International outrage has been sparked after a Black man died from smoke inhalation as Brazilian police trapped him in a tear gas-filled SUV. While law enforcement says he was “actively resisting” arrest, other reports officers were using cruel and excessive force. The public is calling foul and lining the streets in São Paulo in protest.
A video, released on social media, shows several cops from the Brazilian Federal Highway Police (FHP) forcibly holding the hatchback of the truck down on Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, a man of African descent diagnosed with schizophrenia, while thick smoke from a tear gas canister they released seeped through the cracks.
Observers described the encounter as officers creating an improvised gas chamber.
Reports stated the incident happened on Wednesday, May 25, in Umbauba, a town in the northeastern state of Sergipe.
The man is approached by the FHP for riding a motorcycle without a helmet, WSWS.org reports. A recording shows the armed officers, carrying assault rifles, aggressively interrogating Santos — and at one point cursing at him. His nephew, Wallyson de Jesus, who witnessed the altercation, said the police took his uncle’s medicine for his schizophrenia out of his pocket.
“They threw some kind of gas inside the trunk and went to the police station,” de Jesus said. “But my uncle was unconscious. They took him to the hospital, but it was already too late.”
The video captures three officers, Kleber Nascimento Freitas, Paulo Rodolpho Lima Nascimento, and William de Barros Noia, violently engaging the man, for what witnesses say lasted for about 30 minutes. And then after getting him into the patrol vehicle, the officers decided to toss a tear gas cannister inside of its trunk, the witnesses say.
Before his death, Santos, 38, can be heard screaming in the video, as his legs seem to flail desperately through the white clouds of smoke. As he calls out in agony, a crowd can be seen gathering.
At no point did the officers seem fazed by the onlookers and provided no relief for the man before he expired.
Later the officers reported Santos was stricken with a “sudden illness” on the way to the police station. The police diverted from the precinct and took him to the municipal hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A medical examiner, George Fernandes, a spokesperson for Sergipe state’s forensic institute, declared he died of “mechanical asphyxia.”
The institute’s report, according to Reuters news agency states, “This obstruction can occur through several factors, and at this first moment it was not possible to establish the immediate cause of the asphyxia, nor how it occurred.”
The forensic institute is required to submit its final, more in-depth report to the country’s federal police within 10 days of the death.
The FHP released a statement about Santos’ killing calling it a “fatality.”
According to the Brazilian publication, Poder 360, the department said the death was “unrelated to the legitimate police action.”
The officers admitted in their report they ordered him to “disembark” and “lift his shirt,” after stopping him for driving his motorbike without his helmet.
An English translation of the police’s account of the event reads, “Continuously, it was determined that the individual put his hands on his head and opened his legs, so as to make possible the personal search, but this order was likewise disobeyed.”
It continued, “At all times passed his hands along the waistline and through his pockets.” The cops further claimed because of the “agitation of the approached,” “restraint” of his personage was necessary. Further claiming Santos had “resistance” to his arrest and that the victim “began to struggle and violently oppose the police, even getting into fights with them.”
The officers claimed they had to use “immobilization techniques,” in addition to pepper spray and tear gas, the only techniques “available.”
Santos is said to have calmed down at a certain point, and was then taken to the police station, but “began to feel sick” and was “promptly rescued.”
“The team quickly proceeded to the local hospital, where the necessary medical procedures were adopted,” the officers wrote. FHP attributed Santos’ death to a “sudden illness.”
Once the video and images were released on social media, viewers reacted by blasting the police force, particularly when his mental illness was made public. By the next day, protests started emerging as dozens of people took to the roads of the town to block highways and burn tires.
According to Democracy Now, one protester said, “Genivaldo was tortured for a crime he did not commit, a Black man with mental health issues. The family begged for his life, but they were not heard.”
Some Brazilians likened Santos’ death to that of George Floyd, an African-American murdered also in a police-involved killing on the same day two years prior.
Charles Preston tweeted, “I went to a protest in Rio for Genivaldo de Jesus Santos. He was killed Wednesday by police trapping him inside the trunk of his car and throwing tear gas inside. George Floyd was killed on the same day two years ago. I’ll post some pictures.”
A member of the Coalition for Black Rights civil rights organization tweeted his disgust, “These two pieces of vermin know they are being filmed and yet they still applied a death sentence. There is no more decency or embarrassment. They tortured and executed the guy.”
Others said it is another example of police brutality in that South American nation, also pointing to the more than 20 people killed by officers during a raid on a favela in Rio de Janeiro a few days prior.
The Brazilian Public Security Forum, an independent group, said in a statement, Santos’ death “shocked Brazilian society due to the level of its brutality, exposing the institution’s lack of preparedness to guarantee that its agents obey basic procedures.”
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro had remarks about the death, referencing yet another altercation that transpired two weeks ago where a man shot two highway officers. The country’s top executive said he would be reaching out to law enforcement to get more clarity on the incident.