This is a rough draft in English of a Finnish language text published in Proletaarit.org
In 2016, a coalition comprised of several afro-descendant organisations sent a report to the UN, in which they presented concrete data on racial inequality in Portugal. The report underlined that afro-descendants were, in relative terms, three times more in less qualified professions, and for that same type of professions they received on average 103 euros less monthly. They had twice the unemployment rate. They were seven times more likely to live in poor housing conditions. The law excludes immediate access to Portuguese nationality for those who, although born on Portuguese soil, are the children of immigrants. There are many afro-descendants who, having been born in Portugal, are considered foreigners. They do not have access to all the rights and benefits of a Portuguese citizen. But the most ugly and barbaric manifestation of Portugal’s structural racism is the violence of police intervention in working-class suburbia of afro-descendant majority, particularly around large cities like Lisbon. Tens of people from these neighbourhoods, often very young, have died at the hands of the police during the last couple of decades.
The case of Cláudia Simões, a mother assaulted by the police
The most recent case that brought the issue of racism and police brutality to the fore was that of Angolan natural Cláudia Simões, who was savagely beaten by the police in Amadora because her 8-year-old daughter had forgotten the bus pass. The issue became a concern of national dimension mostly due to a video of her arrest and pictures of Cláudia’s injuries, which became viral on social media and motivated public outcry.
Cláudia Simões got on the bus with her 8-year-old daughter and her nephew at around 21:37 on Sunday, January 19. The child had forgotten the pass and, according to the regulations of public transportation in Lisbon’s metropolitan area, children up to 12-years-old do not pay fares but are required to have a pass. Cláudia assured the driver that her oldest son would be at the destination stop with the girl’s pass. Cláudia and the children went into the bus, but the driver continued shouting racist insults along the way. Insults and words were exchanged during a trip that was supposed to be quite short, just two stops. Then Cláudia, her daughter and her nephew got off the bus and at that moment the driver shouted for a police agent who was leaving a restaurant and asked him to act. The police agent approaches and wrests Cláudia’s phone. They exchanged some words and the agent orders Cláudia’s arrest. The policeman ordered Cláudia to sit on the floor, but she refused and said she would sit on the bench at the bus stop. The agent then applies Cláudia a strangulation blow used in Japanese martial arts, done from the back.
Then came what the videos circulating on social media show: Cláudia lying on her stomach, handcuffed and with the policeman sitting on top of her. Her daughter screams “don’t kill my mom” towards the police agent. As Cláudia’s defence attorney Ana Cristina Domingues noted at the time, “in the video images, her face is still normal. The harshest aggressions happened next. It was then that three patrol cars arrived with more agents who are not yet identified. They put Cláudia in the back seat of one of the cars, next to her sat the agent who had already attacked, they turned the music very loud and started to beat her brutally and cruelly.”
After the beating inside the patrol car, the police parked next to Boba’s police station, in Casal de S. Brás, Amadora. They removed Cláudia from the vehicle, and she fell lifeless on the floor on the entrance stairs of the station. They left her to bleed like that while the same agent who had arrested and beat her, kicked her while she lied on the ground. Then the volunteer firefighters from Amadora arrived at the scene, who transported the woman to the hospital. According to the established chronology of the facts, Cláudia got on the bus at 21:37 pm and left it before 22:00. She would enter the hospital at 22:48. “It means that she spent about an hour in the car around Amadora being constantly beaten. The state she was in is not that of just being punched once. She was repeatedly beaten”, stated Cláudia’s attorney to the press.
On February 1, several antiracist groups organised the demonstration “Justice to Cláudia Simões! Down with racist violence!”. Over a thousand people gathered in Lisbon to protest state racist violence in the peripheral neighbourhoods of Lisbon. The organisers emphasised how this systematic form of violence is employed to repress and terrorize subaltern social groups; to keep as second-class citizens afro-descendants, Roma people, workers, marginalised and poor people; to make it difficult for them to organize and fight against this system.
The Case of Alfragide: The “Invasion” That Never Was
Cláudia Simões’ case is merely the tip of the iceberg. It reflects a systemic tendency towards racism in the Portuguese state’s violence apparatus, namely its police and military forces. It is out of the reach of this article to delve into the intricate social roots of structural racism in Portugal, but the case of police brutality is flagrant. Cláudia’s case is not the only one that achieved public notoriety. Throughout the recent years, other similar cases became subject of public scrutiny and provided the general population with a glimpse on the brutal everyday reality that afro-descendants face in Portugal’s peripheral neighbourhoods. It lies outside the scope of this article, but much could also be said about the violence and racism Roma people face every day in Portugal, especially in the interior of the country where the community is systematically harassed and repressed by the militarised police GNR. This is a reality ignored by most people in Finland. Let’s summarise some of the cases of racism and police brutality that for one reason or another stood out and got media attention.
In February 5, 2015 Portuguese media report a woman being shot by the police in Cova da Moura, a working-class neighbourhood of afro-descendant majority in Amadora. Soon after, the police inform the public that “youngsters are trying to invade” the nearby police station of Alfragide. The “invading youngsters” were released after 48 hours of detention and on February 8 the Inspectorate General of Home Affairs (Inspeção-Geral da Administração Interna, IGAI) announced that it would begin a disciplinary inquiry upon the police intervention on the night of the alleged “invasion”. Two days later, six youngsters come forward publicly accusing the police of torture and racism during the days of their detention.
According to 24-year-old Bruno Lopes, he was talking with his cousin on Moinho Street around midday on February 5 when six policemen came to provoke them. They ended up battering Bruno right there on the spot. Local people tried to stop the beating to no avail. The policemen shot five times with rubber-bullet weapons. Jailza Sousa, a 29-year-old woman of Cape Verdian ancestry, was witnessing the events in her balcony when one of the policemen shot her twice. Jaílza was injured in the chest and buttock. Her young son witnessed everything. Also Neusa Correia, who attempted to stop the police from beating Bruno, was shot with a rubber-bullet in her nose.
