The Case of Quilombo: Black Students Fight to Stay in Brazilian Universities
By Kristian Davis Bailey
In December 2016, I visited the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in Rio de Janeiro. Students had been occupying UFF for 45 days, with some sleeping inside barricaded academic buildings 24/7 to shut the university down.
The UFF Occupation was one of 1,000 national occupations protesting Michel Temer’s right-wing presidential coup and his constitutional amendment to freeze funding for public services for 20 years, including education and healthcare.
Within the UFF Occupation was Quilombo, a Black occupation of students and community members fighting for a Black Studies program, a Black community center, and against racism on campus.
There are no Black Studies programs in Brazil, even though a majority of Brazilians are Black. Brazil received the most Africans during the slave trade and maintains the largest population of Afro-descendant people outside of Africa. During slavery, Black and indigenous people formed ‘Quilombos’ or hidden societies of runaway slaves. People still live on the sites of the original Quilombos, many of which lack basic infrastructure from the state.
Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. Since then, it’s Black population has gone through waves of social movements, most recently a Black Consciousness Movement that began in the 1970s and its own version of #BlackLivesMatter, which has grown in the last few years. Black Brazilians face high levels of poverty, violence and murder by police, barriers to access in education, and discrimination in employment.
The following is conversation I held with twenty members of Quilombo, most of whom were first generation students at UFF.
Due to the collective nature of Quilombo, this interview is presented without individual attributions. Parts of the conversation were in English and others were translated from Portuguese.
Publishing this conversation is meant to call more Black faculty and students in the US to engage with the struggles of Black students and people in Brazil.
BYP: Can you tell me what the basic demands of Quilombo are?
So first, when the occupations started at all the universities, we felt that we needed a place for Black students to feel safe in Brazil. We have a lot of trouble organizing ourselves in the university because we can’t find a room to hold meetings. There is no place for us to meet. We have to meet in open spaces and always have problems with the departments of the university.
In the Brazilian universities we have student unions for different departments – like engineering or social sciences. And the student unions have rooms or space to use. But Black students don’t have anything.
This building used to be full of trash (above). It was not used for three years. It was abandoned and no one was using it. So we cleaned out the space. We tried to talk to the university to try to find a way to legalize this space. The project is to have a Black space, not just for the moment.
This space should be a central place to lead organizing for all the Black students in the university.
BYP: What are some of your other demands?
Having a Black studies program is another demand.
We also have a lot of affirmative action fraud, so now we have a commission with the university – with the students, teachers and with the president of the university – to talk about fraud.
This is one of the demands of the occupation too. To struggle against the fraud in affirmative action for Black people.
The most important thing is the fight against racism within the academy. The racist system operates in every front – the racism challenges us as people when we are trying to solve our problems. We are trying to talk about this in our collectives.
BYP: How did Quilombo come to be?
Quilombo is a recent place—we have been here 45 days. The university has been here for 60 years and has never had a place for Black students. There aren’t many Black people at this university.
After affirmative action started in Brazil in 2003, Black people started to enter the universities. At UFF, affirmative action began in 2012—a short time ago.
BYP: Wow—affirmative action in Brazil only began four years ago?
This was a step-by-step process. The first affirmative action law in Brazil was in 2001 in the University of Rio de Janeiro and the University of Brasilia and the Federal University of Bahia. They were the three universities that first adopted affirmative action. All of the federal universities adopted affirmative action in 2012.
It was a process with a lot of conservative resistance. The political process that we are living through today in Brazil has a lot to do with this process of increasing Black people in the university. So we are facing a lot of problems. The political establishment is trying to stop this process and to take affirmative action away. This is one of the demands by the people who took power after the impeachment, which we call the coup.
BYP: What has it been like for Black students to be new on this campus?
It’s very difficult to access this university, but we try—this is very new for the people and for the university. This place has a very small Black population and no one is used to us. So we deal with daily racism on campus. This is why Quilombo is a safe place for Black people.
We only have a few Black teachers in the university—two or three percent. And the Black people who are teaching at the university don’t see themselves as Black, they try to pass themselves as mulatto or white.
There is no material, there are no readings, there is no knowledge about Black society.
When you come to the university you see the European and white society. You notice the way other people see our bodies—see us in the university and think we’re strange. They don’t see us as students. So there’s a lot of confusion, with people like security staff saying “Are you a student here? You don’t look like a student.”
BYP: Is this space solely limited to students?
To be in university—even for Black people—is a rich experience and we have to worry about the people who aren’t here. We have a lot of people in the occupation who aren’t students that are part of this occupation.
We plan to stay in university but it’s very difficult because you need money to stay here and study. We don’t have money. This is a very serious point. It’s hard for Black people to access these facilities and to escape the city to go to the university, or to find scholarships or money to buy books or live on campus, to have food to eat, etc. We are here facing basic problems.
After the coup, it’s becoming hard to find scholarships.
But even in the Dilma government [the ousted, left-leaning president], the first scholarships to be cut were the scholarships to state universities (which had higher levels of Black students). Even Dilma had already cut the scholarships for Black students.
BYP: So how exactly does the coup fit into all of this?
After the coup people began to occupy universities and secondary schools.
(Someone interjects) Your country contributed to this coup in Brazil.
The struggle against the coup by the students is not only by Black students or the general students—but also by the people who are in high school. They’re trying to close some universities and to expel us from the universities. Occupation is the way the students are trying to face the state.
BYP: What does Black student organizing look like across Brazil?
I know in the US you have the tradition to make collectives (e.g. Black student unions). We are trying to do this. And we have today a lot of Black collectives and Black gay and Black trans groups. We are organizing ourselves in collectives.
In May , we had a big meeting at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro with about 3,000 Black students from all of Brazil. It was a weekend and it was really important to gather all of these people who are organizing in collectives.
Today we have a Black student national movement. They are working like Black student unions in the US.
The queer Black movement is national also and it’s development is more or less parallel to this national movement of Black student collectives.
BYP: What is the broader experience of being Black in Brazil?
When you talk about race here it’s very difficult because we have in Brazil a false dream of being a racial democracy. The common Brazilian believes we’re in a racial democracy.
“All Lives Matter, you know?” “We are all human.”
BYP: How does your experience relate to other Black students in Latin America?
We would like to decolonize all the schools and to talk with other Black students in Latin America. We are trying to get rid of the hegemonic belief that we can only have conversations with American people or Europeans—we want to talk with other people who are around us.
I want to live as a Latin American student and to struggle against the US influence on the coup d’etat and other external imperialist politics by the US government.
We know so many things about the US and we don’t know anything about the situation in Africa or the Global South in general. This is important. The main point of the transnational relations with Black Americans is about the money they can bring for us and try to help us with the economic struggle—the real means for Black people to get free in Brazil.
We are in the initial point of the struggle. We have a lot of things to talk about. This is the moment to bring Black people together in a space to raise our political issues and questions.
Author’s Note: Facing burnout and pressure to support their families, Quilombo ended their occupation in January. The university boarded up the building in February, saying they would find another use for it. The students have since struggled to reorganize but expressed a strong interest in connecting with the Black movement in the US.
Follow the UFF Collective of Black Students for more information
Feature photo: A sign inside the Quilombo reads “Students in struggle!” (Photo by Kristian Davis Bailey)
Kristian Davis Bailey is a freelance writer and organizers based in Detroit, where he is a member of BYP100 and Black4Palestine. His work focuses on building internationalist consciousness and connections between social movements.