After Chauvin Verdict, America Needs Racist Police Brutality To End In The Americas, Too
COMMENTARY: The police abuse Americans are suddenly confronting is vastly worse in Latin America and the Caribbean – and certainly affects the U.S.
Tuesday was obviously an uplifting milestone for racial justice and police accountability in America. A jury actually convicted a white cop of murdering a Black man. It sent a resounding message across the country that this toxic plague, which betrays every enlightened principle America is supposed to stand for, finally can and will be punished.
But now an equally important question is: Will that message resound across the hemisphere?
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Will it make neighboring Latin America and the Caribbean realize its own plague of racist police brutality — which is vastly worse and does affect the U.S. — betrays every humane principle the Americas are supposed to stand for?
If Tuesday’s verdict in the George Floyd murder case was cause for hope around the U.S., it seems to have elicited despair in Brazil. It was a stinging reminder of the run-amok impunity homicidal Brazilian police and soldiers enjoy from Belém to Belo Horizonte. Referring to how Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin choked a prostrate Floyd to death last year, the headline of a Wednesday op-ed in Brazil’s largest daily, Folha de S.Paulo, asks: When will Brazilian police “take their knees off our necks”?
The author, Brazilian human rights lawyer Thiago Amparo, points out Brazilian police last year killed six times more people than U.S. police did.
“In the wake of Floyd’s death,” Amparo writes, “changes actually happened” in the U.S. “A large number of police departments banned chokeholds as a police tactic,” he notes, and a bill reducing legal immunity for cops recently passed the U.S. House.
“And in Brazil?” Amaparo asks. He points to soldiers who were acting as a police patrol in Rio de Janeiro two years ago – and allegedly killed an innocent Black man, Evaldo dos Santos, by firing more than 80 shots into his car. Though arrested, the soldiers "still have not been tried.”
Dos Santos was driving his family to a baby shower. But his uniformed killers mistook his car for one that gangbangers had just stolen – and so they pumped 82 rounds at its Black driver.
Most Latin American police forces are poorly trained and even more poorly paid – and their only real professional touchstones are the goons who served the despots of their countries’ not-so-distant pasts.
Even then-U.S. President Donald Trump condemned Chauvin’s actions. But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro insists in Dos Santos’ case “the army didn’t kill anybody — the army is of the people, and so you can’t accuse the people of murder.”
Aside from reminding us what a reactionary racist Bolsonaro is, his cretinous remark points up a big reason a spokesman for the human rights organization Amnesty International recently said police brutality in Brazil and Latin America is “out of control.” And it has much if not most to do with the region’s violently dictatorial history — which current leaders like Bolsonaro still unabashedly revere.
Judicial institutions in most of Latin America are dysfunctional at best, medieval at worst. The police forces they spawn are poorly trained and even more poorly paid, and their only real professional touchstones are the goons who served the despots of their countries’ not-so-distant pasts. They’re all too often infected with a militarized mindset that makes them shoot first and ask questions later — especially when the unlucky civilians who cross their paths are Black or Indigenous.
The monstrous Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s still leaches into the culture of Chile’s carabineros in the 2020s. That was evidenced last fall when one of them, captured on video, threw a student demonstrator off a bridge in Santiago. The student survived, but the carabineros allegedly killed more than 30 people during the anti-government protests.
In Mexico, Yucatán cops last month uncannily replicated the Floyd murder, allegedly killing a Salvadoran woman, Victoria Salazar, by kneeling on her back and fracturing her spine.
Unlike Chile, Mexico surprisingly arrested the officers involved, if only because of international outcry due to Salazar’s refugee status. The sad and salient reality is that she likely fled El Salvador because of notorious police abuse there — or because police are utterly incapable of reining in murderous gangs that rule whole swaths of her country.
Police barbarity, incompetence or both force tens of thousands of Latin Americans like her to migrate illegally to the U.S. each year. That should move Americans to direct some of their newfound and long overdue police reform zeal south of their border. Because Americans live in the Americas too.