Bruno was savagely beaten with a truncheon there on Moinho street, and then in the police station. According to his testimony the police mocked him by encouraging him “to join ISIS”, calling him “nigger” (port. preto) and “monkey”, telling him that they would “exterminate his race”. The policemen later in trial would justify Bruno’s arrest by accusing him of throwing a rock at police van, though by the end of the trial it appeared that the only reason for the police intervention was Bruno having smiled. According to the sentence, the police’s version of the events did not hold water, as the official record of the arrest did not even have the correct location of the events.
Flávio Almada and Celso Lopes, two of Bruno’s friends, heard of his arrest and headed towards the police station to inquire about the matter. They were approached by more than ten policemen who shot at them with rubber-bullet guns, knocked them down and kicked them repeatedly. “You are lucky that the law does not allow it, otherwise you would all be executed. (…) you should join the Islamic State”, the police taunted while kicking and punching them. Also Rui Moniz, a Cape Verdean living in Portugal for twelve years by then, was approached on the street, beaten and dragged to the station because the police thought he had filmed the previous beatings in his phone. He was also subjected to racist insults while being battered. Later that evening, the police published the statement informing the public about the alleged invasion of the station by a “gang” from Cova da Moura, for which six young men were arrested.
Flávio recalled at the time, “I can still see the expression of one of the policemen, when he said with a conviction that I cannot reproduce: ‘If I was in charge you all would be exterminated. You don’t know how much I hate you, fucking race, fucking niggers’. I had never seen hate so raw like that. I’ve never seen it and I’ve seen a lot of things. His expression was of completely blind hatred and it scared me: how is society producing such individuals?”.
As a result of IGAI’s disciplinary inquiry, only two agents would be punished with suspensions from duty of 70 and 90 days. Meanwhile, the Polícia Judiciária (PJ), a police force under the Ministry of Justice (while the public safety police PSP belongs to the Ministry of Internal Administration), carried out its own investigation. On July 10, 2017 the public prosecutor’s office indicted 18 agents from the Alfragide station for crimes of falsification of documents, slanderous defamation, aggravated injury, offense to physical integrity, false testimony, kidnapping, torture and other cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment, aggravated by racial hatred. Eight of them were convicted of assault and kidnapping; seven got suspended sentence and one a sentence of one year and six months of effective prison for having prior record of similar crimes. Despite viewing as proved fact the racial slander that interspersed the beatings and physical degradation, the court still saw the accusations of racism and torture as unfounded.
The case of the Coxis: a whole family beaten on the street
In January 20, 2019, police violence in poor neighbourhoods of afro-descendant majority came again to the limelight. The police responded to a call from Bairro da Jamaica, a poor neighbourhood in Seixal, near Setúbal, to settle down a brawl among local inhabitants during a birthday party. According to residents, instead of calming down the situation, the police invested recklessly, as it is their custom, and beat up a whole family of Angolan origin. A video of the aggression went viral in social media. The images show a group of PSP agents arriving in a van. First, the policemen approach Fernando Coxi, 63 years old, who is grabbing his son Hortêncio’s arm. One of the policemen gives Fernando two punches and a knee. They intend to arrest 31-year-old Hortêncio, accusing him of having attacked the police. His mother Julieta Joia, 52 years-old, goes in her son’s defence and is pushed by a policeman, falling to the ground immediately. The daughter Aurora, 27 years old, intervenes in the altercation and is also assaulted by the heavily armed police. His sister Gina, 24 years old, was stepped upon and called “whore” by one policeman. Their 33-year-old brother Flávio is also at the centre of the events. The whole video can be seen here:
A demonstration against police violence was called to the following day. The demonstration proceeded peacefully down Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade when the police repressed it with rubber-bullet shotguns and arrested four participants, intimidating along the way both demonstrators and passers-by. As one participant in the demonstration testified at the time, “the police began to sweep everyone in front of them and whom they had associated with the demonstration, according to chromatic criteria (skin colour), beating with truncheons. There were people at that hour who were going to pick up their children from school, leaving work, tourists leaving hotels. The police turned Avenida da Liberdade into a kind of civil war. I saw many people saying that they were afraid of being close to the police but not the protesters “.
The police organised an internal investigation in response to the outcry generated by the videos of the beating at Bairro da Jamaica and two agents were subject to disciplinary inquiry. After the preliminary investigation in October 2019, the public prosecutor’s office indicted Julieta and her three children (Hortêncio, Gina and Flávio) of resistance to authority, while only one policeman was accused of maltreatment. However, the police agent’s indictment was withdrawn, while six members of the Coxi family were formally accused before a court. Thus, not even the police agent whose aggression was caught on tape suffered any consequences from his actions. The Coxi family in their turn must face the Portuguese state’s racism at all levels: first in the form of police brutality and then of judicial persecution. The courts have however reopened the case against the policemen at the request of the Coxi family.
The incidents of Bairro da Jamaica gave way to fiery public debate over institutional racism and police violence in Portugal. Perhaps we can say that there have been recent transformations concerning the subjective manifestation of racism: new technology and social media have made the reality of Lisbon’s poor suburbs visible for a wider audience. One could argue that we had never known about Cláudia Simões’ case had she been beaten by that same policeman in the pre-smart phone and social media era. This transformation in the realm of social communication has arguably lowered the barrier for victims of racism and their advocates to make their cases known and influence public debate.
In the next part of this article I will approach the social background surrounding these particular outbursts of racist police brutality.