“How many more will have to die before this war comes to an end?” tweeted Marielle Franco, one day before she, too, became victim to the violence plaguing the Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. But Franco’s death can’t be chalked up to getting caught in the crossfires – Franco was a favela-born queer black woman, city councillor, and activist, in a machismo political system dominated by white straight men – and was assassinated on March 14th by four bullets to the head.
Franco was an advocate for many underserved groups in Brazil and brought attention to issues overlooked by many. On the day of her assassination, she had been leaving a protest for black women’s rights that she herself had organised. Her socio-political impact was monumental, and she gained the fifth most votes out of any candidate in the course of her first time running for city council in Rio.
Her assassination was met with huge public outcry, with millions online lamenting, “Marielle Presente” or “Marielle is Here” – a sentiment echoed by protesters around the world demonstrating against the injustice.
But the people of Brazil have had contrasting reactions to the murder. Many white Brazilians see Franco’s killing as an example of the violence that has long plagued Rio, but fail to note the racial or political aspect. White Brazilian Senator Ana Amélia stated that this event should not be used to talk about racism, because, “When you talk about a black-white divide, you are contributing to this division.” Black Brazilians on the other hand, are calling for an end of violence against them, and starting up a new dialogue on the current state of race in the country. Rubia Augusta Gomes, an Afro-Brazilian who had been attending a march in the favela where Franco was born, added that, “It is time to speak out, it is time to talk about race, because we are the ones suffering.” Demonstrations reacting to Franco’s assassination have been split between more general ones against gang violence in Rio, to smaller ones spearheaded by black, queer, and left-wing activists, calling for a more intersectional approach to fixing the physical and structural violence occurring in the city.
Not only was Franco an outspoken advocate for issues like black women’s rights, anti-trans attacks, and abortion, but she was also a critic of the federal government’s military intervention in the violence that took place in Rio de Janeiro. The federal prosecutor assigned to the case confirmed that the killing had been done by professionals, and notes that the bullets were police-issued. She was also a strong advocate against police brutality and corruption in a city where violence is a daily occurrence. The situation has not been easy to pacify, and police in Rio suffer from high societal pressures and lack of pay. 120 officers killed in just on year in 2017, mostly by drug traffickers.
But the issue goes beyond the problem of gang violence, with 1 124 people killed by police in Rio in 2017, and around 80% of those being people of colour, revealing systematic problems of oppression and overt uses of force. Franco was also part of an effort to investigate militias in Rio consisting of ex-police officers that held common city services like gas and transportation hostage to extort for bribes. She also made an effort to publicize the frequent shooting of black youths by a section of the military police, dubbed by many as “the death brigade.”
Unfortunately, the situation in Rio is unlikely to deescalate any time soon. Brazilian President Temer has federalized the Rio police, in a move that many critics fear to be similar to actions of the former dictatorship in the country that fell in 1985. Military generals have even stated that they hope that their troops would be exempt from any future “Truth Commissions” created to bring to light abuses of the former dictatorial regime.
In her final speech, Franco noted that although so many Brazilians see their country as post-racial, the violence is not just against the impoverished in Rio’s favelas, but also disproportionally affects black Brazilians. A solution to gangs in the city is not the only thing that is desperately needed, but a national dialogue of what it means to be a Brazilian and how the country’s leadership should reflect its populous is also needed. During her term, Franco had been the only black woman in Rio’s city council, and the country was ranked by the UN as 154th out of 190 countries in terms of women’s representation in national legislature. Just two years ago, the nation’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached on charges of corruption. Regardless of her charges, which reflect yet more of the vast corruption in the Brazilian political system, the debate over her impeachment was scarred with various instances of sexism. Furthermore, Rousseff was replaced by a cabinet of exclusively white men.
Who holds power matters, and a system that privileges only one type of voice cannot bring equal opportunity and protections to those unrepresented.
The people of Rio must find a way to end the violence that has become a part of daily life in the city. But not just any solution will hold, because it needs to allow both for peace, and also for the protection of marginalised groups like people of colour, queer people, women, and impoverished people living in favelas. In the middle of Brazil’s flag, a white ribbon reads “Ordem e Progresso” or “Order and Progress,” and today, it seems, that Brazil is divided between those who want order and those who want progress. For the country to achieve the goals outlined in the motto, political change must give a voice to all Brazilians without discrimination.