placards with Miguel's name. Others displayed another name. Joao Pedro Mattos Pinto was killed by police in Rio de Janeiro last month. He was 14. This is his father, Neilton da Costa Pinto.

NEILTON DA COSTA PINTO: (Through interpreter) They destroyed the life of my son. They destroyed the life of my family. That's what the police did.

REEVES: Police shot Joao Pedro while he was playing with friends at his aunt's house on the edge of a favela, or shantytown. The cops were pursuing a suspect. They sprayed the building with bullets. One hit Joao Pedro in the torso. His father says innocent young Brazilians are killed like this all too often.

DA COSTA PINTO: (Through interpreter) The police need to understand there are law-abiding people in these communities, also. They think everyone is a criminal. They're not.

REEVES: Things have to change, he says.

DA COSTA PINTO: (Through interpreter) I hope my son's case is the last. This can't carry on. It just can't.

REEVES: Brazil's police killed more than 5,500 people last year, mostly young black males. This April, in the state of Rio alone, the cops killed an average of nearly six people a day, mostly in favelas. Young cops are encouraged to fight crime as if they're in a war, says Julita Lemgruber, a sociologist and former police ombudswoman in Rio.

JULITA LEMGRUBER: They feel they are fighting the enemy, and it's very difficult for them to realize that what is playing out all the time is a racist country employing the most racist and violent forms of social control.

REEVES: The protests in the U.S. are serving as a clarion call to Brazilians facing chronic police abuse and racism.

JOSELITO CRISPIM: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Society needs to sit down and find solutions quickly," says Joselito Crispim, a black activist who runs a support group for kids in a low-income neighborhood. Crispim blames Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro for stoking tensions. Bolsonaro has a history of racist remarks and encouraging police to use lethal force. He's also downplaying the coronavirus, which is taking a heavy toll on poor black Brazilians.

CRISPIM: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It shows how precarious life is for us," says Crispim. "We're last in line for treatment." Add the virus to the violence, and you have a pressure cooker.

CRISPIM: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Crispim says, "If nothing changes, it could soon explode."

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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