Op Alt: Somos Todos Iguais

From Baltimore to Brazil and back, Nia Hampton reconsiders the violence of the uprising

In Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, there's a mural of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.

The mural went up about a year to the date that Michael was killed. It's in between a Subway restaurant and a gas station, and highlights the faces of these two young black men killed by the police. Michael's face is more recognizable—his slightly pointed nose and chubby cheeks give away his youthfulness. But Freddie's portrait is a bit more mysterious. Graffiti artist Bruno Wiw painted Freddie's face from the only picture circulating around the internet, the one in which Freddie's face is half cast in shadow. There, Freddie looks as if the sun is in his eyes, a natural reflex but one that because of his race and gender is perceived as aggressive. His face isn't as recognizable as Michael's, but there they both are, shrouded in a sea of red on a wall that reads "Somos Todos Iguais" ("We are all equal") at the top and "#BlackLivesMatter" at the bottom.

I didn't go to Salvador to get political or raise awareness. I went to get away from politics. What was supposed to be a three-month graduation gift to myself turned into an adventure that lasted almost a year. I lived an Afro Disney-like dream where I spent my nights in the historic district drinking caipirinhas and dancing samba, like the native my brown skin misled others to believe I was. My English-speaking tongue got me employed as a private language tutor. I spent my days ascending security-laden high-rise condos. The black security guards knew my face and name because I was often the only black person entering the property who wasn't a maid, janitor, or doorman. They came to know me as the "Americana" who taught English. All of my students were privileged, white, and rich. And all of their maids had deep brown complexions.

At the same time, I felt safe walking around the favela because I'm black, and was, for the most part, left alone. It was a carefree-black-girl existence. That is, until the CVS burned. Suddenly "Baltimore" wasn't as easily confused with "Boston" as it had been. When I told people where I was from, they looked at me with pity and fear. On TV, they saw "rioters" burning down a convenience store and a community full of savage criminals behaving senselessly. "Why destroy your own neighborhood?" many wondered, unaware that many of the businesses in that area aren't owned by the community members—and unaware that it's possible to live somewhere and feel as if you don't belong.

What I saw on my Twitter timeline was nothing like what I saw on TV and both were very different from what my family, just minutes away from the riots experienced. I had never wanted to be back home in Baltimore so badly. I felt like I was watching the season finale of a sci-fi series: parts of my city up in flames; the police antagonizing high school students at the very same bus spot I used to frequent; my city under curfew and National Guard stalking the streets. It felt as if the revolution finally arrived and I was missing it.

But I was wrong. I was not missing the revolution, I was watching it begin. What happened in Baltimore that April was a natural reaction to decades of injustice. Photos of young black boys with their middle fingers up, glass shards from the shattered front window of the police car they destroyed at their feet, didn't seem scary or disgraceful to me; they were empowering. Evidence that Baltimore reached its limit.

In Brazil, from 2009 to 2013, police killed more than 11,000 civilians. That's an average of six killings a day. Nearly 70 percent of the victims were black, and more than half of the victims were ages 15-29. As a result, many of my black Brazilian friends watched Baltimore fight back with admiration. I watched with a mix of pride and fear. I knew it was necessary but I was also very afraid of the repercussions.

But once the smoke cleared and the community cleaned up, it seemed as if throwing rocks at the police and burning down the CVS was the right thing to do. Suddenly the mayor found money for the YouthWorks program, and there are plans to re-open rec centers that have been shut for years. And all of a sudden, there are community gardens in Sandtown? Why does it take an attack on teenagers, already-dilapidated properties on fire, a National Guard presence, and a week of curfews (only enforced in black neighborhoods, it seemed) for the others to a take city less than an hour away from the nation's capital seriously? Since middle school, I've marched to stop budget cuts, but if someone had told me that burning down a convenience store would have guaranteed me a summer job as a teenager, it would have saved me so much time.

Monday, Aug. 24 marked the third annual International March Against the Genocide of Black People. Thousands of people across Brazil took to the streets to speak out against the ongoing genocide. It's my hope that a march is also held in Baltimore City next year; the unjust killing of black people is a global issue. That march, Reaja ou Será Morte ("React or Die") began in Brazil for the same reasons #BlackLivesMatter began here in the states. Here, inequality remains, even after the election of Barack Obama, twice. What will it take for black lives to be seen as equals? Apparently, violence; it seems as if that's all that the Americas understand.

Nia Hampton is working on a book about her experiences in Brazil. Keep up with her at glowingpain.com.

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