Elson Sanches, Kuku to his friends, was fourteen when he was killed by a police officer on the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal. On a Sunday evening in January 2009, the vocational student was riding in a stolen Opel Corsa with some friends. Following a police chase, Sanches and an officer ended up alone in a ditch. The official police report stated that Sanches appeared to be carrying a gun and that the officer shot in self-defense. Sanches died that night in a Lisbon hospital from a bullet wound to the head, his injury suggesting he was shot at point-blank range. No conclusive evidence that he was carrying a gun was ever found.
Sanches’s killing got some national news coverage in Portugal, but the story never made the front page. The teen wasn’t the first black minor to be killed by a police bullet in the country either. In 2001, a seventeen-year-old boy called Angelo Semedo was shot in the back as he ran from a car that was believed to be stolen. Dozens of other black boys and men have been killed at the hands of the Portuguese police in the last twenty years. We know some of their names and how they died. Many more have been lost in statistics ignored by the wider public until recently.
When the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter took over social media in 2013, after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman, Portugal followed the news. Some were quick to claim that such abuses of power could “never happen here.” There’s an entire school of thought based on the myth that Portugal was a mild and gentle colonizer—Lusotropicalism—which is predominant in school curriculums. Raised on this myth, many Portuguese people like to think of their society as one that is open to immigrants and their descendants. Others made connections to problems in Portugal, one of the last European countries to formally abolish slavery across its colonial empire in 1875.
In early 2019, video footage of police agents kicking and punching a black family in a poor neighborhood went viral. In the background, a local resident is heard saying: “Look how the police works, look how racism here in Portugal goes when it comes to being black.” The four-minute video spread from social media onto the pages of Portuguese newspapers, many of which now operate solely online. Their audiences include a new generation informed and politicized through the internet, who have shown a growing discontent over institutional racism. For younger Portuguese people, who have watched Americans take to the streets in support of #BlackLivesMatter, protesting police brutality feels natural.
One of those young people is Nuna Livhaber. The actress and playwright became internet famous when one of her Instagram videos on racism in Portugal went viral in early June. Livhaber told me this wasn’t the first time she had spoken on the topic, but she feels the landscape is changing.
“You see a growing number of allies that you had never seen before. I had never before had the courage to speak of white supremacy or white privilege like that, because I felt that there was no one who would stop and read about it before attacking.” She says that while anti-racist organizations have existed in Portugal for decades, now there is a whole new demographic “ready to listen”—and much of it is white.
Livhaber has no doubt that for many of these new allies the American example served as inspiration. “I feel that this is what happened at these demonstrations,” she says commenting on the Black Lives Matter protests that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of Portugal on June 6.
Images of Lisbon’s roads packed with protesters in face masks, chanting “no justice, no peace,” were a powerful testament to the change that is unfolding around the world. And while there are a variety of groups with different priorities, there are some immediate demands most anti-racist groups agree on. One is changes to school curriculums, where Portuguese history is often still taught through a Lusotropicalist lens. The other is the full implementation of the law of jus soli, the right of anyone born on Portuguese soil to be given Portuguese nationality.
The protesters have found some support for their demands in the national parliament, which has become more diverse in recent years. Portugal is currently ruled by its first non-white prime minister, António Costa, who was elected in 2015. And in October 2019, Joacine Katar Moreira, Romualda Fernandes, and Beatriz Gomes Dias were elected to parliament, becoming the first black women lawmakers to take office.
Dias, a long-time civil rights campaigner, ran as a candidate for the far-left party Bloco de Esquerda. I talked with her back in October, a week before she was elected. She told me that while the polls gave her a good chance, the conversation over institutional racism was far from over. “The discussion becomes a bit more difficult because racism is denied,” she said. Instead, “there is a whole ideology that is based on the myths of Portuguese colonialism, the idea of soft colonization, the exceptionality of Portuguese colonialism. And now there is also a new dimension added to this fiction: that we are very welcoming of foreigners and migrants.”
For Dias, now one of three black women sitting in parliament, the solution has to come through state intervention. “The first step is the recognition by the Portuguese government that we live in a context in which there are manifestations of institutional racism, and that public policies are necessary for their correction.” In June, she joined the protests, holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.”
The Portuguese anti-racist movement has found new energy at the same time that the far right appears to be making some small gains. On the same day that Dias won her election, André Ventura, the leader of the far-right party Chega (Enough), was elected to parliament. This is the first time since the 1974 revolution that deposed Portugal’s fascist regime that a far-right politician has won a parliamentary seat. On June 27, Ventura led an alt-right protest in Lisbon, under the slogan “Portugal is not racist.” After BLM Portugal’s success earlier in the month, this was Ventura’s attempt at a show of force. About a thousand of his supporters showed up. Pictures of Ventura nonchalantly doing a Nazi salute were featured on the front pages of most newspapers. Unlike police violence, fascism has long been taken seriously by the Portuguese establishment.
The task facing the new generation of anti-racist campaigners feels urgent and enormous. They must continue to challenge institutional racism and take steps to normalize diversity in the country’s cultural and political arenas. They must also expand the goals of the movement to go beyond tokenistic solutions. And then there’s the duty to fight the rise of the far right.
Livhaber is focused on communicating about varied black experiences, confronting prejudice, and challenging the limits of social imagination. She says she’ll continue making videos, adding: “If the impact is [people saying] ‘I have to educate myself more, I have to listen more, I have to rethink,’ that’s already fantastic. Because it means I will no longer have people on the street who will be silent . . . more people will say, ‘Sorry, but this won’t do.'”
In October, Dias suggested that today’s anti-racist campaigners were “all heirs to generations and generations of people who occupied public spaces, who made demands.” But these heirs of past struggles have advantages their ancestors could only dream of: a faster way of communicating and a wider audience, more open to change than ever before. And at the heart of their courage lies a movement and a slogan that was born in the United States but has been claimed by black people around the world: Black Lives Matter.
Joana Ramiro is a journalist and broadcaster splitting her time between London, UK and Lisbon, Portugal. She writes about politics and social affairs for several publications, including the New Statesman, Jacobin, and Open Democracy.