“Marielle Franco, presente! Agora e sempre! (Now and Always!)”
The words have rung out across streets, plazas, and on social media in Brazil and beyond since Rio de Janeiro councilmember Marielle Franco was brutally assassinated on the evening of March 14 at the age of 38. Franco was on her way home from a meeting in downtown Rio, which focused on black women’s political participation. An unknown car approached Franco’s car, and assailants shot four police-issue bullets into her head. Her driver was also killed. As the only woman on Rio’s City Council to identify as black, feminist, lesbian, favela resident, human rights defender, and activist against police violence, Franco’s political tenure was associated with a broad range of social justice issues. Her death is a severe blow—and a warning—to anyone working to promote such issues in Brazil, particularly from Rio’s marginalized peripheries.
As Franco’s supporters recover from shock and grief, opponents have already begun to defame her on social media, linking her to drug traffickers to tarnish her reputation. Both anonymously through robots, and openly, false claims have been made that the father of Franco’s daughter was a drug trafficker, that Franco won her seat on the City Council because drug traffickers forced residents to vote for her, and that she was killed because she failed to honor her arrangement with them. Most shocking, perhaps, has been the publication of these allegations by Rio’s High Court judge Marília Castro Neves on her Facebook page. This vilification of Franco follows a recurring pattern in Rio de Janeiro: when someone dies at the hands of the police, slanderous claims that the victims were involved in criminal activity often follow.
The assailant in Franco’s assassination has not been caught, but many assume her murder is somehow related to her denunciation of police violence and her critique of a controversial federal military intervention recently introduced in Rio as a public security measure. A Reuters article even quoted an anonymous police officer saying this was a plausible explanation. The intervention, which aims to curb rising street crime and drug-related gang violence, was introduced on February 16, after Brazilian president Michel Temer signed a decree placing the army in charge of Rio’s security forces. This move has produced considerable controversy. Critics say it harkens back to Brazil’s authoritarian past, echoes the increasing nostalgia for military government on the far right, and ignores the failures and violence produced by the militarization of Rio’s favelas ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics. According to the daily Extra, homicides and carjacking have actually increased during the first month of the military intervention.
Two days after Franco’s assassination, O Globo reported that the ammunition used to kill her came from a batch sold to the Federal Police in Brasilia in 2006. The Minister of Public Security, Raul Jungman, says the bullets were stolen from the Paraíba headquarters of Brazil’s postal service. Correios issued a statement denying this, and in response, the Ministry of Public Security changed their story–maintaining however, that the bullets in question had been acquired by criminals. Meanwhile, both president Michel Temer and the mainstream media have attempted to use Franco’s assassination as exemplifying the need for the military intervention in Rio, declawing Franco’s critiques of the Brazilian police state.
The assassination reverberates powerfully through Brazilian society—compounded by a struggling economy, massive corruption scandals, the political legitimacy of the highly-unpopular Michel Temer’s instated government, and the new military deployment in Rio. Much is at stake as Brazil prepares for general elections in October 2018. The leading presidential candidate, ex-president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, is likely to be barred because of a corruption conviction. The second most popular candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, evangelical, ex-military lawmaker, openly supports authoritarian rule, and has made repeated inflammatory remarks against women, Afro-Brazilians, and the gay community. Within this context, the present moment is a watershed in Brazilian history, where proponents of radically different values and societal ideals struggle over the presidency and the future of the country.
Efforts to associate Marielle Franco with drug trafficking and distort her political message must be read within this context. These are not only attempts to delegitimize her political career alone, but part of a wider effort to promote authoritarian solutions to Brazil’s problems and to protect the power of the traditional, white, male-dominated elite. The assassination of Marielle Franco has become a painful symbol of the rifts of perspective that divide the Brazilian population.
