For African-American tourists, Salvador is a city in Brazil where Brazilians maintain the strongest ties to Africa through music, food and religion. It’s Brazil’s blackest city. Eighty percent of the population is of African descent.
But for the Afro-Brazilians who live there, Salvador is a place where black men are constantly harassed by an intimidating police force, one that many say kills freely and with impunity. This year’s carnival in Salvador attracted more than 2 million people for six days of music and dancing in the streets. But the festive days also marked the anniversary of one of the city’s worst police killings—the “Chacina do Cabula” or, in English, the Cabula massacre.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 2015, just a week before last year’s carnival, police rounded up more than 30 young black men in the neighborhood of Cabula. Police say that some had been trying to rob a bank. Others just happened to be in the area. The police lined the men along a wall with their backs away from them. In an exchange of gunfire, 12 people were killed. The victims ranged in ages from 17 to 27. Two were minors. A police officer was grazed by one bullet. A secretly taped video of the bodies in the morgue showed that three of the victims had bullet wounds in the back. Three others had bullet wounds in the chest, and another person’s head was entirely bandaged.
For local journalist Enderson Araújo, the “Chacina do Cabula” wasn’t a rare event. It showed the world what black people go through daily in the city.
“What happened was a true ethnic cleaning, a genocide against young black people,” wrote Araújo in a national Brazilian magazine. “This is a problem that young black people have encountered and fought against for a long time through various movements."
One week after the massacre, the residents organized a protest in their community. They soon began to receive threats from local police. Araújo received so many threats from police that he left Salvador for a while but has since returned.
The police violence in Brazil is so grave against black people, and especially young black men, that it’s commonly referred to as “O genicido contra o povo negro,” or “genocide against black people.” More than 3,000 people were killed by police in Brazil in 2014 (source: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). Amnesty International released data last year that showed that the police in Brazil kill the most people in the world. And those killings disproportionately are of young black men.
But the police violence isn’t limited to Salvador. It also affects Rio de Janeiro, where since 2007, police have been occupying favela neighborhoods in order to “pacify” them. In Rio de Janeiro, the police committed 1 out of every 6 homicides between 2010 and 2015. Nationally, 4 out of every 5 homicide victims are black.
The police are rarely prosecuted for these killings. Five months after the killing of the 12 black men in Salvador, the nine police officers who were involved were absolved of any wrongdoing. A local judge found that they had acted in legitimate self-defense.
Afro-Brazilians have long recognized and protested against state-sponsored violence against young black men. When the Movimento Negro (Black Movement), was founded in the 1970s, one of its main points was to stop the state-sponsored violence against black people. The group that is most aligned with today's fight is Reajá ou Será Morto, or React or Be Killed. The group, based in Salvador, has been working against police violence for the last 10 years. For the past three years, it has organized the International March Against the Genocide of Black People. Reajá’s leader, Hamilton Borges Oniré, even called for a boycott of Salvador’s 2016 carnival.
“Don’t do tourism in Bahia,” Borges said in a video about Bahia’s Black Liberation movement. “Don’t do tourism during carnival. The government needs to feel pain by an international boycott … a boycott by people who are in solidarity with our fight against the genocide of our people.”
Other black groups used carnival as a moment to protest police violence and to remember the 12 young black men killed last year. Araújo helped the National Union of Students launch a digital campaign in memory of the young black men who are murdered throughout Brazil every day—#Poderiasereu, or “It Could Have Been Me.” During Salvador’s carnival, the group created a bloco (a street band that mobilizes crowds during carnival) and paraded around in the streets with signs. The popular Carnival Afro-Bloco group Olodum opened carnival at its headquarters in Pelourinho with a march that included protest signs against the assassination of young black men in Brazil. At another event for the Ilé Aiyé Afro-Bloco, members of the Movimento Negro cornered the governor of Bahia, Rui Costa, to ask him about the massacre.
“Today is the one-year anniversary of the massacre of Cabula, and the mothers of these young people are still crying today,” a person said. “What do you want to say about this, Governor?”
It is unclear how or if he responded.
Kiratiana Freelon is a Rio de Janeiro-based multimedia journalist whose work focuses on social issues, international news and sporting events. She has published two books: one a travel guide to black Paris, and the other a travel guide to multicultural London. Visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.