To celebrate Black Consciousness Day, symbolized in Brazil as the memory and death of the quilombola leader Zumbi dos Palmares, the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) is pleased to share an interview with Jurema Werneck, one of the main references of the black movement in the country. In addition to being the Director of Amnesty International in Brazil, Jurema is the founder of the NGO Criola. She has a Doctorate in Communication and Culture, as well as a Master’s degree in Production Engineering. Her professional career is proof that the intersectional perspective is essential to build plural knowledge, a diverse vision of the world and the society that constitutes it.
If November 20th makes us relive a memory of the struggle for racial consciousness and black freedom, Jurema Werneck is the personification of the Ialodês, which as she describes in a publication , “Ialodê also refers to the representation of women, to the types of emblematic women, female political leaders of fundamental urban action (…) the one who speaks for all and participates in instances of power (…) who position themselves as political agents of change, and main holders of the conquered wealth.” We welcome the opportunity to present a summary of a rich conversation with Ialodê Jurema Werneck, who shared with us her perceptions of the struggle for human rights, police violence, femicide, black women, as well as her participation in the Covid CPI, whose final report was delivered to the Brazilian Senate in October.
Race and Equality – Your participation in the Covid CPI reveals the consequences of denial and that, in the first year alone, 120 thousand lives could have been saved if we had followed world protocols and an effective public health policy. Could you tell us about the experience of participating in the Covid CPI process? Do you believe there will be consequences for the current government?
Jurema Werneck – The Covid CPI inquiry makes visible that everything done during the pandemic was done erroneously, it also demonstrates the type of people running the government. People who have no commitment to ethics, in fact their commitment is to take ownership of public affairs and profit from the country. I see that this ‘novela’ that developed into the Covid CPI, in a way, reminds us that there is a layer of interests, and that people are feeling the impact of all of this. And with that, the government’s approval plummets, because it’s a fact, there’s no government, it’s misgovernment.
Participating in the CPI was a collective effort. I was the spokesperson for several organizations including Amnesty International. We agreed that I would be the spokesperson. My work was to prepare and present the research that was commissioned even before the CPI, which was carried out by researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the University of São Paulo (USP). It was a survey presented to the Federal Government, and we believed the CPI was our opportunity. This also helped legitimize a perception that everything could have been different. Moreover, our work looks to demonstrate that even without a vaccine  lives could have been saved if basic public health was addressed. Other than that, personally, it was a practice of everyday activism, I went there to do what I wanted to do, so I found it to be a privilege.
And now, with more than 600,000 lives lost and a scenario where there is finally a vaccine to combat the pandemic, the government deniers still remain in power. How do we confront the pandemic in the coming years?
Jurema Werneck – We call him a negationist, but he is not a negationist. He has an alliance with strategies of death and destruction. There is a political project, it is an actively defined trajectory. It is not only a refusal, but also participating in an extremely dangerous movement that is opposite to life.
Brazil remains under permanent torture. He is a torturer who inflicts pain, either from the poor management of the pandemic or from any other chapter of his “administration.” Where do we go from here? We have to remember that it was not only him, but the pandemic also has a responsibility at the state and municipal level. Amnesty launched a campaign last year aimed at governors and mayors, including municipalities on behalf of indigenous and quilombola rights. The operation of the system demonstrates a joint responsibility, it’s not only the responsibility of legislation. So, in other words, the range of people involved in the 600,000 deaths is not a simple task.
I see that this also has a repercussion in society and in a way in all of us. 600,000 deaths represents a great deal of tragedy and behind these deaths there is a huge contingent of mourners, including orphans, the sequels of COVID-19. The legacy it has is outside of ethics, politics and public health, with the further deepening of social inequalities. It was black women who paid the highest price and who died the most from COVID-19 in the beginning. In other words, the number of challenges and sequels that we have to face is very large.
Race and Equality – Recently, Michelle Bachelet, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced in her report on police violence and systemic racism the dimensions police brutality operates in the lives of black people, she cited the cases of Luana Barbosa and João Pedro in Brazil. From an intersectional perspective, black LGBTI+ people, especially transgender people in prison, are among the victims of acts of racism and LGBTIphobia. How can we resist racism and LGBTIphobia in a society that considers black bodies killable and disposable?
Jurema Werneck – The first way for us to act on this theme is to recognize and highlight the urgency, because they are cases of life and death. They are killing people. People are dying physically and existentially. Today the situation is so bad that I am celebrating the small victories of discursive achievements. Since Amnesty International began working on police lethality and the death of young black people, we have been engaging with the UN High Commissioner on the issue. It’s good to see Michelle Bachelet talk about the issue at hand, because it was her duty, but it’s still a small victory. Unfortunately, this won’t save Luana’s life because she’s already dead, the situation is extremely severe with death as our indicator— it’s murder. Our condition is grave and dire, and the point of departure is already the bloodiest tip of the iceberg.
