“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” – Audre Lorde
On March 13, 2018, Marielle Franco, a black queer woman, mother, sociologist, socialist, human rights defender, councilwoman from the favela of Maré, tweeted about 23-year-old Matheus Melo de Castro, who was shot in Rio: “Another killing of a young person possibly committed by the Military Police (PM). Matheus was leaving church. How many more must die for this war to end?” The next day, as she was leaving an event,“Jovens Negras Movendo as Estruturas” (“Young Black Women Moving Structures”), in the neighborhood of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, she was executed. Around 9:30pm, an unidentified car pulled up alongside hers and assassin(s) shot thirteen shots into the car, murdering Marielle and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes, leaving her assistant alive. The 9mm bullets that hit Marielle in her head and neck came from a lot of ammunition the Federal Police had purchased in Brasília in 2006. Military Police used bullets from this same lot to massacre 17 people in Barueri and Osasco (the São Paulo metropolitan area) in 2015.
As black feminist scholars from the United States whose work focuses on racism, sexism, and anti-black violence in Brazil, we stand in solidarity with black women and black communities in Brazil who are mourning the politically-motivated assassination of Marielle Franco. We recognize Marielle’s death as part of a larger pattern of state-sponsored killing, terrorization and silencing of black Brazilian communities. We know that she was killed because she identified and denounced anti-black state violence, particularly that tied to the current federally backed military occupation of Rio de Janeiro. We also know that she was killed not solely because of her race, gender, sexuality, class or political beliefs but because of all of those things combined. Her death is an alarming, brazen, political act of violence. Marielle was a black woman who espoused black feminism, denounced police violence, spoke out boldly and unabashedly about racism and classism, and fiercely defended and invested in her community (a favela). As such, she was a threat to the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist global social order. But her death is not a sign of the strength of this order. Rather, it is a sign of its ever-expanding weakness.
Marielle was born and raised in the Complexo da Maré, and she died representing this community. Maré and other communities like it have long served as a laboratory for brutal policies of austerity, violent policing, and military occupation. Her master’s thesis in sociology explored this brutality at length, particularly tying it to the militarization of the Brazilian police forces and the occupation of the majority black, majority poor favelas of her city, Rio de Janeiro. As an active member of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), Marielle challenged the status quo of negligence and abuse waged by so many political parties on poor people of color in Brazil. It is no accident that just days before her assassination, she was slated to be the rapporteur of the committee to review the recent federal intervention in the military occupation of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
We are aware of the transnational significance of Marielle’s murder and its links to global practices of anti-black genocide. Brazil’s black population is the second-largest African descendant population in the world, and it has been the target of brutal and violent policing practices for decades. Brazil’s crisis of police violence cannot be separated from the context of anti-black, deadly policing in the United States that motivated three black queer women to initiate the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2013 and expand it into the Movement for Black Lives. However, it is important to recognize that Black Brazilians have also been speaking out and organizing against anti-black police lethality and brutality for generations. Black resistance can be traced back as far as the wars between slavery-era quilombos (maroon communities) and Portuguese military forces. This is important to remember if we consider that contemporary police apparatuses emerged throughout the Americas first in direct response to the threat of black revolt during slavery. As such, black people have resisted violent, racialized policing since the epoch of slavery throughout the entire region.
Thus, we have come full circle. While there are explicit and implicit connections between the U.S. Movement for Black Lives and Brazil, the current movement against anti-black genocide in Brazil is an organic extension of generations of resistance against anti-black state violence in Brazil. Marielle was one of a cohort of black queer women leading the global fight to end anti-black state-sponsored terror. She had even committed herself to learning English through intensive readings of the works of black feminist scholars such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, among others, as a concrete way to link Brazilian movements to ideas and struggles for freedom and justice taking place around the world. If we recognize the Movement for Black Lives as a global coalition to fight against anti-black state violence, then Marielle Franco is yet another martyr for this global movement.
