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Mob injustice

Database shows the tragic pattern of lynching in Brazil

In July 1998, while the Brazilian national team was playing for the World Cup in Paris, and 160 million Brazilian were waving the flag bearing the legend “order and progress” here, the scoreboard of violence in São Paulo remained unchanged. During the period of the marathon, the Downtown police precincts did not record a single serious crime. Similarly, there was no lynching anywhere in the country (normally there is one every 2.5 days). The explanation for the phenomenon may be quite simple: people had a rare feeling of security.

“This is symptomatic. At such a point in time, community ties become stronger, and it is precisely their absence that leads to lynching. When community ties weaken, it produces fear and insecurity”, explains José de Souza Martins, professor of the Sociology Department of the Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences School of the University of São Paulo  (USP).

Martins has just finished a survey sponsored by FAPESP to create a database of  1,999 cases of lynching throughout the country. The study, based on newspaper reports, focuses on a period of 54 years; from January 1, 1945 to December 31m 1998 (FAPESP only financed the period from 1995 to 1998). The researcher, however, did not confine himself to producing a file. The study includes analyzing three regions that have been the setting for lynching in this country; the backcountry of Bahia, the west of Santa Catarina and Ribeirão Preto (SP). “When we do a case study on a body of data like this, it lays the foundation for the research”, states the professor, who intends to publish a book on the subject next year.

The researcher sought to understand better the universe of lynching. In the backcountry of Bahia, for example, Martins investigated two cases of aggression motivated by symbolic murder: one of a teacher in a rural community by a student and one of a priest belonging to a local family.The two lynchings indicate the main reasons for this type of crime. Among the crimes that cause the most indignation are the rape or murder of young, single, virgin women, pregnant women, and children. A person is rarely lynched when his (or her) victim is a male.

At the same time, the characteristics making someone most vulnerable to lynching are to be male, young and between 15 and 30 years of age. “Very few women are lynched and those lynchings that have occurred were because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time”, says the professor. In his opinion, there have been many cases of women committing crimes similar those committed by men and they have not been subjected to any kind of aggression. This happens because lynchings are not directed against the people as such. They are related to the stereotype of the victim.

One of the most striking cases reported in the survey shows well the size of the problem. Two rural day laborers working in a cane plantation in Ribeirão Preto were victims of an attempted lynching because they were the chief suspects of the death of a 4-year-old girl. Later, however, an autopsy showed that the girl had not been raped and murdered as the local people thought. Her death had been caused by dehydration after being lost for five days in the plantation.

The case took on an even more sensational tone two years later, when a lad was arrested accused of the rape and murder of a 4-year-old girl. During the interrogation, he confessed spontaneously to being guilty of the death of the little girl in Ribeirão Preto. Even with these revelations, a movement persisted to canonize the child and those that took part in the lynching showed no feeling of guilt for the aggression against innocent parties. “There was no repentance because one of the features of lynching is the absence of guilt. The lyncher does not act in his own name, but rather in the name of society. He never believes that his own act killed the victim. You cannot work on the assumption that according to the law it is considered a crime”, analyzes the researcher.

In the professor’s opinion, lynching is a self-defense reaction that only operates when in a mob. “There is no number to define what is a mob. It is a question of behavior. It exists when nobody is responsible individually and aware of it”. In the study carried out in Santa Catarina, however, Martins investigated two cases of lynchings where the participants went to trial, were found guilty, and imprisoned. These examples are unusual, since the Brazilian Penal Code does not recognize lynching specifically as a crime. There is, however, a small insinuation in the so-called collective crime and there is also an mitigating factor.

”There have been cases of people who, knowing this, have taken part in lynchings. They were aware that in cases where more than seven people participate, it would not be classified as a crime. At present, a citizen, who would otherwise rein himself in, goes ahead and lynches”, says Martins

This question has been hotly debated and it gained strength with the lynching of Danatto Carreta, governor of the Regina Celli prison, in Roma, in 1945. This was the first such incident to be completely filmed (by no lesser a person than Lucchino Visconti, who was starting out on his career as a film director). Carreta was to have been a witness at a trial that did not take place and, when he was leaving the court, a woman pointed to him saying, “That one is the governor of the prison where my husband is a prisoner”. This phrase was considered enough of a sign for a lynching. “This is a classic case. Carreta was innocent and, because of the film, they were able to identify the aggressors, but it was complicated because it was a collective crime. It is difficult to identify an instigator. There is an impulse motivated by anger and hate, which leads to taking part with no clear appreciation of what is happening”, says Martins.

It is more difficult to define a profile of lynchers, in the researcher’s opinion, than the profile of the victims of lynching. In general, they are men and adult, but the presence of women, children, and adolescents has been known. “Community lynchings involve everybody, as does the crime committed by the victim of the lynching”, analyzes the professor.

The nature of lynching suggests that it is, in reality, a sacrificial rite and works as a sort of punishment. “If there were no reason for carrying out a sacrificial rite, the criminal would be handed over the courts. There is a sacrificial rite in the way the victim is killed. Always slowly”, he says.