Living and Dying in the Favelas
The political ascendance of Marielle Franco, who was born and raised in the Maré complex of favelas in Rio’s marginalized northern zone, gave many hope. A member of PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party), Franco received the fifth-highest number of votes of any candidate in Rio’s 2016 elections for the 51-seat City Council. The significant support for her candidacy, as well as PSOL’s political program, represented a challenge to the status quo. PSOL was formed in 2003 as a breakaway from the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), and has established itself as an organization of left-wing activists and intellectuals. As a self-proclaimed socialist party, PSOL has been a controversial, yet popular addition to Brazil’s divided political landscape. Here, conventional conservatism and far-right authoritarian nostalgia is countered by concerted efforts from marginalized groups to challenge entrenched inequalities. PSOL entered this terrain on the side of the latter, and has gained considerable traction. The party’s mayoral candidate in Rio’s 2016 election, state representative Marcelo Freixo, came in second after losing to the evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella of the Brazilian Republican Party.
Marielle Franco, who had known Freixo since he was her history teacher in college prep classes, became part of his advisory team in 2006. Ten years later, she decided to run for office herself. As a councilmember, Franco amplified the voices of excluded communities, cultivated direct dialogue with her voters, and demanded other lawmakers to give respect and dignity to the people. In this way, she defied and eroded Brazil’s colonial legacy of racialized inequality, and expanded political representation to previously excluded groups.
What made Franco beloved by many also made her rise to political influence controversial. Her background as an Afro-Brazilian woman from a marginalized section of Rio was significant both for the struggles she engaged in and the way her work was interpreted by others. Now, many of those unwilling to engage with Brazil’s racial divide and entrenched inequalities, say that focusing on Franco’s background as a black favela resident is needlessly provocative and should have no place in public debate. In The Washington Post, Ana Amélia, a white senator from Rio Grande do Sul was quoted saying, “Her bloodshed can’t be used as an opportune moment to talk about hate. When you talk about a black-white divide, you are contributing to this division.” Others, in contrast, draw connections between recent protests against Franco’s assassination with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
Despite her critics’ attempt to silence the fact, Franco’s background shaped her politics, and her political career. The Maré complex of favelas is economically and geographically marginalized, with limited access to public services. Located on the shores of the Guanabara Bay, Maré, “tide” in Portuguese, was first established as a fishing community at the end of the 19th century. In the mid-20th century, urban reforms led to widespread evictions of the poor from central Rio, pushing them to peripheral neighborhoods such as Maré. Today, Maré is home to around 130,000 residents inhabiting a strip of land framed by the man-made Fundão Island, where the main campus of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is located, on one side and Avenida Brasil, one of Rio’s main access roads, on the other.
Like many other favelas in Rio, the Maré complex is contested territory. Rival gangs of drug traffickers and paramilitary militias control different parts of the favela, and between April 2014 and June 2015, the Brazilian army occupied the area. This intervention was unsuccessful at expelling organized crime and did not reduce incidents of police violence. Clashes between traffickers and the army or military police frequently leave residents besieged; on November 28, 2017, over 14,000 students were prevented from attending school as crossfire forced 18 schools and seven kindergartens to close. Maré residents’ overall experience with militarized responses to public security problems has prompted many of them speak out against the current intervention. Marielle Franco was the most politically influential of those voices.
Furthermore, Brazil’s past as a slave society has produced a complex socio-economic hierarchy that is inextricable from Marielle Franco’s own identity and policy goals. While Brazil claims that it is a “racial democracy,” where racial identity may indeed be fluid and dependent on numerous factors such as economic status and level of education, there is nevertheless a strong overlap between socio-economic marginalization and African ancestry. Afro-Brazilian men face grossly disproportionate levels of police violence. According to a 2015 report by Amnesty International, the Rio police killed 5,132 persons between 2004 and 2014. Between 2010 and 2013, 79% of the victims were Afro-Brazilians, and 99.5% were men.
Marielle Franco represented hope and empowerment for many poor Brazilians of color eager to change their situation socially and economically. After her friend was killed by a stray bullet during a confrontation between traffickers and police in 2000, Franco began her work as an activist. Franco’s education both informed and was inspired by her activism. She broke through many of the barriers youth from favelas face, where the poor quality of public education creates barriers for low-income students to pass university entrance exams. Franco overcame this hurdle through a prep course taught by volunteers. A scholarship program created by the leftwing PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) government to support lower income students in 2004 funded her studies at the prestigious private Pontifical Catholic University Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). In 2014, she graduated from the Fluminense Federal University with a Masters’ degree in public administration. Her thesis analyzed the so-called Pacifying Police Units introduced in Brazil to enhance public security in Rio ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Franco’s findings were that the Pacification Programme relied upon a discourse of “public insecurity” to legitimize the control, repression, and incarceration of the poor, and the militarization of their communities.
