Marielle Franco and Brazil's future: hope or barbarity

Marielle's legacy and the repercussions of her death symbolize both the best and the worst of Brazilian society today. The building of a real clash of narratives is under way. Español

Breno Bringel
21 March 2018

Protest Against Murder of Marielle Franco. Source: Fabio Caffe, Favela em Foco. All Rights Reserved.


The murder of Rio de Janeiro’s councillor Marielle Franco on March 14, 2018, has come as a shock in Brazil, in Latin America, and the world.

No wonder: it was a political crime against one of the leading figures of the new Brazilian left, at a time when Rio de Janeiro is experiencing acute misgovernment and Brazil is undergoing a worrying democratic regression. 

open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Marielle was born in Maré (population 130.000), one of the largest favela complexes in Rio de Janeiro. She grew up there and there she lived through constant violations of human rights, intimidation, gunfire and the perpetrators’ impunity.

She became a very young mother and that led her to fight for women’s rights, particularly black women living in favelas. It was hard for her to pursue a formal education but, contrary to the odds, she became a graduate student, which moved her to fight for quality public education and for democratizing university.

She lost loved ones, including a friend who was killed by a "stray bullet" in 2005 during a shootout between police and drug traffickers.

This event, in turn, made her a tireless fighter for human rights, including the most fundamental of them all: the right to exist, which is violated on a daily basis in Rio and is very clearly linked to class indicators: race, gender and sexual orientation.

Unlike the case of her friend, the shots that took the lives of Marielle and Anderson Gomes, who was driving the car they were both travelling in, had a very clear aim.

Only a few days before she was murdered, she had denounced the performance of the military police in the Acari favela and had put up this question on her Facebook account: "How many more will have to die before this war comes to an end?".

They were deliberately fired to kill a black woman from the favelas who, in 2006, had joined the newly founded Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) to work for Marcelo Freixo’s campaign for Congress.

Ten years later, in 2016, she was elected councilor in Rio de Janeiro on the strength of more than 46.000 votes, which made her the fifth most voted candidate at the local elections that year.

Marielle's increasing public visibility was a nuisance for both institutional and parallel powers. She was vocal in denouncing the federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro, decreed in mid-February this year by Michel Temer’s coup government.

In fact, at the end of February, Marielle had been appointed rapporteur of the commission created by Rio’s Municipal Chamber to monitor the federal intervention in the city and assess its results.

Only a few days before she was murdered, she had denounced the performance of the military police in the Acari favela and had put up this question on her Facebook account: "How many more will have to die before this war comes to an end?". The news of her assassination generated a sequence of overlapping feelings in a large part of the Brazilian population: shock, pain, disbelief, indignation, anger.

Along with the sea of tears came the songs, the catharsis, the long hugs, the tight fists and, finally, the shouts - shouts coming from the guts of thousands of Brazilians which were echoed in mass demonstrations in many cities; shouts demanding justice which amplified Marielle’s convictions and struggles for human rights, for the voice of women and the favelas, against racism and the militarization of the police. 

According to Violence Monitor data, there were 4.473 intentional homicides of women recorded in Brazil in 2017. The 2017 Violence Atlas points out that black youth with a low level of education are the main victims of violent deaths in the country.

Of every 100 people murdered in Brazil, 71 are black. If we put the focus on human rights activists, Amnesty International’s latest Report 2017/2018 denounces an increase in police excesses, rising violence and homicides, legislative setbacks posing head-on threats to human rights, and a growing number of assassinations of human rights defenders.

Marielle’s execution adds on these numbers, but cannot be seen as just another figure. It carries a huge symbolism for what she confronted, represented and made visible. And the fact that she held public office, something that is usually denied to young women, black women, the poor and the peripheral population, and feminists.

So, if we are to measure the scope and meaning of her tragic death we must put it in the context of the current political moment in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil as a whole.

Beyond the intense grief of her friends, colleagues, fellow partners and family, a political crime must be examined by looking into the political scene.


Protest Against Murder of Marielle Franco. Source: Paulo Barros, Favela em Foco. All Rights Reserved.  

Crisis, polarization and resistance in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil

For some years now, Brazil - as well as several other countries in the world - has been experiencing a political polarization that drastically simplifies social reality, hides real (and urgent) existing problems, and restricts the possibilities of opening up to new transformative political forces. 

All polarization, by opposing two camps or poles that are presented as opposites, freezes social reality between two confronting practices, discourses and imaginary, and leaves out of the equation all the actors, forces and views which do not identify with the polarized dynamics.

Unlike previous moments in the transition and consolidation of the world order (for example, during the Cold War), today's political polarization opposes systemic forces.

