On Sunday night the neighbourhood of Jardim América, Belo Horizonte found its horizon bounded by that orange cloud characteristic of a major fire — a two-storey building was in the process of burning to the ground.
That building, constructed by street people and housing a public library of 1,000 titles mostly made up from books locals found in the trash, was rendered down to piles of ash — and locals think it was a fascist attack. It would not be the first time it had been targeted. Such attacks weren’t rare and the fatal blow was struck shortly after a local judge ruled that the Casa da Árvore (Tree House), run by local group the Popular Brigades, should be evicted.
Earlier in the month, there was a scuffle between punks and skinheads in Largo da Ordem, at the centre of Curitiba, south Brazil. Three people were stabbed, the latest injuries in a series of conflicts that have been growing along with the country’s fascist movement in recent years.
Universities have been seeing white power slogans appear on their walls, and fascist online forums have been awash with people praising the so-called “cleanness” of Curitiba where 78.9% of the population is white, 16.8% pardo (multiracial), 2.9% black, 1.4% asian and just, 0.2% Amerindian.
Such incidents are the tip of the iceberg in a country which, since the left-leaning Workers Party was ousted in a rightist parliamentary coup led by Michel Temer, has seen hard-right groups encouraged and gaining traction across the board.
Following the fire at the Tree House, Popular Brigades activist Isabella Gonçalves said: “We have seen the growth of fascism all over Brazil, not only as a manifestation of opinion, but as a direct action. anything different is treated with hatred, and it is important to remember that the fire occurs in the same week as Mayor Kalil [PHS] announced a plan for the removal of homeless people.
“When you have a public leader promoting a policy that does not understand that the ‘hole is below’ … the far right feels very supported and correct when committing violence against the street population, “
In Brazil hate speech is typically more veiled than in other countries — overtly racist protests and publicly bearing Nazi symbols are both crimes and there is little statistical data on the behaviour of racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic (or intolerant of any religion) or anti-migration groups. In some regions public records can’t even be electronically searched to find related lawbreaking.
But even with such activities pushed underground, concerns have been growing. In São Paulo, where it is mandatory to include in published statistics if there was a discriminatory act, in 2015-16 there were 7,587 hate crimes – almost one per hour. Of these, those with a racist motivation led (42.4%), followed by homophobic (15.5%), intolerance of origin (12.7%) and religious (6.3%). That’s likely a lowball due to underreporting.
Perhaps the most complete research on hate groups in the country was published in 2013 by anthropologist Adriana Dias, who has monitored neo-Nazi groups and has been repeatedly threatened. According to her study, there are 150,000 active hardline racists in the country today. Of this total she estimates that 10% have leadership positions and around 1,500 have already committed serious crimes and are wanted or investigated by the police. South Brazil makes up about 105,000 of this, with the worst affected state being Santa Catarina (around 45,000)
Hate speech has been growing systematically on the Brazilian Internet, according to SaferNet, an organisation that monitors this movement and provides psychological support to victims. In 2016, the NGO received 42,000 denunciations made by Brazilians of pages with neo-Nazi, homophobic, xenophobic, religious intolerant or racist content. In total, there were more than 15,000 pages of hate. Racism leads the way in terms of virtual offences. The number of complaints is down on 2015, but the fear is that this may reflect increasing mainstream acceptance of racist ideas.