The pandemic and the police: Which new normal?

George Floyd and João Pedro are bodies and biographies for the cry of urban revolts in New York or Rio. There can be no return to normalized inequalities

A protestor in a police van after being arrested during demonstrations in New York last week.
A protestor in a police van after being arrested during demonstrations in New York last week.Jeenah Moon / Reuters

Our telephones blare out an alert: “Curfew in New York City.” We have been living in confinement for 12 weeks, the privilege of bodies that are non-essential to care work during the pandemic, remote workers not overly exposed to unemployment, hunger, or sickness. From the windows of our homes, we watch as essential bodies come and go in the center of the global pandemic. These are bodies marked by racial inequality. They work at supermarkets, at pharmacies, or on trains. Like us, these are the bodies of people whose accents belie their origins in the world. Unlike us, in the eyes of the racism that ravages life right from birth, these people are not of an accursed color.

We are Latin women of a discreet color. White in our home countries, here we are seen as somewhat strange by those who believe “one drop of blood” suffices for the purposes of racist binarism, which determines who lives, who does care work, who gives orders, and who dies. Being a strange body is not the same as being a black body. We are heirs to a legacy of undue privileges left by Latin America’s colonial whiteness, enabling us to escape the center of the pandemic and take refuge in our homes. Police brutality is not something we discovered in the United States. We were both born under the cruelty of military dictatorships and grew up with the State police apparatus on constant patrol as part of normal life. But in our countries of origin and here in the country that has received us, the bodies at risk from the pandemic and persecuted by the police are not ours but those of black people.

The pandemic has shown that black bodies die more. In New York, they have died three times more than whites; in Rio de Janeiro, the rate is at least twice that

The minutes depicting George Floyd’s police torture are unbearable. Someone desperately crying out for the right to breathe is a metonym for the SARS of racism, says Sueli Carneiro, a black Brazilian activist. Or someone who cannot exist even in the shelter of their own home, because the police cross the home’s borders to kill black bodies. This is what happened to 14-year-old João Pedro de Matos Pinto, killed in a police operation in a poor community in Rio de Janeiro on May 18. Seventy shots were fired into his home. The shot that killed João Pedro came from a policeman’s rifle, when the boy was already lying on the floor.

People have flooded the streets of New York and Rio de Janeiro to call for an end to racism. Those who say two stories have intersected – the pandemic and police brutality – are wrong. These are two parts of one same story: the cruel normality of inequality, especially racial inequality. The pandemic has shown that black bodies die more. In New York, they have died three times more than whites; in Rio de Janeiro, while epidemiological statistics are unreliable, the rate is at least twice that. The news looks for each body’s pre-existing condition, a way of re-tabulating deaths as incidental events attributable to individual weaknesses rather than to the effects that inequality has on survival. If bodies display pre-existing weaknesses, the diagnosis is political and not medical.

The numbers of the pandemic are like the numbers of police violence; there is race, class, territory, migration – the mobile and confined bodies of a racism that knows no borders. These are not abstractions; these are poor black people from the world’s marginalized communities. The bodies and biographies of George Floyd and João Pedro are the tipping point behind the outcry of urban uprisings in New York and Rio de Janeiro. The flames that burn and prompt authoritarian leaders to respond with curfews or by sending troops into the streets cannot lead us to a “new normal.” We cannot go back to normalized inequalities. This is a time of transformation, and black bodies are the bodies traversing the pandemic to turn mass numbers into the story of a people, the history of a people. We are breaking with the past, moving towards a new order of justice. And the time is now.

Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University.

Giselle Carino is an Argentinian political scientist and IPPF/WHR director.