That is, actors and positions which do not question capitalism and which, in spite of being diverse, do not aim for the breakdown of the degraded system, but take advantage of its multiple crises (economic, political, ecological, among others) to rearrange and strengthen themselves or, in the best case, to make way for reforming and defending historically conquered rights.

In the case of Brazil, the last five years - after the multitudinous and heterogeneous protests of 2013 – have been marked by a complex chain of events and figures very far removed from a merely causal or linear logic.

The social opening produced at that time - which I have already analyzed in some depth in openDemocracy - led to an intense dispute over the course of Brazilian politics and the gradual building of a polarization which was heightened at the elections of 2014 and radicalized in 2015.

Although Dilma Rousseff managed to win the presidential elections, the national congress elected was the most conservative in Brazilian history since the 1964 coup, and the Workers Party (PT) was in the process of losing its previous ally base in the executive.

The climate of political instability was also fueled in social media and in the streets by newly-created right-wing movements which called mobilizations and promoted a dispute over moral values ​​and social and economic policies.

The right, though far from being uniform, unified around its opposition to the PT and the discourse against corruption up until Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. The coup was carried out without any convincing evidence, but it was endorsed by the impeachment procedure and the complicity of parliamentarians across the political divide, the judiciary and important business, financial and media groups. 

The Workers' Party and its political camp as a whole became defensive. Insisting on the conquests of its governments but failing to engage in self-criticism, it sought both to denounce the conservative advance and to monopolize the progressive sectors, accusing dissenters of playing into the hands of the right.

Thus, polarization was delimited. Among its results, not always remembered, are the blockade, repression, invisibilization and infantilization of the democratizing forces for change which had emerged in the country during the previous years and which represented the most critical and emancipatory components of the protests of 2013.

Before a fragmented left with no other unifying element than the “Out with Temer” slogan, Michel Temer’s illegitimate and unpopular government pushed its agenda aimed at reducing social and labour rights through a set of privatizing policies, cutbacks and austerity.

The “law and order” and “exceptionality" discourse was reinforced so as to justify government measures the impact of which was quickly felt by workers, women and the poorest sectors, always first in paying the consequences of any crisis, but which spread rapidly to broad sectors of society, including all the critical voices which were harassed and criminalized.

Simultaneously with these national turbulences, the state of Rio de Janeiro went on to live a nightmare of its own.

After a decade of wasteful spending and megalomania which was intended to project Rio onto the global stage through mega-events, the city began to pay the price of its irresponsible management and its historical structural weaknesses.

Affected by deindustrialization and by an excessive dependence on oil, Rio began to suffer the consequences of the debt generated by the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, by the absence of planning and endemic corruption – Sergio Cabral, governor between 2007 and 2014, was convicted of corruption and jailed.

 As Mariana Cavalcanti argued in openMovements, the Olympic Ruins were quite premature: they began to appear even before the end of the Games.

The solution put forward by the government of Rio is to consider the problem a purely technical and managerial one, to apply austerity and cutback measures and to subordinate itself to the federal government.

In this tumultuous scenario, Marielle's candidacy in 2016 was a breath of fresh air. Hundreds of people who felt disenchanted with traditional politics became involved in her campaign, hopeful again and thrilled by Marielle.

Above all, she contributed to the rise of the feminist and LGBT movement in Rio de Janeiro, to the strengthening of the black movement and to the fight of the favelas.

The actual building of her campaign was an unusually open, flowing and sensitive process which generated connection, empathy and a strengthening not only of Marielle as a public figure but, above all, of the collective struggles to which she was committed.

On the strength of her overwhelming electoral result, she brought oxygen to the institutions, while keeping to the streets. 

She sided with the strikes and struggles of the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) officials, who had not been paid their salaries for months and are still today suffering the consequences of an irresponsible state policy that vilifies education and scientific and technological development.

She supported demands for urban mobility, for daycare centers and stood against the dismantling of public child education. Above all, she contributed to the rise of the feminist and LGBT movement in Rio de Janeiro, to the strengthening of the black movement and to the fight of the favelas.

She insisted on making visible the place of black women in a racist and macho society, on reassessing ancestral values, historical memory and black culture, and on fighting against evictions and continuous authority abuse.

She was one of the most proactive councilors at the municipal chamber of Rio de Janeiro and her management style was marked by collective building, transparency, active listening and the attempt to generate creative actions and initiatives linked to the social movements and their main rallying issues - all of this, at a time when the left was fragmented and Rio and the country as a whole were experiencing deep tensions.


Protest Against Murder of Marielle Franco. Source: Thiago Diniz, Favela em Foco. All Rights Reserved.

After the murder

The murder of Marielle occurs at a time when Brazil is facing the potential arrest any time soon of former President Lula da Silva after a long process of judicial persecution, and when several political moves are being made, focusing on the presidential elections scheduled for October 2018.