The rite of lynching varies because the motivations, but the researcher defined a Brazilian pattern. A slow stoning of the victim and, in general, concluded by burning the person alive. If the person lynched has committed a sexual crime, he is castrated or disfigured on his face. This is because there is an important sacred component that suggests that disfigurement of the face prevents resurrection”, notes Martins.

The survey discloses that a lyncher can be of any social class except the elite. In the metropolitan areas of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador, the poorest segments of the community are usually responsible for lynchings. This is usually the result of the instability in recently populated neighborhoods, with migrants whose structural references from the sociological standpoint have not yet been established in the city. In towns in the interior, however, most lynchers are middle class.

In contrast, the victims of lynching include members of the elite (more than 10%). The explanation lies in violating a stereotype of society. “There was a case in the interior of Paraná state where a doctor was lynched because his nurse brought a labor case against him, and, out of vengeance, he ordered her killed. People could not accept this. The doctor was caught in jail together with the policeman paid to kill her and both were killed”, tells Martins.

In Santa Catarina, there is another report of an attempted lynching against a judge of the Higher Labor Court, because he was using an official car while on holiday with his family. A mob destroyed the car and the judge had to flee with his family. “Lynching represents a negative definition of what is properly social, but it represents an expression of social conscience, of what rights and duties are”, he says.

This question can be an explanation of the rise in the number of lynchings at the end of the military dictatorship, because the period is marked by a certain awareness of disorder. “People question things: who is ordering this? What is his authority? This is quite clear”, says Martins. In his opinion, lynching is a condemnation of institutional justice and its manifestation is disbelief in the mechanisms of justice and authority. “It is direct justice, taking the law into one’s own hands”, he affirms.

Nonetheless, the degradation of the judicial system, the functions of which were perverted by the military dictatorship, might have created a representation associated more with domination than with justice in a society that should have been based on the principle of equality. “This awakens a good deal of fear, which tends to manifest collectively. Individually, reactions are different”, he says.

To confirm this analysis, Martins points out that another cycle of lynching in this country increased at the end of another dictatorship, that of Getúlio Vargas. During his austere government, nonetheless, there were few lynchings. The analysis of the ritual sacrifice and the violation of the sacred suggest there is a crisis in the hidden conscience of the lynchers, whereby, when the mechanisms of social control no longer work, the protective veil of these codes falls and people revert to attitudes of older times. “It is as if conscience were formed in layers. When the modern protective layer wears away the older one is revealed”, says Martins.

According to some experimental surveys, when the rules of a human group are broken, other codes emerge in seconds. In fact, these codes were already present in more deep lying behavioral patterns. This would explain certain medieval rites used in lynching, which by no coincidence become apparent in moments of darkness.

Popular cruelty with a American accent
The cruelty of sacrificial rites in the United States was recently the subject of the exhibition “Without Sanctuary”, which ended in July, at the New York Historical Society. The exhibition presented a series of photographs and postcards belonging to an American collector, James Allen, who, for 25 years, traveled around the United States in search of records of lynchings. The material, today, presented as a rarity, was sold as a sort of souvenir. The Allen collection was also published in book form  (Without Sanctuary, Twin Palms Publishers, 212 pages, US$ 48). “To photograph is part of the sacrificial rite. Anyone that has taken part in it wanted the photos and postcards as souvenirs, as well as the fingers and ears of the person lynched”, says professor José de Souza Martins, of the Sociology Department of USP’s Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences School.

The recording of lynchings in the United States became common for a period of about 50 years (from 1880 to 1930). The victims were generally freed blacks. “It was a way of putting the American black in the lower limits of a stratified society”, says the professor. “Historically, lynching increases within a context of worsened ethnic social conflict, resulting in people’s death”, he says.

In the preface to Without Sanctuary, the 1960s civil rights leader, John Lewis, says the book brings to the surface one of the most terrible and sickening  periods in American history. “The photographs make real the terrible and hideous crimes committed against humanity. These atrocities took place in America not very long ago. We have to be forewarned so that nothing like it can happen again”, he says.

The pretext for lynching at that time was almost always related to the sexual conduct of blacks, most of the time, accused of having raped a white girl. Some time later, thanks to the action of the feminist movement, it was seen that the argument was fallacious. The women’s movement was made up of white Protestants and the elite of the United States. The group was created precisely to accuse their own husbands, based on the fact that most cases of the rape of white women were committed by whites themselves. “It was a way of saving one’s honor and blaming blacks”, says Martins.

According to the professor, there is a renewal of lynching in the United States, particularly in the north of the country. “Last year a black was lynched by a group of blacks, in other words, their lynching is becoming like ours, where there is a limit to transgression: you can commit a transgression, but there is a limit”, he appraises.

In Brazil and other countries, however, nothing has been produced of this sort. “Here, there has been one or other case of photographs, as in the case of Matupá (MT), filmed and shown on TV. The American photos have no connection with our lynching”, says Martins.

José de Souza Martins graduated in Social Sciences at USP’s Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences Faculty, where he also did his master’s degree and doctorate and where he is a professor. He is also professor of the Simon Bolívar Chair at Cambridge University.
Projects: Lynching in Brazil and Lynching in Brazil II – The Conditions for the Sociological Study of Lynching in Brazil
Investment: R$ 4,311.02 and R$ 11,725.73