We feel compelled to place Marielle’s life, activism, and untimely death within this broader context of Brazil’s 500-hundred-year history of oppressing African descendant and indigenous peoples, and ongoing struggles for inclusive citizenship and democracy within the context of increasing authoritarianism. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2016 the police killed 4,224 people in Brazil. It may come as no surprise that the majority of those killed are black. If recent experiences of police killings of black people in Brazil tell us anything, they tell us that police often act with impunity. Let us not forget the case of Claudia Ferreira da Silva, a black Brazilian woman who was killed by police officers in Rio de Janeiro on March 16, 2014–nearly four years to the day before Marielle was killed. Claudia was shot by police during a gun battle with alleged drug traffickers in her neighborhood. After she was wounded she was stuffed in the trunk of a police car and her body was dragged for approximately 250 meters before the two officers stopped the car and stuffed her limp body back inside. She was dead by the time she arrived at the hospital. The officers charged with her death were never convicted, and have even been involved in eight more murders in the last four years. Marielle’s story also reminds us of the killing of Luana Barbosa dos Reis–a 34 year-old black woman from São Paulo who was beaten and killed by police officers in Riberão Preto. What precipitated her beating is telling: a masculine-identified lesbian, Luana protested when police officers stopped her and insisted on frisking her as if she were a man. When she refused to comply with being patted down by men, police officers beat her so badly that she suffered internal bleeding and eventually died of a stroke.
Marielle Franco’s brutal murder highlights disturbing practices of state violence and repression in Brazil, as they impact the black, and particularly black poor, population. This continual oppression has long been overlooked by the international media and in much academic scholarship. As a city council member and activist in Rio de Janeiro, Marielle defended the rights of black women, favela residents, and the LGBTQ community in a highly unequal and segregated city. While Rio de Janeiro was in the international spotlight just two short years ago as the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the police and military occupation of the city’s majority-black favelas was largely hidden from mainstream Brazilian public discourse. Policies of genocide and extermination have been enacted against black communities in major cities throughout Brazil since its founding, and have only heightened in recent years. In this sense, Marielle’s murder is a continuation of a long-standing state practice of killing Black people.
The fact that Brazil’s current political situation is eerily similar to the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) is cause for international alarm and action. The coup that forced Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, from office in August 2016 has hastened the country’s downward political spiral and the swift reversal of democratic and inclusive policies that were, hard won by black activists – and black women activists in particular. The country’s rightward shift has exacerbated a political climate in which activists, even those as prominent as Marielle, can be killed. We are particularly concerned about the impact of the current democratic crisis in Brazil on black communities, and its relationship to increasing rates of state-sponsored anti-black violence and death. As progressive communities throughout the world mourn the death of Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, we should also realize that her tragic murder is but one of thousands that are committed against black women, men and children in Brazil every year. It is estimated that a black person is killed in Brazil every 23 minutes.
The egregiousness of the targeted assassination of an elected official has mobilized people throughout Brazil and around the world. We must maintain this momentum if we want ensure the safety and well being of black women like Marielle and communities like Maré. As tragic and shocking as it was, sadly, Marielle’s assassination was not an anomaly. In Brazil there have been at least 194 politicians and activists killed in the past five years. Many of them have been killed for daring to question the hegemonic social structures intertwined with U.S interests. We cannot mourn her tragic death while ignoring our own government’s complicity and involvement in her death. Brazilian police forces responsible for brutality have been trained by the FBI and the New York Police Department. Agricultural oligarchs with ties to U.S. multinational corporations and politicians routinely kill indigenous people in land speculation disputes. And we cannot forget that Marielle spoke out boldly against the coup that ousted Brazil’s democratically-elected president with support from the U.S. State Department. Given the global dimensions of anti-blackness and the transnational circulation of practices of state violence and militarized policing, we believe profoundly that we must organize on a hemispheric and global level.
Marielle will forever be remembered by those she represented, and those she inspired, for recognizing their humanity while others only saw them as targets to be marginalized or annihilated. On the night of her death, Marielle quoted Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (1981, “The Uses of Anger”). As black people in the Americas we must commit ourselves to continuing the work for which Marielle died. We must affirm the need to center black women’s lives and experiences in our struggles for liberation, not at the expense of our broader multi-gendered communities, but precisely because “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Combahee River Collective Statement).
Collective vision for liberation is necessarily transnational–our struggles are inherently connected. We are heartened that the world has been moved by Marielle’s death. This show of international solidarity is a turning point. But we call on all of us to maintain this watchful eye for the months and years to come. Marielle’s assassination was not the first, and unfortunately, it is most likely not the last bellicose act in this global struggle. The fight for black life requires us to remain vigilant at home and abroad. Justice for Marielle means justice for us all.
Marielle, presente! Avante pretas! A luta é de todos nós!
Kia L. Caldwell, African, African American & Diaspora Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill
Wendi Muse, History, New York University
Tianna S. Paschel, African American Studies, UC-Berkeley
Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Africana Studies, Brown University
Christen A. Smith, African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin
Erica L. Williams, Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College