National Gathering in Rio Unites Mothers of Victims of State Violence Across Brazil

Banner expressing commitment of the mothers to speak out: "Our dead have a voice!"

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In Friday afternoon’s pouring rain, mothers, relatives, and favela community members gathered on Rio Branco Avenue, next to the Candelária Church in downtown Rio de Janeiro, to protest the unlawful killing of their children, relatives, and loved ones. They carried banners, signs, and pictures of those they had lost to police violence, urging onlookers to speak out against the injustices and the state’s violation of basic rights guaranteed by the state itself. One of the protestors declared, “We want to say that our dead have a voice, that our lives matter a lot, that our children have dreams, that our children have the right to live… We are here to show you that the month of May is the month of mothers, and while mothers are crying for their dead, we are here to show society that our youth are dreamers, and above all, Brazilians.”

The protest on May 19 was the first event of the Second Gathering of the National Network of Mothers and Relatives of Victims of State Terrorism. Families of victims from across Brazil gathered, with organizations such as the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, São Paulo Mothers of May, Mothers of Manguinhos, Nova Iguaçu Human Rights Center, Fórum Grita Baixada, Rio de Janeiro Youth Forum, Mothers of Ceará, Espírito Santo Mothers Association, and Mother of Belo Horizonte in attendance. The relatives delivered a symbolic pen to the Legislative Assembly with the hope that their requests will be written into law. These goals include the creation of a fund for reparations to families of those who were killed, the creation of a state-recognized week for the struggle of mothers and relatives of victims of state violence, and support for the law 182/2-15, which would dismiss police officers who do not support justice.

In 2015, 3,345 people were killed by the police in Brazil as a whole. Just in the state of Rio de Janeiro, 645 were killed. Young black men are disproportionately affected, making up 75% of Rio de Janeiro state’s figures. The São Paulo Mothers of May are still waiting for justice for relatives lost in the violence of May 2006, when police and gang members clashed throughout the month. The exact number of deaths during the events is unknown, but is estimated to be between 264 and 600. In Rio de Janeiro, killings by the police amplified before the Olympic Games. The National Gathering especially honored the legacies of Jonatan de Oliveira from Manguinhos and Vitor Hugo da Cunha from Acari favelas, whose deaths left communities mourning.

The National Gathering continued on Saturday afternoon with an intergenerational event at Campo Society in Manguinhos in the North Zone. The event began with the introduction of the mothers and relatives, where each shared stories of their loss and search for justice. There was also reference to the importance of the month of May: “May is a symbolic month. It is a month in which women are in struggle in all of their territories,” explained one of the speakers. The mothers explained that the event also represented one of many efforts for the “demilitarization of the Americas,” and expressed solidarity with movements in Colombia, the United States, and others.

Deborah, a mother and leader in the Mothers of May organization, introduced the movement, which was founded in the aftermath of May 2006 in São Paulo. The movement lobbies for more transparency with regard to police violence and investigations. She shared with the mothers that they must act: “react, because [you] mothers have a force that you don’t even know about.” She led the group in an indigenous song to pay homage to another resistance movement that continued in the face of opposition.

To follow, Reverend Geraldo, a religious leader in Manguinhos favela, led a prayer circle and song. Throughout the event, a number of workshops were set up to share skills, such as a group of youth representing an urban agriculture project, and a booth set up to do hair. The event space also allowed for intergenerational involvement—children played in the open space and could attend the program as they chose.

Carlos Gonçalves gave a talk about the effects of mega-events on the current tensions in Rio de Janeiro, explaining how decades of policy have led to the current situation. And according to Gonçalves, the system must be changed at its core to begin to address the needs of communities: “reform will not be sufficient to give legitimacy to a solution.”

Marina Ribeiro followed Carlos’ talk, discussing the importance of other women’s issues, including maternal health, and how institutional racism can intersect with health. She shared an anecdote about a young woman who died in childbirth as a result of malpractice, an example of the grave cost of institutional racism. She explains that it’s important to acknowledge how racism is perpetuated–“it is a racist society, not from the bias of racism of whom suffers, but from the bias of who sustains racism.”

The program concluded with various musical performances and with the group releasing balloons. As a whole, the National Gathering showed the depth of power of these mothers in local, national, and international movements. The network of mothers will share resources and tactics, supporting and encouraging each other, and serving as voices for their children, until their political and social goals are met.