She was a young, black, city councillor – and a beacon of hope in her Rio favela and for Brazil. Vanessa Baird writes about the gunning down of hope
No one can doubt that Marielle Franco, the 38-year-old favela activist who was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro last week, was a woman of courage.
The popular, outspoken city councillor and human rights defender was on her way back from an event entitled ‘Young Black Women Who Are Changing Power Structure’ when she was attacked.
She was killed instantly in her car by drive-by shooters. Four bullets entered her skull. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, 39, was also murdered.
Who was behind the killing? No one knows for sure. But she was a fearless critic of police violence – and the recent militarization of Rio by President Michel Temer’s government. (In Rio state 154 people were killed ‘in opposition to police intervention’ in January alone, 57 per cent up on last year.)
Marielle opposed all violence. She stood up for poor people, for black people, for women, for LGBT rights. She led dangerous campaigns against police violence, corruption and extra-judicial murders that targeted the city’s poor, black residents with whom she grew up.
And she was an extraordinary organizer and enabler. I saw this for myself last June in the favela of Maré during a weekend that brought together 200 activists from some of the toughest shanty towns under the banner ‘Rights to the Favela’.
Marielle inspired through her own life experience. Born and bred in Maré, she was a teenage mother, got involved in liberation theology and became a militant after a friend was killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and gang members.
She got a scholarship, studied social sciences at university, and later a masters in public administration. Then she put her knowledge and expertise back into the favela.
In 2016 she was voted a Rio city councillor, winning with 46,000 votes.
Marielle explained her decision to go into local government thus: ‘The state is the main violator but it is also the principle means by which our rights can be obtained.’
Glenn Greenwald, a personal friend writes: ‘What is most notable, and most devastating, about Franco’s murder is how improbable and unique her trajectory was to the public stage. A black LGBT+ woman in a country notoriously dominated by racism, sexism and traditional religious dogma, she was raised in one of Rio’s largest, poorest and most violent slums.’
Marielle touched many lives. When I was in Maré last year I interviewed Flavinha Candicle who told me how Marielle had changed her life. ‘It’s thanks to her that I studied and got an education,’ she explained. Many others have similar stories to tell.
She belonged to PSOL (The Socialism and Freedom party) – a small leftist party that has the distinction of being one of the very few that has not been touched by the corruption scandal that is engulfing Brazilian politics.
Her assassination took place just one month after President Temer ordered the army to occupy the city in order to stabilize security. Marielle strongly denounced the military intervention and had just been appointed to lead a commission investigating its possible fiscal abuses. Three days before her death she also denounced the involvement of police officers in the deaths of youths in the city in the favela of Acari.
Unnamed police officers and prosecutors have told Reuters that they believe her murder may have been linked to her political work or her denouncing police abuses. On his blog Cafezinho, Rio commentator Miguel do Rosario writes: ‘She was one of the principle voices against the stupidity of using armed forces to resolve the problem of public security in Rio, and was killed, possibly, for that reason. Her ideas live still and we will fight for them. Marielle, your struggle continues.’
Which is the message of the thousands who have taken to streets since her death to protest her killing and loss of one of the brightest hopes in a country run by white, mainly male, privileged, coup-mongers.
If government forces are in some way behind her killing, the symbolism will not be lost on Brazilians. Marielle was a person who understood the plight of most Brazilians and raised her voice against the impunity of the powerful as they exploit the powerless.
‘We will continue your fight and we will grow bigger everyday. That’s what we can say at this time of great pain,' said Maré Vive, a community media channel run by residents. Meanwhile the local community orchestra played in her honour.
I recall, back in Maré, Flavinha saying that the Rights to the Favela event inspired by Marielle had made her feel ‘really proud to be of the favela’.
Marielle Franco is survived by her long-term partner, Monica, her daughter Luyara Santos and her mother. And, in the words of Greenwald: ‘a country and city that she loved, one which now struggles to make sense of how this could happen.’
The challenge, he says, ‘is to ensure, instead, that Franco’s death is not in vain, by using it to galvanize thousands and tens of thousands of new Marielles, inspired by her singularly potent example.’
That is the hope.
Vanessa Baird is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine. Our October 2017 magazine takes a special look at Brazil’s soft coup. The March 2018 magazine, ‘No Justice, no peace’, looks at black liberation movements today.