On Tuesday, one month before the Olympics, I joined a protest in front of the State of Rio de Janeiro Legislature as black, brown and white hands raised in a moment of silence to remember the life of Jhonata Dalber Matos Alves, a 16-year-old from the Borel favela who was shot in the head June 30 by Brazilian military police. Fists clenched, activists ended the vigil by chanting in Portuguese, “Jhonata, present.” Say his name, make him present.
According to police, Jhonata was shot in the head for allegedly holding a bag of drugs in his 16-year-old black hands. Family and neighbors contend that Jhonata held nothing more than a bag of popcorn. At Jhonata’s funeral, his grandfather tossed a bag of popcorn onto the casket with his grieving hands: “Here’s the drugs my grandson used.”
Brazilian and U.S. police have much in common. Both are employing increased militarization to wage a War on Drugs that, despite similar levels of drug use across races, largely falls on the hands and bodies of young black men.
There’s a famous, albeit perverse, saying in Brazil, “If you want to know who’s black, just ask a doorman or police officer.” In a country that prides itself on being a racial democracy, where racial mixing and a lack of explicit apartheid laws make the boundaries between black and white seem less stark, the police kill on average 2,000 people a year, over 70 percent of whom are black.
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In Brazil, black hands cannot hold popcorn. And in the U.S., the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police have once again reminded us that the hands of a black boy or man cannot hold a stack of CDs, a driver’s license, a toy gun, a couple of loose cigarettes, a samurai word, a BB gun, a pack of cigarillos, a wallet, a pocket knife, a bag of Skittles and an ice tea, or a gun that you have a constitutional right to carry.
In the hands of a black man, these objects justify death by the police. Perhaps a new saying applicable in both the U.S. and Brazil would be, “If you want to know who’s black, look at who police kill with everyday objects in their hands.”
In both countries, the blood-stained hands of police are washed clean by a supportive, mostly white public, which uses their hands to dig into the lives of these victims of state-sanctioned killing to justify why black hands should no longer be allowed to greet a stranger, high five a friend, pray to their god, toast a life milestone, prepare a meal, hold their children and embrace their partners.
Meanwhile, black women use their hands to record the last moments of their boyfriends’ lives, only to have those same black hands cuffed by the white hands of his killer. The hands of too many black women have wiped away the tears they shed not only for their lost loved ones, but for a terrifying, unknown but all too probable future day in which they hold the hands of the black men in their lives for the last time.
Brazil is using the looming Olympics to absolve the murders by the hands of the state. The U.S. uses courts and crowdfunding campaigns to ensure that white police hands never have to be put in handcuffs.
The hands of black men and women were enslaved and forced to build the wealth of both Brazil and the U.S. – states that espoused ideals of liberty while simultaneously mutilating the black hands and bodies of those fighting for their freedom. Today, these black hands continue to grasp for the promise of that freedom. And black fists continue to rise in solidarity for those whose lives were cut down by the hands of the state, which from its founding has depended on the hands of black men, but would rather see those hands cold and dead before unshackling them from the grip of a status quo where black lives do not matter.
Stephanie V. Reist is a master’s student in public policy at Duke University.