25, Mar 2018 | Mansi Mehta
Rio de Janeiro City Councilwoman Marielle Franco was shot to death on March Wednesday, March 14, 2018. She was 38. Franco was born in raised in one of Rio’s poorest and most violent areas, the Maré complex of favelas (slums). A black, LGBT woman, Franco became a single mother at age 19, going on to complete college and obtain a postgraduate degree in sociology.
She became an active human rights defender following the death of a friend by stray bullet in 2005, in a shootout between police and drug traffickers. A community activist for years, Franco spearheaded campaigns to fight against corruption, police brutality and extrajudicial killings that disproportionately harm Rio de Janeiro’s poor, black population. Franco eventually joined the leftist Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), and successfully ran for a seat on Rio’s city council in 2016, her first election campaign in which she garnered the fifth most votes.
Franco and her driver were shot multiple times just as she was leaving an event that centred on the empowerment of black women. As a member of Rio’s city council, Franco worked on criticising and tackling police violence. In the days leading up to her murder, she had criticised the police’s potential involvement in a murder, and had also visited Acari, a Rio neighbourhood, to speak out against killings by a specific military police battalion, which she had described as the “battalion of death“. She fought for black people, the poor, and the LGBT community. She was against austerity policies from Brazil’s Congress as she felt they would destroy education, healthcare and social schemes that aid those living in favelas. She also called for improved childcare and schemes to aid other working mothers like her. Notably, even as she spoke out against police violence, Franco also fought for the families of police officers who were killed on duty.
Police violence in Brazil
Although international attention tends to focus on police violence, and the killings of unarmed black men in the United States, the situation in Brazil may just be worse. In 2016, police in Brazil killed 4,224 people, 26% more than the figure in 2015, according to the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security. More than three-quarters of those who died at the hands of police were black. In February, the military took over security in Rio following an increase in violence, a decision that was criticised by favela residents concerned that it would result in more violence. Franco had just recently been appointed to head a commission to oversee the military’s intervention in Rio. Although it is currently unclear who killed Franco, bullet casings recovered at the crime scene were traced to bullets bought by the Federal Police. Bullets from the same lot were also used in 2015, in a bloody incident in Sao Paulo that resulted in two police officers and municipal guard being found guilty of killing 17 people and attempting to kill seven others. A leading Rio federal criminal prosecutor stated that facts of the case “denote a certain degree of planning that leads me to consider police officers as suspects in this crime,” but that other theories should also be examined, the BBC reported.
Thousands flooded the streets in Rio to mourn Marielle Franco and protest against her death. With corruption scandals and an economic recession plaguing Brazil, and favelas home to crushing poverty and violence between the state and drug gangs, her murder seems to have been a flashpoint of sorts. Her death has reverberated not just nationwide in Brazil, but also across the world. The United Nations human rights office condemned her murder, as did Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. An open letter seeking ‘Justice for Marielle Franco’ was recently released, with signatories including American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, whistleblower Edward Snowden, linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky, and Indian author Arundhati Roy. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose husband served alongside Franco on Rio’s city council wrote,
Marielle was one of those rare people who made you feel like all the grime and misery and deceit and opportunism you constantly encounter when you work in or near politics is worth it. She was one of those rare embodiments of true integrity and passion who made you believe that politics could actually change people’s lives for the better.”
Feature Image by Midia Ninja