This critical perspective also characterized Franco’s political work. Her public engagement with PSOL began in 2006, when her former teacher, state representative Marcelo Freixo’s invited Franco to his advisory team. From this position, and later as a member of Rio’s City Council, Franco worked tirelessly to promote human rights, feminism, LGBTQI rights, and racial equality. In the mainstream Brazilian public sphere, these issues are seen to challenge the status quo, and therefore, are associated with varying degrees of controversy. PSOL, the leftist breakaway from PT, has provided a platform for those seeking to promote multiple forms of equality–economic, racial, sexual and gendered–from within the formal political system.
Marielle Franco was mostly known in public for denouncing violations and abuses committed by the police in favela operations. However, relatives of police killed on duty, as well as Íbis Pereira, ex-commander of the Military Police, confirm that Franco also demanded justice for the families of murdered police officers. She was recently invited to join a Parliamentary Commission to monitor the federal military intervention that began in Rio de Janeiro in February. In the days preceding her assassination, Franco publicly criticized violent actions committed by the military police operating in the Acari favela in Rio’s north zone.
Making Sense of a Death
Until now, the investigation into Franco’s assassination has provided few answers, yet a struggle over which narrative will prevail intensifies. Across Brazil, people have taken to the streets and social media to condemn and express their grief and rage about the assassination. Mourners have mostly refrained from direct accusations about who might be behind the crime, partly because the large number of social causes Franco was associated with made her a target for many disparate groups. However, most assume she was killed as an attempt to silence an activist working to erode Brazil’s hierarchical structures that consolidate privilege and power mainly in the hands of white elites. One week after the assassination, street protests continued in Rio. Participants paid homage to Marielle Franco’s political struggle, pushed for a serious investigation of her assassination, and demanded an end to the killing of blacks from the urban periphery.
The countermovement repudiating the condemnation has also inundated social media with the message that the assassination of Marielle Franco is receiving undue attention. This campaign has consisted of slander circulating through Whatsapp, memes, social media posts, and comment sections. Public figures such as Rio High Court judge Marília Castro Neves and Chamber of Deputy member Alberto Fraga of the right-wing Democrats party (DEM), as well as the far-right Free Brazil Movement (MLB) have all forwarded these defamatory claims. Right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has refused to comment upon Franco’s assassination, instead pointing fingers at his political opponents for their lack of concern about police killed on duty.
The defamation campaign appears motivated by the notion that both socialism and human rights are incompatible with patriotism and crime prevention–and that the proponents of the former, like Franco, are indeed criminals themselves. This conviction already has a strong hold in some sectors of Brazilian society.
Some of the negative attention to Franco’s death comes from a different perspective. These critics lament that the public and the international press rarely acknowledge the thousands of violent deaths that occur in Brazil each year, many of them police. Yet this argument misses that political significance of Franco’s death, and the fact that her entire political career was founded on trying to draw attention to violence and human rights violations, both perpetrated by civilians and the police.
In response to these attacks, some media outlets defended Franco. In one article, the Rio-based newspaper Extra educated its readership on the origins and contents of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking organization, also published an article repudiating the defamatory claims made about Franco.
Marielle Franco will stand as a symbol of the emergent struggles over Brazil’s future. Some mourners now find comfort in the hope that her assassination will be a turning point in a wider rejection of the militarization of public security under the current government. But the fierce opposition to Franco as an advocate for marginalized peoples—Afro-Brazilians, women, LGTBQI people, favela residents—illustrates both the force of her message as well as the lengths some will go to silence it.
Rafaela Cardoso studies social sciences at Pontifical Catholic University Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio).
Margit Ystanes is a social anthropologist, adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and affiliated researcher at the University of Bergen.