Murder of Brazilian Activist Brings People Power out in Force


March 20, 2018

Photo: Supporters rally in Rio de Janeiro, protesting the assassination of activist and Councilwoman Mariella Franco. Dado Galdieri. Bloomberg.

The recent murder of Brazilian human rights activist and Councilwoman Marielle Franco has deeply shaken the communities she advocated for. More than a thousand people have taken to the streets of Rio de Janeiro in protest of not only her killing, but also its suspicious and abhorrent context. By mourning her loss, their voices prove something important: She was not alone.

Marielle Franco had been called a rising star in Brazilian politics. She was a powerful voice for the poor, LGBT communities, black people, and women. Born in a favela of Rio de Janeiro, Franco built her career on the pursuit of human rights and equality, making incredible advances and eventually holding elected office. She was elected to the City Council in 2016 – one of only seven women among the 51 members, and the only black female. Igarapé Institute director Ilona Szabó, an expert on public safety policies, lamented the loss of Franco for Brazilian society. “She represented hope for so many women who never felt like they had a voice.”

Franco had also been an outward critic of police brutality in Brazil. The streets are patrolled by a military police force whose grave abuses have been documented by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In 2017, police killed more than 1,100 people in Rio alone. There, in January, they committed one out of every four homicides. These grave injustices are notoriously difficult to pursue, and justice is almost never reached. Days before her assassination, Franco had posted a series of tweets criticizing the military police of Rio, leading many now to conclude their responsibility for the targeted attack. “To dare to murder someone with a profile as high in Rio de Janeiro as Councilwoman Marielle Franco takes a lot of confidence that there will be no justice.”

In any case, if the murder was an attempt to silence Franco, it has rather had the exact opposite effect. With more than a thousand people protesting the death, speaking out for both justice and their rights, the movement is far from over. Franco may have been a minority in Brazilian legislature, but as a black, bisexual woman from poverty, she represented the voices and rights of repressed groups that together constitute a solid majority of Brazil’s population. An activist at a recent march shouted over and over that “Marielle’s voice will not be silenced,” but her voice was never singular anyway.

Franco was a representative of the people and her murder is a serious tragedy for Brazil. It is a mistake, however, to think that her people or their political ambitions have also been defeated. As is evidenced by these recent demonstrations, the fight for civil rights is on, leaders are quickly emerging, and many historically oppressed people have begun to realize just how powerful they really are.