When Rafaela Matos saw police helicopters over her favela and heard gunshots, she fell to her knees and asked God to protect her son, João Pedro. Then she called the boy to make sure he was OK.
“Be calm,” João Pedro wrote back, explaining that he was at his aunt’s house and everything was fine, Rafaela told us. Minutes after he sent the message, police burst in and shot the 14-year-old in the stomach with a high-caliber rifle at close range.
João Pedro Matos Pinto was one of more than 600 people killed by police in the state of Rio de Janeiro in the first months of this year. That’s almost double the number of people killed by police over the same period in the entire U.S., which has 20 times Rio’s population. Like João Pedro, most of those killed in Rio were black or biracial and lived in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, or favelas.
As the Black Lives Matter movement brings hundreds of thousands to the streets around the world, demonstrators outraged by João Pedro’s death one month ago have been organizing the largest anti-police brutality demonstrations in years on the streets of Rio.
Still, the protests are nowhere near the size and public impact of other countries. To protesters, their struggle to gain momentum in the country where more than half the population is black or biracial, with a police violence problem that far overshadows other nations, is evidence of the depth of racism and complacence.
“They kill teenager after teenager in their homes every day. We’re here because we need to be,” 19-year-old civil engineering student João Gabriel Moreira said at a June 10 protest in Duque de Caxias, a poor city in the Rio metropolitan area. He said he had never protested anything before this year.
“Kill a young black man in a favela, it’s seen as normal — he must be a drug dealer,” Moreira said. “Racism has always been veiled in Brazil. That’s why so few of us are here. If Brazil had racial consciousness, this street would be filled.”
Rio de Janeiro police initially said they were pursuing a criminal in a joint operation by civil, military and federal police officers when they shot João Pedro on May 18. There was no sign of illegal activity at the house in the Salgueiro complex of favelas, according to Eduardo Benones, a federal prosecutor investigating the operation.
João Pedro’s father, Neilton Pinto, was serving up fish at a bayside kiosk when he heard the choppers. By the time he reached the scene, police had already taken the teen’s body away, he said, sitting beside Rafaela for an interview just before the one-month anniversary of the incident.
Police never took João Pedro to a hospital and his family began a frantic search. Rafaela, 36, received a glimmer of hope when she saw on her phone that her son’s WhatsApp was active.
“Hi … ,” she wrote. “Hi … Hi … Hi … Talk to me …”
No response came from whomever was using João Pedro’s phone. But a campaign swept across social media and his body was tracked down the next day, inside a police forensic institute.
“Good people live in the favela, people with families, who plan on growing in this life,” Neilton, 40, said. “I’m sure if this were in wealthy areas, police wouldn’t act this way, breaking down the house of someone good.”
Benones’ investigation seeks to hold the Brazilian state responsible for João Pedro’s death, alleging it occurred in the context of institutional racism. All depositions and eyewitness accounts Benones has reviewed indicate João Pedro and others present posed no threat to officers on the scene, he said.
“Why didn’t police directors or whoever see that we’re in a pandemic, so obviously a place that’s already densely populated would be even more densely populated with kids? That’s predictable,” Benones said. “You can’t say it’s racism of that police officer, but a practice of police forces not taking care when dealing with the black population. And if something happens, it’s seen as collateral damage.”
Rio police killed a record 1,814 people in 2019, according to official data — triple the number five years earlier. The 2020 death toll is on track for a repeat.
Both President Jair Bolsonaro and Rio state Gov. Wilson Witzel won election in 2018 with campaigns that emphasized law and order, and both have said police should be able to kill criminals with almost no legal constraints.
At a June 11 protest in Niteroi, another city in Rio’s metro area, Bruna Mozer told how her son Marcos gave up on school and fell in with drug traffickers in his favela. Even though he surrendered when police found him with a walkie-talkie in 2018, officers executed him, she said. Marcos would have been 18 this year.
“Every day more mothers, victims of state violence, join our groups,” said Mozer.
Rio’s civil police said in an e-mailed statement that it is investigating the circumstances surrounding João Pedro’s death and that three officers have been suspended. Rio’s military police didn’t respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
Brazil’s Supreme Court on June 5 banned police operations in favelas until the coronavirus pandemic ends, in response to outrage over João Pedro’s death.
His life had been divided between home, school, church and the mall, his father said. He got good grades and wanted to study law. He told his dad he would make him proud.
When Neilton lost his job, João Pedro entered public school, only to find it lacking teachers and classes. Rafaela got him into the private school where she teaches.
His parents said they never talked to João Pedro about racism. Nor did they ever participate in protests, but they joined one on June 7. Rafaela said hearing João Pedro’s name become a rallying cry has lightened their emotional load a bit.
“I never participated in events against racism or policing, never got involved with those things. Today we’re living something we didn’t expect, something that arrives and knocks on the door,″ Rafaela said. “With this repercussion, we saw João Pedro wasn’t the first, and he also wasn’t the last.”