Brazilians mourn Marielle Franco, the activist who gave voice to the favelas

have taken to the streets throughout Brazil since the March 14 assassination of
a black city councillor who defied the country’s exclusionary structures. 

By: /
20 March, 2018
Demonstrators react next to a drawing representing Marielle Franco during a rally against her death, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
Diana Thomaz
By: Diana Thomaz

PhD candidate, Basillie School of International Affairs

“Marielle, presente!” shouted tens of thousands of protesters — mostly female — in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and many other cities throughout Brazil, on March 15.

The night before, Marielle Franco, a Rio city councillor, was returning from an event with other black women activists in a downtown neighbourhood when two drive-by attackers fired nine shots into her car, instantly killing her and her driver, Anderson Gomes.

Franco’s death, which officials suspect was a targeted political assassination, brought to the surface a deep popular discontentment with the state’s historical and ongoing violence against the most disenfranchised.

Her life (and now death) was deeply meaningful for human rights activists and especially for young women and men from the favelas, whom she bravely stood up for until the end.

Though I live and study in Canada, I happened to be in Brazil, my home country, the night Franco was killed.

I have been in São Paulo for a few months now doing fieldwork for my PhD research, and I learned about Franco’s death on that Wednesday night through a flood of WhatsApp messages from my incredulous and appalled friends from Rio, the city where I’m from.

We had all been following Franco’s career with enthusiasm, as she represented one of the few female and vibrant voices from the periphery in Rio’s politics. 

Upon hearing the news, I wanted to go to Rio immediately to be with friends, but, to my surprise, I found in São Paulo thousands of other mourners who refused to allow her death to be in vain. At 28, it was the first time I had seen the loss of a politician mean so much to so many.

As the crowd gathered on one of the city’s main streets, Paulista Avenue, I was moved to see people comforting each other, bringing flowers and candles, flags and signs, shouting together in one voice for the end of a militarized state and the killing of our black youth and women.

These issues — severe as they are — had been kept at the margins of our political debate, as media headlines in recent years have focused incessantly on corruption scandals and investigations.

Franco’s tragic death has rocked the country because she brought a breath of fresh air and the voice of the favelas into Brazil’s official politics — which makes it all the more important for Brazilians, and the rest of the world, to know about her remarkable life.

Franco was a 38-year-old black bisexual woman born and raised in Maré, a group of 16 slums in Rio that are home to over 140,000 people. At age 11, she began working to help her parents pay for her school; at 19, she interrupted her studies to take care of her newborn daughter, whom she raised as a single mother.

Franco used to say that her life took an against-the-odds turn when she enrolled in a college prep course organized by volunteer teachers in Maré. Thanks to this initiative and her efforts, she obtained a full scholarship to study sociology in one of Rio’s most prestigious private universities.

During her time as an undergrad, police incursions in the favelas increased and the death of a friend, a black woman from Maré like herself, in a shootout between drug dealers and the police inspired her to become a human rights activist. 

Franco joined the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and worked on the advisory team of state representative Marcelo Freixo, who was elected in 2006. While taking a leadership role in the Human Rights Commission of Rio’s Legislative Assembly alongside Freixo, Franco was known for also supporting the families of policemen killed in confrontations, as she saw their deaths as another symptom of an unjust militarized state. This perspective was present in the research she conducted for her master’s degree in public security; her thesis critically analyzed a law enforcement program put in place in some favelas of Rio in the late 2000s.

As an activist, Franco recognized that political apathy and mistrust towards the state are common among the black youth of the favelas, and especially among women. However, she maintained that precisely because of the intersection of race, gender and class oppressions they struggle with in their everyday lives, these women should occupy the spaces of power to “defend our lives,” as she would say.

She ran for city councillor in 2016 and was elected with the fifth highest vote count among 51 council members — the only black woman in a total of seven councilwomen. In about one year as a politician, Franco worked tirelessly to make the voice of the black youth of the favela, of women, and of the LGBT+ community heard in a conservative and elitist environment. She proposed 13 new bills and, in 2017, when police killings in the state of Rio spiked to over 1,000 cases, Franco used her mandate to denounce and mobilize against these crimes that disproportionally target the black youth of the favelas. 

As Franco used to insist, black women from the favelas face their daily struggles with resistance and creativity, and they are key to promoting change in Brazil’s highly unequal society.

In February of this year, when the government of Michel Temer announced a military intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro in an attempt to salvage his low popularity, Franco became one of its most vocal critics. Temer’s announcement came at the end of Carnival in Rio, a festival that had been covered by Rede Globo, the country’s biggest media network, as having been particularly violent this year. Even though data from Rio’s Institute of Public Security indicates there was actually a decrease in the number of crimes during 2018’s Carnival compared to previous years, and despite the fact that Rio ranks as the 10th most violent state in Brazil, the president put a federal ‘auditor,’ an army general, in charge of the state of Rio de Janeiro’s public security. 

The military had been deployed to police the streets of Rio on numerous occasions before, but it was the first time an intervention of this kind took place since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.

Franco was a leading figure in denouncing this decision, the electoral ambitions behind it, and all the arbitrary killings and human rights violations in favelas that came with it in the weeks that followed. She became a rapporteur of a City Council commission overseeing the military intervention.

Just four days before being shot, Franco denounced a deadly incursion of the military police in the Acari slum. Then, a day before her assassination, she condemned the killing of a young man from another favela by a police officer, asking, in a haunting tweet, “How many more will have to die for this war to end?”

It is clear that Franco was not just another victim of Rio’s security crisis, as Temer’s administration has being trying to convey. Because of her activism and boldness, there is a long list of potential killers, including members of the military police and militias. 

Franco dared to be a black bisexual woman from the favela who spoke out against injustice and who succeeded in occupying institutions of power to represent those who have historically been excluded from them in Brazil. She had an inspiring life trajectory and a promising political career ahead of her — on Thursday, a day after her death, it was disclosed that she was going to run for vice-governor of the state of Rio in this year’s general elections, expected to be held in October.

The violent interruption of her life was not only due to all the powerful and corrupt groups she defied. Other politicians before and alongside her have done the same in Rio without having been shot, but they were not a black woman from the favela — the most vulnerable kind of body.

Still, as Franco used to insist, black women from the favelas face their daily struggles with resistance and creativity, and they are key to promoting change in a highly unequal society. Franco’s life was an illustration of this, and her legacy lives as the scream of sorrow and outrage. “Marielle, presente” is amplified in the streets and heats up the country’s political temperature eight months before presidential elections.

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, several days after Franco’s death, community leaders and inhabitants of Maré are gathering thousands of protestors and blocking one of Rio’s main express roads. More protests are scheduled for this week in many cities in Brazil and abroad. 

Franco’s story is now a battleground. In the wake of her death, conservative politicians and media in Brazil have tried to minimize her radical agenda and the political character of her killing. I can only hope that all those galvanized by Franco’s brutal assassination can keep her legacy alive — without facing the same fate. 

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