Like most kids around the world last spring, João Pedro Mattos Pinto found himself on lockdown because of the raging coronavirus. Unable to go to school on May 18, the 14-year-old Black Brazilian joined his cousins at their house in a favela outside of Rio de Janeiro. When gunfire erupted in the neighborhood, he sent his mother a WhatsApp message: “I’m inside the house. Don’t worry.”
Suddenly, 10 police officers burst into the house, searching for a purported drug trafficker and firing off more than 70 shots. João Pedro was hit in the back. His relatives bundled the bleeding boy into a police helicopter, and he was airlifted away. The police barred family members from accompanying the minor and refused to provide the family with any more information. Police arrested no one in the operation.
João Pedro’s cousin, Daniel, put out a desperate message on Twitter, begging people for help locating him. The #procurasejoaopedro (find João Pedro) hashtag trended on Brazilian Twitter overnight. While more than 1,400 young Black men are killed by police every year in Rio, João Pedro’s disappearance grabbed the headlines. It took his family 17 hours to locate his body in a public morgue.
That was seven days before the world would see the haunting video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd; before Black Lives Matter uprisings erupted across the United States, spreading quickly around the world. These two events helped to spark #VidasNegrasImportam (#BlackLivesMatter in Portuguese) protests in Rio de Janeiro and across Brazil, the South American country with the largest population of Black people outside Africa, just ahead of the United States. And in an ironic confluence of events—Joao Pedro’s death combined with the coronavirus—police in Rio were forced to stop almost all operations, at least temporarily, leading to a stark decline in fatal police encounters.
In a world without coronavirus, João Pedro’s death wouldn’t have trended on Twitter, nor would it have been front-page news. But the pandemic and subsequent protests forced Brazilians to focus on anti-Black police violence, which they had long ignored or normalized. Rio activists and lawyers, who had been working against such violence for years, filed an emergency petition asking Brazil’s Supreme Court to stop police operations during the pandemic. And one Supreme Court justice temporarily ruled in favor—with startling results.
One month after Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin’s June 5 order barring police operations in Rio—except in extreme circumstances—killings by police had dropped 70% compared to the previous 12 years. A study revealed that the suspension of police operations in Rio’s favelas could save more than 400 lives this year alone.
On August 3, a majority of justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to uphold Fachin’s temporary ban on police operations in Rio—a decision that could have broader implications for addressing police violence across the country. The Supreme Court must still determine whether Rio’s state security policing needs to be aligned with national and international human rights standards.
“It is possible that if COVID hadn’t happened, we would not have had a [judicial] decision like we had,” said Wallace Corbo, a lawyer who works pro bono on behalf of the Educafro, an education and social justice nonprofit in Brazil. He started working on the Supreme Court case to stop Rio police operations last year.
“COVID and João Pedro changed everything,” Corbo explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic further unmasked the extent of racial inequities. Although it was the White and wealthy who brought the coronavirus to Brazil from their European holidays, the workers who live in favelas and periphery communities—the Black and poor—were dying at the highest rates. A recent study revealed that 80% of Rio’s coronavirus deaths were registered in the city’s most impoverished areas. And the hardest hit demographic group is older, Black, impoverished men. As of August 27, the country of more than 211 million people had registered more than 117,000 coronavirus deaths.
In many ways, Brazil has emerged as an almost mirror image of the United States, even down to the racial uprising that resulted from a police killing. It is second only to the United States in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus. And like U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the virus from the beginning of the pandemic, calling it a “little flu.” Between March and May, two health ministers resigned; their posts remain vacant. The country has yet to implement a national coronavirus plan.
Such lack of coordination and planning leaves favela activists such as Fernanda Viana Araujo, 40, scrambling to provide food and other basic necessities to people quarantined in tight quarters in these neighborhoods. Mothers who supported their families as domestic servants had to stay home. Fathers who earned a living as parking lot attendants had no work. Grocery store attendants continued to work, potentially exposing their families to the virus.
Araujo said her focus recently has shifted to providing COVID-19 testing to residents of Maré, a favela with the highest number of both COVID cases and deaths overall in Rio.
“We normally focus on building our community through culture, art, public policy, and education,” said Araujo, who works with the nonprofit Rede da Maré, which is in the Maré favela. “But we realized we needed to do something to help our people stay alive. And that means giving them food for their table.”