We need to talk about the murder of a young, black, female Brazilian politician
In 2016, at 36 years old, black LGBTQ+ activist Marielle Franco became one of seven women elected to the position of city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, serving in a chamber with 44 men. Franco — who was raised in Favela da Maré, one of the biggest sets of slums in Rio de Janeiro, and who raised the daughter she had at 19 while pursuing her education — spent her time in office fighting for the city’s marginalized communities and pushed back on police brutality.
On March 18 — just 18 months after she was elected by over 46,000 people — Franco was headed home from a rally at which she urged supporters to fight for black women’s empowerment, when her car was hit by nine gunshots. Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, were both killed.
Marielle Franco’s murder was not an ordinary crime but one with a triple meaning. First, it was an act of femicide: She was killed because she was one of the only women in a power position, and in a sexist world, women are not supposed to have a voice. Second, it was an act of black genocide: She is one of many black people who have been killed all over the world for no apparent reason other than existing in their bodies. And, lastly, it was an act of silencing the downtrodden: She was an activist who used her voice to defend and fight for those who could not be heard.
Many people speculate that Franco was murdered so her voice on all of these fronts would be silenced. And, to be sure, Franco was an outspoken advocate for herself and others. In 1998, at 19, she joined the first open class for college admissions exams preparation in her community and went on to earn a full scholarship to study social sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She got pregnant with her daughter, Luyara, the same year, which was also when she lost one of her close friends to a confrontation between police and drug dealers at the Favela.
These experiences shaped Franco, who went on to get a master’s in public administration, for which she argued a thesis that criticized police brutality in the slums of Rio. The activist was known for her outspoken defense of favela (slum) residents. She spread the message that even though they are oppressed by violence, these residents need to stand up and resist — which is exactly what she did by getting involved with politics.
Franco acted as one of the main advisors to State Deputy Marcelo Freixo — a politician well known throughout the state for fighting for social and human rights — for 10 years before she started her own political career. Even though her time in public office was short, she accomplished much: She coordinated the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights and Citizenship of the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro, proposed 13 draft bills for women’s rights, and helped victims of police brutality in the city.
Now it has been four months since this brutal murder, yet it remains unsolved. While Rio’s head of public security said there would be a “full investigation” into the deaths, Amnesty International is now calling for independent monitoring of that investigation. In fact, some are posing the possibility that the murder was orchestrated by the Brazilian government: Allegedly, security cameras at the murder scene were disconnected on the evening of the crime, and ammunition used in the killing was the same kind that was in, but is now missing from, police arsenals.
Franco’s murder, though tragic in and of itself, also highlights a deeper issue in Brazil’s politics and culture. The majority of Congress and assemblies all through the country still act on sexist, racist, and classist beliefs — a perhaps unsurprising result for a country that was created as a colony that has historically privileged rich, white farmers. To this day, white, upper-class men still hold the majority of positions in public office, and our young democracy is still fragile since the 2016 impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, the first female president in Brazil’s history, who was impeached without a liability offense and by a mostly male right-wing opposition.
Franco’s murder is a sad wake-up call that Brazilians need to start fighting for what we think is right. The Brazilian people protesting in the wake of Franco’s murder is a good start, but ultimately we need more representation in our political offices. We need more people like Marielle Franco — who know what classism, sexism, and racism feel like in their skin — and we need to make sure that those voices are not silenced. People all over the world are dividing their political beliefs between extreme left- and extreme right-wing parties, but with elections in Brazil coming up, we must remember that human rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights are everybody’s concern, not just of those on a certain “side.”
If you want to help, make sure to sign this petition that Amnesty International created to give worldwide visibility to this case.
More articles by Category: International, Politics, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender Based Violence, South & Central America, Women of color, Women's leadership