“How many more will have to die for this war to end?” Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco’s tweet on 13 March is echoing all over Brazil. A day after posting this question, Franco became a victim of this war herself –on the night of 14 March, she was murdered in cold blood with four bullets to her head. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed. A third person, an assistant who was also in the car, was injured but survived. While driving around Estácio neighbourhood, a car pulled close and two unknown attackers fired nine bullets. It was not attempted robbery. It was cold-blooded execution.
Franco was 38 years old. A member of left-wing party PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party), she was elected a council member in Rio in 2016 with the fifth-largest vote count (out of 51). She studied sociology and got a master’s degree in public administration. She was a human-rights activist. She was a black woman from a poor background, born and bred in Maré, a neighbourhood in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro that encompasses several favelas. She was a mother. She was a lesbian. She was a feminist. Marielle Franco was everything that Brazilians are not used to in Brazilian politics; she was a symbol of change, of real progress. She represented several oppressed groups and was working towards giving voice to those who are often forgotten and always marginalised by an elitist, misogynist and conservative majority of politicians. Now, thousands are taking to the streets in protest – and to ensure that her message is not lost.
Are we going to allow her work, her message and her life – she left a 19-year-old daughter and a partner – to be swept under the carpet?
Franco was outspoken and recently was working hard to expose and condemn police brutality. She had been appointed spokesperson of the newly created council committee to investigate abuse of power during the military intervention in Rio. The military intervention – a move by President Temer to allegedly control the ongoing violence in the city and distract the population from his failure in approving a highly unpopular pension reform – started in February, and gave the armed forces full control of the police. The intervention hasn’t yet, and probably won’t, improve security in Rio. In fact, it has increased violence in the favelas and, on 10 March (four days before her assassination), Franco published the following statement on her social-media channels: “What is happening now in the Acari favela is absurd! And it has always happened! The 41st division of the Military Police is known as the death division. ENOUGH of oppressing the population! ENOUGH of killing our youngsters!”
Franco was a black woman making things happen. In fact, she had attended a panel conversation titled Young Black Women Moving Structures before she was murdered. During the panel, she quoted Audre Lorde’s famous words: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” And, as another great woman, Angela Davis, said during a talk in a visit to another Brazilian city, Salvador, “when a black woman moves, all society’s structure move with her”. Franco was moving, and taking all of us with her.
Her voice was brutally silenced and there was not even an effort to disguise it. It was a scary message directed to those following Franco’s progressive steps and to those who saw in her a light at the end of the tunnel. It has sparked huge commotion on social media (check the hashtag #MariellePresente) and rallies, protests and vigils all over the country and abroad. There were also – unfortunately, although not surprisingly – outbursts of hate from extremists, which even went as far as generating fake news regarding her life and legacy. But, mostly, Franco’s death was a painful wake-up call to Brazilians. We might have hit rock bottom. Are we going to allow her work, her message and her life – she left a 19-year-old daughter and a partner – to be swept under the carpet? Or are we going to multiply and amplify her voice and use whatever privileges we have to keep fighting? I will, as Franco did, use Audre Lorde’s words to reflect on this moment: your silence will not protect you.
Let’s use our grief for a greater good. Marielle Franco lives on. Fight like Marielle.