Assassination of first black woman in Brazilian government unites activists

Graphic by Carrie Clowers '18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers '18


Thirty five students mourned the death of Marielle Franco, a Brazilian activist, politician, and vanguard for human rights, on the evening of Wednesday, March 21 at Smith College, gathered in the CC Carroll room. 

The vigil was co-sponsored by the Portuguese-Brazilian Studies program, the Study of Women and Gender program, the Lewis Global Studies Center and the department of Africana Studies. Students openly wept as Flávia Santos de Araújo, a Smith Lecturer in Africana Studies, gave “an amazing contextual talk that ended as a letter she wished she had written to Marielle,” said Marguerite Itamar Harrison, associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Smith. 

Marielle Franco was unlike any other elected official in Brazil. According to The Washington Post, she was not just the only black woman out of a council of 51 in Rio de Janeiro, but was also a vocal member of the LGBT community and Socialism and Liberty Party, a critic of police brutality and an advocate for a range of human rights issues, specifically surrounding gender, sexuality, race and class. Luciany Capra ’21, an international relations major from Brazil, said, “I believe it is a very tragic loss, not only for her work as a human rights activist but as a voice of the LGBTQ+ community, which isn’t very supported in much of Latin America.”

Franco’s death, much like her success, was significant, attracting worldwide media coverage. Two hours after she attended a discussion called “Jovenes Negras Moviendo Estruturas,” which translates to “Young Black Women Moving [Power] Structures,” Franco was shot nine times when a car pulled up beside her own, according to The Washington Post. 

The global response was immediate. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned Franco’s assassination, and thousands of protesters took to the streets, according to The Guardian. BBC reports that people gathered in Brazil and other cities including New York, London and Stockholm to pay tribute to the assassinated human rights advocate. 

The killer has not yet been found, but The Guardian and The Washington Post suggest that, due to the “highly professional killing” with the use of bullets from police ammunition stocks, the murder may have been committed by “corrupt police officers.” The police force has not commented, and an investigation is still underway. 

Cora Fernandez Anderson, assistant professor of politics specializing in Latinx studies at Mount Holyoke, spoke about Franco’s political advocacy for  Brazilians from the favelas, slums that are predominantly black. “What we know so far is what she represented … poor black women from the favelas that have been ignored for most of their lives,” she said. “Her assassination, which was without a doubt a political act, demonstrates how Marielle was a threat to the structures of power in Brazil.” Marielle herself grew up in a favela, and was able to go to college and graduate school due to Brazil’s affirmative action policies. Her advocacy brought attention to the crowded shantytown conditions that Brazilian elites do their best to ignore. 

According to Anderson, Franco’s activism challenged “the myth of racial democracy in Brazil,” which she defined as “the myth that because [Brazil] didn’t have segregation laws as the U.S. [did], it was a society in which all races have equal opportunities.” This assumption, Anderson said, cannot be further from the truth.

“Since the return of democracy in 1985, black women have organized to challenge this narrative and show the need for subverting power and race relations. Marielle was doing exactly this. She was a city council member representing poor people in the favela Mare, [where] her main issue [...] was police violence and the fact that most victims of state violence were black and poor,” said Anderson.

In Brazil, many are hopeful that Franco’s death will create a movement of actual change. The Washington Post reported that some “hope that the killing will mark a turning point for black activism,” and that the immediate responsive outrage “is carrying more overt racial overtones than Brazilians are used to, including a flurry of tweets under the hashtag #genocidionegro,” which translates to “#blackgenocide.”

Franco will be remembered as a shining light of optimism in Brazilian politics, which has been known to be consumed by racism, sexism, homophobia and corruption. In 2015, The Guardian reported that Brazilian police were responsible for one in every five killings in Rio de Janeiro, and Franco made significant strides in speaking out against police brutality. 

She overcame racial barriers by becoming  one of the few black women to ever hold a council seat in Rio de Janeiro. After she was newly elected, she spoke to Newsweek about bringing black Brazilians into powerful positions. Franco said that “in order to become a mass movement, black people need to realize that we have the right to exist in TV shows, in politics, on school boards.” 

Al Jazeera wrote that Franco was “always on the side of the victims, whether they are police officers or civilians, demanding justice and change.” Her assassination was only one of the countless deaths of people of color, women or poor residents of Brazil, and unfortunately the world no longer has her activism to fight for human rights. Franco herself said it best when she tweeted: “How many more people need to die before this war ends?”

Professor Anderson spoke to how Franco’s death will hopefully revitalize the movement against the militarization of favelas, without whitewashing her political message to respect the likes of black and poor individuals. “This is what black women's movements should fight against at this moment,” she said. “This moment is very important in the broader political context of a transitional presidency that followed the dubious impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff and brought Michel Temer to power.” Temer, who according to the Financial Times has been imposing neoliberal policies and putting an end to social programs to try and assuage economic crisis, has left the favelas behind. “[Temer] appointed an all-male, almost exclusively white cabinet, so out of touch with the realities of the daily life in the favelas that [he] is pushing for their increased militarization with the excuse of fighting drug cartels and gangs,” said Anderson.

The legacy of Franco continues to impact Brazilian politics. After her death, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in an interview with Democracy Now! that “All democratic-minded persons in the world ... should protest loudly so that the assassins of Marielle are put in prison and are given exemplary punishment. That’s what we all want.” Lula da Silva is considered the most popular politician in Brazil and a champion of the working class. 

“It is in this context that the assassination of Marielle should be a wake up call for all Brazilians committed to social justice,” said Anderson, “and unite them to fight for what she stood for.” 

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