Brazil is still mourning the death of Marielle Franco, a black woman raised in a Rio favela and a sociologist whose academic work mirrored her radical politics.
Elected to a seat on Rio’s city council in 2017, she was a member of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party, and had the potential to achieve national visibility due to her strong oratorical style and radical politics. An advocate of human rights, she was dedicated to improving the lives of people living in Brazil’s impoverished and marginalised favelas. She was an outspoken critic of police violence, which disproportionately affects black people.
On March 14 2018, Marielle was brutally killed along with her driver, Anderson Silva, in a shooting ambush in Rio de Janeiro. The day after her killing, thousands of people gathered in Rio’s city centre to mourn Marielle and Anderson’s deaths. Sadness, disbelief and outrage showed on the faces of people who had just lost a woman who represented them on the city council, and the crowd chanted that Marielle’s voice and what she stood for would not be silenced: “Marielle is here! Today and forever.”
Homicide is far from rare in Rio. According to the publication Atlas da Violência 2017, while Rio isn’t Brazil’s most violent state, there were more than 63,400 homicides between 2005 and 2015. It is important to hightlight that data from the Institute for Public Safety of Rio de Janeiro shows that between 2014 and 2016, 53.41% were black victims.
This violence is often described as part of a so-called war on drugs. But in fact, the implementation of public security policies in Rio is associated with the historical marginalisation of impoverished communities and racist narratives about black bodies. Marielle Franco was a vocal opponent of this violence – and of attempts to militarise Brazil’s marginalised neighbourhoods.
Living on the edge
In February 2018, Brazil’s senate approved a decree allowing federal intervention in the State of Rio de Janeiro, leaving its public security in the hands of a military officer answerable to the president. The intervention was viewed by intellectuals as politically motivated, and driven by the fact that Rio’s governor and the president belong to the same political party.
After a short time, violence increased in the favelas, and people started to speak out against military searches of their houses and bodies. And just days before her murder, Marielle was appointed head of a city-level commission charged with monitoring the federal-military takeover of security in Rio.
On 13 March 2018, Marielle tweeted: “Another killing of a young person possibly committed by the Military Police. Matheus was leaving church. How many more must die for this war to end?”
In 2016, at an academic event on Studies of Policing and Crime, she addressed the structural problems that lead to violence in Rio, and made clear what needs to be done: to shift the dominant narratives about black bodies’ rights, address hate speech and its threats to human rights, ensure rights to education and leisure, and improve the representation of black women.
The black population’s lives are heavily shaped by violence, systemic racism, and the militarisation of public space, whether by the army or militias. They ruin and often claim the lives of poor young black men working at the retail end of the drug trade. Those men’s lives are dismissed as irrelevant, even as a blind eye is turned to white elites who profit from arms and drugs trafficking on a grand scale.
Meanwhile, two out of three women murdered in Rio are black – and several recent cases have drawn increased public attention to the exceptional danger they face.
Violence laid bare
In 2014, Claudia Ferreira, a 38-year-old black working mother, was shot during a police operation in Rio’s suburbs. She was put in the trunk of a police car and driven away; the trunk somehow came open and Claudia half fell out. She was dragged for several streets until the police realised what was happening and took her to hospital, where she died.
In another case in 2017, Marielle used social media to report on her work supporting the family of Maria Eduarda da Conceição, a 13-year-old black girl murdered in the schoolyard. A picture shows Eduarda’s mother with the medals her daughter won playing volleyball, which held the hope of a brilliant future.
These deaths and the thousands of others like them are testament to the way black Brazilians’ lives are treated as physically and politically disposable. The structures of power that marginalise black Brazilians could not accommodate a vocal black woman like Marielle, one who so publicly tackled the problems affecting the communities she belongs to.
There is a creepingly fascistic atmosphere taking hold in Brazil, evident in increasing anti-black violence and incarceration, the propagation of dishonest news coverage justifying Marielle’s death, and a recent shooting directed at former president Lula’s motorcade. With these dark forces on the rise, Brazil more than ever needs thousands of live Marielles. Those who have picked up her work are determined not to let Brazil’s anti-black violence go unchallenged and to denounce the ongoing anti-black genocide. To quote Marielle’s words again: “How many more must die for this war to end?”