Marielle Franco in August 2016. Credit: Mídia NINJA/Flickr. [CC-BY-SA-2.0]. Some rights reserved.
In Brazil, the federal government’s makeup does not reflect the societal DNA of the population. More than 54% of the country’s population is black, but about 80% of the parliament and 98% of the senate is white. Only two black senators have ever been elected. Women hold only 22% of senior positions in government; just 2.4% of them are black.
At the local level, in the 2016 elections, only 4.6% of elected council members in all of Brazil’s municipalities were women. Of the 51 city council members of Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco was one of four black council members.
The only black woman from the favelas on the Rio city council, Franco was a clear exception in this political landscape. She advocated for the rights of the most oppressed Brazilians – and paid the ultimate price. She was assassinated on 14 March 2018. This is why people are mourning and protesting her death around the world.
There are many different “Brazils”
Brazil is one of the 10 most unequal countries in the world. Indeed, there are many different “Brazils”. One of these realities is the favelas, mostly populated by black Brazilians; a reality that is often ignored by national politicians and policies.
Franco was born and raised in the favela Complexo da Maré, in the north of Rio de Janeiro. She started working at age 11 to help support her family. At age 19, while pregnant with a daughter she would then raise on her own, she received a full scholarship to study Social Sciences at PUC-Rio, one of the best private universities in Brazil.
She later earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the prestigious Fluminense Federal University, with a thesis on police violence in the favelas. In it, she acknowledged that for favelados (people who live in favelas) to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty and stigmas imposed on them, they must be twice as good at everything.
Franco represented the struggle to succeed in Brazil when one does not belong to the white middle class. Ambitious and intelligent black women like Franco are not uncommon. But few are able to overcome the stigmas in a society suffering from deeply rooted racism and sexism. Franco, elected as a city councilmember of Rio in 2016, received the fifth largest number of votes.
Franco represented the struggle to suceed in Brazil when one does not belong to the white middle class.
As a militant and a politician, Franco fought for the empowerment of others who, like her, have few opportunities to break the barriers imposed on the black population of Brazil. She represented a Brazilian reality in which black citizens are deprived of their voice and of public power. She fought for the rights of the black people, the poor, and all who suffer injustices at the hands of a corrupt police state, including police members themselves.
Franco became a symbol of representation and resistance for poor and black Brazilians and bothered the predominantly white system.
In February 2018, the federal government gave the military control of security in Rio – a measure not taken since the dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. This decision has been widely criticised as a political strategy employed by the current conservative government to generate fear and gain votes in the upcoming presidential elections.
She pushed barriers; her work rattled the system every day. This is why Franco was silenced. She was assassinated on 14 March 2018 after speaking at an event called "Young Black Women Who are Changing Power Structures".
"Marielle is with us, today and always!" Credit: Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado/Flickr. [CC BY 2.0] Some rights reserved.
Franco bothered the system by doing the work a politician is supposed to do: represent and defend their electorate, and ensure that campaign promises are honoured.
Her position threatened the status quo in Brazil with its failed institutions and repressive policies that have only contributed to the exponential growth of homicides. We now have one every 21 minutes, most of which are of poor black people.
Upon her death, Brazilians poured into the streets of cities all over the country and protests have taken place around the world.
In Portugal, there were protests in more than nine cities. The Portuguese Parliament demanded the European Union suspend free trade negotiations with the South American trade bloc Mercosur until the violence ends against human rights defenders in Brazil.
She rattled the system, so she was silenced.
In Latin America, a region where most countries still live with the haunting memories of brutal dictatorships, Franco’s death hit close to home.
In Chile, a vigil took place in front of the Brazilian-Chilean cultural centre, joined by anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and feminist groups. A large crowd took to the Plaza Libertad in Uruguay under the motto: We are all Marielle.
In Honduras, activists connected Franco’s death with that of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader and environmentalist who was killed in 2016.
Franco was silenced, but she has become a global icon. Now, the world might be able to start waking up to the complexities of the favelas, the deeply-embedded racism in Brazilian society and impunity towards those who attack and even kill activists for change.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, said the evidence suggests that Franco’s assassination was a targeted political act. This has left some of the groups she represented, and other human rights defenders in Brazil, feeling hopeless and intimidated.
Franco was a beacon of hope to those who suffer the stereotypes imposed by rich white men, who rule a country they do not represent. She could have been our Martin Luther King Jr., if she had had more time. To borrow her words: “how many more will have to die until this war is over?”