On March 14th, Brazilian politician and activist, Marielle Franco, was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro by two unknown attackers who fired nine shots at her car, also killing her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes. 38-year old Marielle Franco is remembered as a groundbreaking Black, gay female activist, who spoke out against rampant police brutality and racial discrimination, as well as in favour of LGBTQ rights. Recently, she was outspoken against the ineffective deployment of the military in an attempt to reduce violence in the city. She served as a member of the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and was known for her on the groundwork for the city’s disenfranchised favelas.
Catalytic Communities is a non-profit think tank and advocacy group aimed at empowering residents in informal settlements. They reported that in Rio de Janeiro, 24%, or around 1.5 million of the population live in favelas, the historical Brazilian-Portuguese term for an informal urban area, typically on the outskirts of the city or on its surrounding hills. Favelas are born out of lack of housing, poverty and discrimination.
While the country’s 1000 vibrant favelas differ in infrastructure, size and history, many favela residents commonly experience violence from drug-related crime, but more significantly from police brutality. Not only do shoot-outs between police and alleged criminals occur sometimes daily in certain favelas, leaving innocent residents stuck in the crossfire, but residents are also victim to unlawful killings by patrolling police officers under the guise of “self-defence.” The violence is a cycle that poisons the trust between police officers and vulnerable residents whom they are meant to protect.
The Guardian reports that in the past decade, the lives lost to police brutality can be regarded as “chilling.” In 2014, police killings were on an upward trend, causing Human Rights Watch to officially accuse the city’s police forces of routinely torturing and killing young men. The Guardian, in a 2016 article, questioned how Rio de Janeiro had become the most violent city in the world.
It would be futile, unjust and unproductive to analyze the city’s dire problem outside the context of race. Favelas are vibrant and historical sites of Afro-Brazilian culture and political resistance. According to Catalytic Communities, in favelas, 67% of the residents are Black. Wealthier, formal housing in the city is at times more than 90% white. Evidently, racial segregation can be mapped geographically.
Brazil’s military police were created in 1808 to prevent slave uprisings and repress African and flourishing Afro-Brazilian culture; the current deployment of the military to stabilize the city is an echo of this historical injustice and racism. Many residents see the Military Police of Rio as “as a force of persecution, a source of aggression and crime… treating everyone [in favelas] as a criminal.” Between 2010-2013, 75% of victims of police killings were young Black men from the city’s favelas.
Marielle Franco, who had grown up in a favela called Maré, dedicated her life to investigating and organizing against police violence. Just days before her assassination, she had protested recent killings by one of the most notoriously violent police battalions in a favela called Acari. Shortly before her death, she had attended an event titled, “Young Black Women Who Are Changing Power Structures”. Franco was a Black, lesbian politician from a favela, working amid countless wealthy, elite white men who have historically ignored the safety and rights of the country’s marginalized and racialized communities. Her work was nothing short of brave, selfless and incredibly important.
Following her assassination, thousands rallied outside the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro, chanting “not one step backwards.” Though Franco’s assassination is a flagrant attempt to silence a voice for those who are forced to be voiceless, her work will be carried on by devoted and angry activists and community members.
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