The black movement has been working on this for a long time. In 1978, the murder of a young black man inspired a group of representatives of federations of various organizations to congregate at the stairs of the Municipal Theater in São Paulo, creating the Unified Movement against Police Violence, which later came to be known as the Unified Black Movement (MNU). However, we went from 1978 until very recently discussing amongst ourselves. It had no United Nations, no white organization and no human rights organizations. There was no national law addressing race, it was only in the United States. Sueli Carneiro, Lélia Gonzalez and Amauri Mendes, among others were at that time trying to hegemonize the struggle. What I’m saying is that we have small victories, but they’re not enough. What we want is to save lives right now, because people are dying. And that’s not enough, and that’s our anguish. The political transformation process is time-consuming, it does not save all the lives it needs to.
We can’t account for how much of Bachelet’s speech influences saving lives, but it ends up in some way influencing, not just because it pulls the brakes on certain hands, or fingers on the trigger, it is the United Nations after all. On the other hand, there are others who ignore figures like Bachelet, because the president said something else, and they will listen to the president. If we have the president on one side and Bachelet on the other, we are trying to create strategy. We are trying to tie the game to give us space to keep fighting. As an activist, I don’t see a way out that isn’t a struggle. We know where we want to go, and how to save people’s lives. How long will it take? We know it’s not a linear trajectory. What tools are needed? All. Change can only be made with struggle.
Femicide and Black Women
Race and Equality – The ‘Atlas of Violence 2021’ confirmed the unfortunate statistic that black women are the most targeted victims of violence in Brazil: 66% of women murdered, showing that in 11 years, the homicide of this population increased by 2%, while the murder of non-black women dropped 27% in the same period (3). Could you comment on this racist violence that makes black women the biggest victims of femicide.
Jurema Werneck – In racist regimes, black men and women will be the biggest victims of violence. Whatever the classification of violence, we will be the biggest victims along with the indigenous people and the gypsies. It’s inescapable and that’s why we want to end racism. We managed to influence the government and UN Women to create statistics and demonstrate what we already knew; we are the most targeted victims. The complexity of this phenomenon means remembering that racism is patriarchal and cis-heteronormative, as the NGO Criola says. In this core of intersectionality, we can identify the victims; they are black trans women and black cis women. It is worth remembering that trans women are not in this femicide statistic and, even so, we know that victimization among them is even greater than among cis women. It is important to emphasize that we are also victims of police led homicides outside of gender relations.
What I’m trying to say is, take a death stat and you’ll find the black woman there. In recent years we have been the ones who have hegemonized this discourse. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made, even more so now that everything has been dismantled. In the debate for the creation of the Maria da Penha Law. We already said that a mechanism had to be put in place to confront racism, because black women were the biggest victims. Brazil still celebrates this law to this day, but those people who built and hegemonized the Maria da Penha Law excluded and refused to put in place mechanisms to protect the lives of black women. These are the people who say we have to go to the police, but since when is the police an ally of a black woman or any black person? It is necessary to face racism and denounce it wherever you are. The Maria da Penha Law works for white women because it was built for them. We need to find another mechanism or reform this one to work.
Amidst the struggles and challenges of the Brazilian black population shared by Jurema Werneck in this interview, Race and Equality reaffirms the importance of the anti-racist perspective in confronting the violence and oppression that systematically dehumanize and erase black people. It is through the commitment to an anti-racist and feminist agenda, and confronting neoliberal policies that undermine rights, that we envision a horizon of collective responsibility and a future in which human rights are, in fact, a possible language of respect for all the ways of being and existing. Thus, we recommend to the Brazilian State:
1 – Implement reparation policies for the victims of COVID- 19 and their families, whether orphans, those bereaved, and the long-term sequelae due to the virus;
2 – Produce intersectional indicators on police brutality against black women;
3 – Implement the Inter-American Convention against Racism as a legal instrument to change and create laws to combat racism;
 Text “De Ialodês e Feministas: Reflexões sobre a ação política de mulheres negras na América Latina e no Caribe”
 At the time of the CPI research and its presentation, there was still no vaccine for COVID-19
[Note] The COVID-19 CPI, also known as Pandemic CPI, Coronavirus CPI, or simply COVID CPI, is a parliamentary commission of inquiry undergoing in Brazil, with the goal to investigate alleged omissions and irregularities in federal government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil