Protestors in Rio de Janeiro hold a picture of slain politician Marielle Franco, and a sign reading, 'Black lives are important' in Portuguese.
Protestors in Rio de Janeiro hold a picture of slain politician Marielle Franco. Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Following the beloved politician’s murder, residents of Brazil’s favelas have taken to the streets for days to protest her death and the danger faced by favela residents living under military control.

“For Marielle, I say no!
I say no to intervention!”

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have chanted these words in Rio de Janeiro since Marielle Franco, a first-term city councilor here, was killed last week.

Almost every day since her death on March 14, protestors have taken to the streets, shutting down highways and downtown thoroughfares, holding candlelight vigils, and covering the Chamber of City Councilors with slogans and red handprints, as well as with stenciled likenesses of Franco, a black, queer woman from the Maré complex of favelas.

Franco, a self-described “human rights defender,” was widely respected in Rio de Janeiro, and her murder has tapped a growing anger throughout the city, especially in favelas. In 2018, perhaps even more than usual, favelas and the people who live there—who, like Franco are primarily of African descent—have been under attack.

In February, just days after carnaval ended, Brazil’s federal government announced that the army would be taking over law enforcement duties throughout Rio de Janeiro state, partially in response to a supposed recent crime wave. Yet statistics show that crime actually went down compared to 2017’s carnaval, even though high-profile mass robberies in wealthy beachfront neighborhoods like Ipanema and Copacabana dominated local and national headlines. Rio’s overall murder rate is unquestionably high, though it pales in comparison to smaller Brazilian cities like Natal, Belém, and Maceió. But the rate of violence and killings by police officers in Brazil is said to be the highest in the world. Favela residents are a disproportionate number of the victims.

Everything about Franco’s killing—the targeted accuracy of the gunshots (Anderson Pedro Gomes, the car’s driver, was also killed, and an aide was wounded), the fact that neither the car nor anything in it was stolen, and the fact that it took place during busy evening hours—made it clear not only that this was an assassination, but that it was meant to be understood that way. Franco was targeted for being a human rights defender, a politically engaged favela resident, and, perhaps most of all, a successful black woman.

In recent weeks, as army soldiers have taken the place of local police, troops have instituted checkpoints in favelas throughout Rio, sometimes subjecting children as young as kindergartners to pat-downs and backpack searches, or else demanding photo ID from anyone entering or leaving a given area. In the Vila Kennedy neighborhood, a poor and working-class community in the city’s sprawling west zone, they’ve also bulldozed small businesses that were the only source of income for several local families.

For years, a growing sector of Brazil’s right wing—nostalgic for the supposed law and order of the 21-year military dictatorship that puttered out in 1985—has been calling for a complete military takeover of the government. They’ve gotten what they wanted, at least in part: Across Rio de Janeiro state, the authority of General Walter Souza Braga Netto, the army’s top general, now supersedes that of both the governor and local mayors in all matters of public security.

Almost as soon as the military intervention began, a coalition of civil society organizations formed a Truth Commission as an attempt to keep the army in check. On February 28, Marielle Franco was named its rapporteur. General Braga Netto was quick to condemn the creation of the commission, explicitly demanding “guarantees” that his soldiers be able to act unencumbered by civilian pressure or oversight.

Military intervention has been a recurring hardship in Maré, the complex of favelas where Franco was born and raised. In March 2014, on the eve of the 50th anniversary coup d’état that sparked Brazil’s dictatorship, then-president Dilma Rousseff signed an executive order that sent thousands of federal troops into Maré. The soldiers remained there for over a year, driving through the narrow streets in tanks, conducting daily drills with assault rifles and full body armor, and shooting at any cars and pedestrians deemed “suspicious.” Dozens were killed or wounded as a result.

In addition to being deadly, occupation by military intervention is not an especially innovative strategy. For the past decade, a so-called “pacification” program has aimed to create a permanent police presence in some of the city’s most prominent favelas, purportedly as a means to bring highly trained officers into communities, win local trust, and eventually stamp out the drug trade. Instead, the intervention has led to a sharp uptick in cases of police brutality, including the high-profile 2013 disappearance, torture, and murder of Amarildo Dias de Souza, a construction worker, in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela.

Marielle Franco, who earned a master’s degree in sociology, studied police “pacification” and wrote in her 2014 thesis that “there is no ‘war’ [on drugs] in this process. What actually exists…is a policy of excluding and punishing poor people.” Of course, this punishment also extends beyond “pacification” sites: days before she was murdered, Franco called attention to recent police abuses in the un-“pacified” favela of Acari, including the murder of two young men whose bodies were thrown into an open sewer.

Punishing poor people seems to be the intent of most mechanisms of political control in Rio de Janeiro, whether is through military intervention or police “pacification.” On March 16, just two days after Franco’s murder, “pacification” police in the Alemão complex of favelas killed three people, including a 58-year-old grandmother and a toddler in a stroller. Ironically, media outlets in Rio and throughout Brazil have tried to use Franco’s murder to bolster the case for militarization. But as she herself made clear in a statement written a few hours before her death, Rio’s violence is not simply the result of generalized disorder:

Marielle Franco was killed for speaking out against this “experiment.”

In taking to the streets to protest the military intervention that has kept Rio de Janeiro under de jure martial law for nearly a month, demonstrators are not only upholding Franco’s legacy as a self-described “human rights defender,” but also pointing to the circumstances that, in all likelihood, led directly to her murder. Whether her murderers were cops, soldiers, members of a paramilitary group, or simply hired killers, her death was meant both to silence her and to send a clear warning to anyone who sought to emulate her example.

Franco’s rise to public prominence seemed to be the kind of meritocratic fairytale that Brazil’s political and media establishment utilizes to show that personal perseverance can be enough to brush aside systemic racism, poverty, and violence.

Ultimately, however, Marielle Franco’s perseverance and courage made her a target for the same racist violence that destroys thousands of lives in Rio de Janeiro every year.

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