While the possible condemnation of Lula and the general elections are two scenarios that tend to strengthen polarization, this unprecedented political crime opens a number of questions:

Who killed Marielle and why? Will there be a strengthening of the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro or, on the contrary, will we be able to discredit it as a farce? Will racist and macho elites be able to take advantage of the hostile climate and current polarization to strengthen the usual stereotypes about the people living in the favelas as a way of trying to take away Marielle’s and her murder’s political weight? Will the voice of the favelas and of the autonomist and anticapitalist left, which do not fit into polarization, be reinivigorated? Will the necessary dialogue across different progressive forces with different sensibilities be strengthened?

Regardless of the answers, Marielle's legacy and the repercussions of her death symbolize both the worst and the best in Brazilian society today. Although grief still prevents more articulate reactions, the building of a real clash of narratives is under way. 

Social media carry comments of contempt, while some journalists, politicians and other opportunists try to take advantage of Marielle’s murder to justify the need for more police and greater militarization. Others, like Michel Temer, cynically describe her death as an "attack on democracy".

On the one hand, there is an alarming build up of hatred, distrust of the institutions, fear, and escalating authoritarianism through the militarization of public security, impunity, and the violation of rights.

Social media carry comments of contempt, while some journalists, politicians and other opportunists try to take advantage of Marielle’s murder to justify the need for more police and greater militarization. Others, like Michel Temer, cynically describe her death as an "attack on democracy".

But let us not be deceived by this: i) the bullets that killed Marielle came from the existing promiscuity between the police, the militias acting on behalf of parallel powers and the State; ii) historical experience shows that military interventions have never solved the problem of public safety in Rio de Janeiro; iii) Brazil today barely resembles a democratic regime.

On the other hand, the murder of Marielle has also unveiled solidarity, the pride of the favelas, the voice of black women and young people demanding change.

It has been a wake up cry for a country that does not recognize itself in barbarity or in the maneuvers of the members of the coup, nor in the reductionism of polarization. So, it is essential to always be open to what is new, as Marielle herself propounded in an article earlier this year in the Brazilian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique

In the last few days, many have said that Marielle was a young promise. They are wrong. She was already a reality.

At a time when Brazil and the world are going through a deep crisis of representation, Marielle represented women, blacks, lesbians, human rights defenders and many others who believe there is another ways of doing politics.

She represented those who tend to criticize formal political representation, but who found in/with her not only identification, empathy, recognition and symbolism but, mainly, a break in the distance between representative and represented. 

After Marielle’s death, slogans closely linked to the start of the June 2013 protests - such as "It has not ended, it must end, I want the end of the Military Police” - were heard again in the streets of Rio and elsewhere in Brazil. It has to end.

The most critical voices in Brazilian society and the invisible, but dormant, forces of 2013 were back in the streets. We do not know yet for how long. We do not know yet with what force. But a lot is at stake: many lives and a whole future.

This is why an impartial investigation, broad solidarity of the popular movements in the world, and a careful monitoring by the international community not restricted to these first days after the fatal shooting of Marielle are essential. 

In a city like Rio de Janeiro, which is usually defined as a "split city", where rigid frontiers (cultural, economic, epistemic, geographic and social) separating wide apart worlds tend to prevail, Marielle was a bridge.

A bridge that linked peripheral favelas (like the one where she lived) to the South of Rio (where tourism and privileges are concentrated), knocking down the so-called Walls of Shame, which are not only symbolic and metaphorical, but also very real - like the one that separates the favela complex of Maré from the road that leads to Rio’s international airport.

A bridge also linking the black movement with the feminist movement and vice versa, trying not only to strengthen black feminism, but to bring different struggles closer and to accept and respect the differences and the plurality of visions.

She was a bridge fighting for the closeness of the institutions to people in the streets, feeding back actions, ideas and proposals so that, in turn, popular movements could stop seeing the institutions as foreign spaces, but rather as locus of discussion where they should be present.

A bridge connecting activism and research, since Marielle was not only a councilor and an activist, but also a sociologist: she did not separate these two spaces, much as she tried to bridge all the aforementioned worlds.

She was an activist researcher who wrote her master's thesis on how public security policies - such as the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) in Rio de Janeiro - instead of being a solution, ended up reinforcing the criminal State built into the neoliberal project.

She believed that universities would be more alive and democratic if they were closer to activism and, at the same time, that activism would be more powerful if instead of regurgitating sentences and becoming locked in dogmas it were to become more reflective.

This was Marielle. Or better: Marielle was not, Marielle is, Marielle will be. She will be a bridge, the structures of which cannot be downed by bullets.

A bridge that will be multiplied, in her memory and in that of many other more or less anonymous fighters, through the weaving of affections, paths and struggles - bridges of hope against barbarity.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData