Mourning 'Marielle,' Brazilian women push to carry on slain activist's legacy

Many Brazilians had never heard of politician Marielle Franco before her death. But her murder has come to symbolize the impunity, violence, racism – and desire for opportunity and change – that have enveloped South America’s largest nation. 

Ellis Rua/AP
Councilwoman Marielle Franco smiles for a photo in Rio de Janeiro, Jan. 9, 2018. Franco was fatally shot March 14 while returning from an event focused on empowering young black women. Her death touched a nerve in Brazil, where more than 50 percent identify as black or mixed-race, yet most politicians are white men.

When Rio de Janeiro’s city councilwoman and human rights activist Marielle Franco was assassinated after a political event last month, Carla Duarte, a university student and aspiring politician here, felt whiplashed.

First came the tears, for hours straight, she recalls – and then the fear.

“I’ve always been involved in local politics,” says Ms. Duarte. But Franco’s death made her “realize my life could be on the line if I decided to make a career out of complaining loudly” about problems in her community.

Franco described herself as a “woman, black mother, lesbian, and child of the Maré favela [slum],” and for many she was a symbol of hope: Someone carving out a passionate career focused on giving voice to Brazil’s silenced. On March 14, Franco was fatally shot alongside her driver following a public event called “Black women changing power structures.” One month later, authorities have yet to make arrests for her murder.

But, on a recent Wednesday night, Ms. Duarte says she’s started to feel a new emotion following Franco’s death: hope.

She joined roughly 60 other women like her and Franco – Afro-Brazilian, from poor neighborhoods, and aspiring to make a change in Brazilian society via politics – to strategize ways to carry forward Franco’s legacy as a fierce critic of police violence and institutionalized discrimination against the poor.

“I need to keep going because this is exactly what those who killed Marielle would want me to be,” says Duarte. They want her to feel “frightened of making a difference and unprepared to lead the fight in my community” against poor health services and public education, she says.

More than half of Brazil’s 200 million people are black or mixed-race, yet only a small percentage of politicians are Afro-Brazilian, according to a forthcoming study published by the University of São Paulo and focused specifically on that state. “We have a minority solving the problems of the majority,” says Osmar Teixeira Gaspar, a human rights lawyer and study author.

In the midst of persistently high violence that largely affects poor and black Brazilians, those like Duarte who were rocked by Franco’s death are now working to ensure her legacy is continued, from mentorship by established politicians to fighting to ensure Franco’s murder is solved.

“Marielle’s death was a bid to blow up our path to a more egalitarian society,” says Talíria Petrone, a city councilor in Niterói, a Rio suburb, and friend of Franco’s.

“But instead of destroying us, her death has united us, strengthened and inspired us to continue. She … challenged the status quo.”

Honoring Franco through action

Franco grew up in the Rio favela known as Maré Complex, a violent community dominated by drug traffickers. The young politician rose quickly to become a leading voice in the black rights movement, and a thorn in the side of opposing politicians. She refused to shy away from publicly denouncing violence by military police against poor, black Brazilians.

Many here had never heard of Franco before her death. But her murder has come to symbolize the impunity, violence, racism – and desire for opportunity and change – that have enveloped South America’s largest nation. Her assassination was decried by governments and citizens across the world, with Brazil’s prosecutor general calling it an attack on democracy.

April 14 marks the one-month anniversary. Supporters are frustrated that the investigation has made little progress other than the recent revelation that there could be fragments of fingerprints on the bullet casings collected at the crime scene.

Anger around Franco’s death spills over into tonight’s meeting in Niterói. Some participants cry, while others punch the air with their fists. “Marielle is here, now and forever,” several women call out in unison.

“Marielle was my friend, my sister, and my confidante,” says Ms. Petrone, the event’s organizer, who arrives with a burly armed guard. Like Franco, she’s received death threats since taking office in 2016.

Petrone, a former history teacher, was elected at the same time as Franco, on a platform that promised to tackle a host of social problems including violence against women, racial discrimination, and intolerance of the LGBT community.

Franco “understood what it was like to be a black female in a white-male dominated council chamber,” Petrone says. She suffered “explicit racism and realized some of these men still see us as black slaves with no right to enter their sphere of power.”

Tonight’s meeting is meant to be the first of many, aimed at galvanizing attendees to fight against social inequalities.

Brazil is in the midst of a historic economic and political crisis that’s seen top politicians fall and a sitting president impeached. Unemployment averaged at 12.7 percent in 2017 and violence is climbing, with poor, black Brazilians the hardest hit.

Data released last October by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security shows that 4,224 people were killed in Brazil following police interventions in 2016. Almost all of the victims were male; 76.2 percent of them were black and less than 30 years old.

In Rio state, nearly 160 people were killed in clashes with police in January alone, a 57 percent increase from 2017. The police offensives that have defined favela life for decades are once again on the upswing. A recent decision to introduce the military in Rio to combat gang violence has made little headway, some observers say.

Franco was strident in denouncing military intervention, which is now in its second month.

“I have to honor Marielle’s death and continue what she started so the difference she made is not in vain,” says participant Duarte, whose mother is black and father white. She blames the violence she has personally experienced in low-income areas – mugged five times and once at gunpoint – on economic inequalities and lack of opportunities.

Some 54 percent of Brazilians identify as black and mixed-race, but Dr. Teixeira, the human rights lawyer, found that between 2014-2017 only 4.2 percent of elected politicians in the São Paulo legislature were black.

“São Paulo was the center of my research, [but] the national reality isn’t far off,” he says. “A significant number of black candidates do not have the wherewithal, the education, the financial and material structure, and the support to enter and sustain themselves in” a political race.

Some, like Teixeira, propose quota systems to overcome the low representation of black Brazilians in politics. But Petrone believes fighting from the ground up to prepare politicians for the realities of politics is the only way forward.

“My role has taken on [a new] urgency,” says Petrone of her desire to help mentor others like Franco. She remembers persuading Franco, whom she knew for more than eight years, to run for office over coffee in 2016. She wants to share some of that same encouragement with the next generation of Francos here tonight.

“I’m opening my offices so [these women] can shadow my work, inviting them into the council chamber to watch the process, giving them one-on-one pep talks on what they need to do to enter the political process,” she says.

I’m “listening to their fears and [trying to give] them the courage and self-belief that they can do it. Just like me. Just like Marielle.”

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