In Brazil and around the world, many were shocked by the egregious act of cold-blooded murder that took place on March 14 — and that put on display the open wounds of the country’s 2017 institutional coup.
City councillor Marielle Franco was in a car on her way home from a political event about the genocide of Black youth in Rio de Janeiro. A car pulled up next to hers, fired nine shots into the car and drove away. Nothing was stolen.
It was later revealed that Franco and her driver were struck by army-issued bullets.
Franco was an important political figure in Rio and a symbol for many Black people throughout Brazil. She was a Black feminist, lesbian and single mother.
She is survived by her partner, daughter and family.
Born and raised in a favela (shantytown), it seemed her life would follow the same course as most of those who live in the favelas: poor public school education and a lack of access to higher education.
Yet, Franco’s story is an anomaly in a country so deeply divided by race and class. She entered university in 2002 and graduated with a degree in sociology, focusing her studies on the impact of police presence in the favelas.
Her political work and activism brought attention to issues like police violence against Black people, gender violence and LGBTI rights.
Franco’s assassination must be understood within the context of racial violence, policing and militarisation, and right-wing politics in Brazil.
The past years have been characterised by major political polarisation in Brazil.
Following its election in 2002, the post-neoliberal Workers Party (PT) governed over a period characterised by economic growth that secured historic profits for the wealthy. It also came with an expansion of social welfare programs for the poorest and access to credit that allowed Brazilians to consume like never before.
But as the economy descended into crisis, so did the PT.
In 2013, millions took to the streets against hikes in bus fares, facing huge police repression. The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics promised to bring an economic boom, but instead brought profits for contractors, and militarisation and repression for Brazil’s Black and poor communities.
As the crisis intensified, the PT implemented deeper austerity measures and more privatisation. However, it was not enough for the country’s reactionary forces — from the judicial branch to the conservative Globo media group to the right-wing political parties.
The economy plummeted. What was once seen as an emerging economy is now back in squalor, with huge unemployment, hunger, homelessness and police violence.
After a campaign fuelled by US-trained judges, the right-wing media and conservative parties, PT President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016.
Since then, the unelected Michel Temer government has been characterised by abysmally low approval ratings (3% in the polls) and attacks on the working class. These include a vast labour deregulation package and a bill preventing increases in funding to the education and healthcare budgets for the next 15 years.
Rio’s racial divide
Nowhere are these contradictions more visible than in Rio de Janeiro.
Known as the “marvellous city”, Rio’s beaches are unparalleled. But the city’s geography reveals the contradictions of capitalism and racism in Latin America’s most powerful country.
Multi-million-dollar beachfront apartments and millions of moneyed tourists are surrounded by favelas inhabited mostly by Black people. The favelas are part of the scenery of the city — hills covered in crowded and precarious informal housing.
The racial division in Rio is brutal and blatant — white people in the upscale and tree-lined district of Leblon, and Black people in the improvised shacks of the favelas atop the city’s hills.
A chant often heard in political rallies reflects the reality of life in the favelas: “The police kill a poor person every day.” Last year, the police murdered more than 1000 people in Rio de Janeiro alone — and these are only the numbers reported in the media.
In 2016, Franco became the fifth-most voted member of Rio’s city council. Her party, the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), came second in Rio’s mayoral election.
Since then, the attacks on the working class and on the favelados (people living in the favela) in Rio have escalated. The coup president ordered a military intervention in the city, giving extensive dictatorial powers to the army.
Checkpoints were set up throughout Rio, and a city that was already heavily policed is now hugely militarised.
In this context, Franco was put on the committee to oversee the federal military intervention in Rio. From the start, she took a strong stance against the intervention.
She was also actively involved in the struggle against the genocidal violence in Rio’s favelas. A recent police operation left two youths dead in a ditch in yet another unsolved murder case involving the police.
And then, she was brutally murdered.
For the millions of Black people in Rio, her murder is a reminder of the fact that Black people are killed with impunity. For LGBTI people, it is a reminder that more LGBTI people are murdered in Brazil each year than anywhere else in the world.
Franco’s death was a political assassination of a leftist who was killed for denouncing the police and military intervention. This was an extrajudicial execution and the state, the military and the apologists of the coup are responsible.
Franco’s blood is on the hands of the right wing and the capitalists who have escalated the violence in Rio; it is on the hands of the president who ordered the military intervention; and it is on the hands of the police and military who murder with impunity.
They thought they could assassinate a leftist without even trying to cover it up. They were wrong.
Thousands of protesters have marched throughout Brazil shouting: “They tried to kill Marielle, but Marielle is present”.
Franco’s brutal assassination seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The outcry against her gruesome murder carries the potential to further weaken the coup government.
The spectre of the huge mobilisations of 2013 haunts the capitalists, as they fear an escalation in anti-police and anti-right wing protests.
Yet, at the same time, Temer and his allies are exploiting Franco’s murder to gain support for their authoritarian militarisation of the country. Their aim is to vindicate the military presence in the city by championing Franco as a victim of urban violence.
This is the narrative that may triumph unless an independent investigation into Franco’s extrajudicial execution takes place.
Justice for Marielle means holding the murderous coup government accountable for this and other heinous crimes perpetrated against Black and poor people in Rio.
[Abridged from Left Voice.]