Black Feminist Marielle Franco’s Assassination Reveals the Banality of Death in Brazil

Gabriela Azevedo,
Allan M. Hillani

Summary: The assassination of Black feminist leader Marielle Franco, who was involved in both anti-capitalist and anti-racist politics, and who spoke out with uncommon force against the military occupation of the favelas of Rio, has touched off mass protests against Brazil’s increasingly authoritarian direction–Editors

Rio de Janeiro – On a regular Wednesday night, March 14, Marielle Franco (Party of Socialism and Liberty-PSOL), the city council member who received the fifth highest number of votes in the second biggest Brazilian city, was summarily executed with 9 shots. Anderson Gomes, her driver, was also killed, while the advisor that accompanied her survived. Marielle’s mandate was dedicated to gender, racial and social equality and though this was the second year of her first mandate, her impact in Rio’s politics was huge. There was no explicit motive or warning for this murder except the implicit danger of being a Black woman and a socialist militant living and fighting in Brazil. These two aspects of her life, which are never enough to express the shining person she was, are necessary to understand this brutal act. This is because her death is unfortunately one among two Brazilian traditions: the genocide of Black population and the murder of activists and militants.

As a country that never really transcended its slave past, Brazilian history is marked by a real genocide against Black people, especially young Black men. According to the “Atlas of Violence” of last year, of every 100 people murdered in Brazil, 71 are Black, and while the mortality rate of non-Black women fell 7.4% from 2005 to 2015, the mortality rate of Black women arose an alarming 22%. The death rates concerning Black men and women in Brazil is comparable to countries at war [1]. In Rio, the situation is even more extreme, since law enforcement is responsible for a large portion of these murders: of the 1275 deaths resulting from police intervention between 2010 and 2013, 79% were of Black people [2]. Not to mention that Brazil has the fourth biggest prison population in the world (607,000) [3] and that 64% of that population is Black [4].

Brazil is also a champion in killing activists. According to Amnesty International [5], in 2016, 66 activists were assassinated; through August 2017, the number was 58. But since the military coup of 1964, there have been countless cases of threats, persecution, and assassination of indigenous leaders, environmentalists, communists, rural landless workers, social movement militants and human rights activists, a pattern that persists today.

However, although these numbers may help explain the critical situation in Brazil, Marielle’s execution seems to present a turning point in our history of racialized political violence. Far from the (dirty and unacceptable) “business as usual,” the execution of a democratically elected politician whose actions were always within the limits of the law reveals that we may be facing a new situation with unpredictable consequences in Brazil. Some ascribe this to the parliamentary coup suffered by former President Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party–PT) [6], or to the decision by those who deposed Dilma to put the army in charge of security in the state of Rio de Janeiro [7], but this would be to blame the symptom instead of its cause.

Between 2002 and 2013, Brazil lived a strange period of “peace and prosperity” under the two terms of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) and the first term of Dilma Rousseff (PT). Economic growth, reduction of extreme poverty, and expansion of the public education system went together with the militarization of the favelas, the displacement of people for the World Cup and the Olympics, and an alarming deindustrialization of the economy [8]. A political arrangement that once seemed to be infinite started to break in 2013, and since then the economic, institutional and social crisis has only deepened. Following the “shock doctrine” textbook, governments have tried to apply neoliberal medicine (austerity, privatizations, and attacks on social rights), but the bitter pill has only worsened the patient’s condition. The social fracture has been widened, and with the left focused on defending president Lula and the rule of law [9], but with no alternative program for the future, the proto-fascist solution is only getting stronger [10].

This background is necessary to grasp Marielle’s murder, because it helps us to understand how the situation in Rio got this far. It is unquestionable that she was executed, and experts are confident that the killers were professionally trained. It is hard to believe that her murder has nothing to do to with Rio’s military police or the “militias” that clash with drug dealers over control over the territory in a mafia-like relation between the State and organized crime [11]. Marielle was famous for denouncing police arbitrariness and she was elected rapporteur of the commission that was to investigate crimes committed during the military intervention. But this would not suffice to explain her death. Other politicians from Rio, some even more famous and radical, dedicated their mandates to the defense of human rights and the critique of State violence, but this did not result in their deaths. On the other hand, Marielle’s natural “vulnerability” allows us to grasp why there was no previous warning nor direct threat, but this too could not be the only explanation. Something more is needed.

Only in a situation in which death and prison are the usual “solutions” to social problems, and in which State violence is broadly supported by the population and widely endorsed by the judicial system, could such an act take place. It is important to stress that an appellate court judge, a TV show host, and a federal deputy have spread blatantly false rumors about Marielle’s supposed involvement with the organized crime, implying that there should be no reason for a national commotion after her assassination. This kind of fake news, with the intent to justify extra-judicial killings due to a supposed relation between the victim and organized crime, always emerge after these kinds of cases. This is only a symptom of the terrifying banalization of death, especially the deaths of Black people, that is going on in Brazil. In addition, history has already shown on multiple occasions what a situation like this, in which killings become a conceivable form of collective action, may become.

But if Marielle was murdered to prevent the flowering of her ideals, they should have known better. A spring has already started. Her funeral was attended by a massive amount of people, and since then the city has been impacted by widespread demonstrations. If she was still among us, she would probably be the candidate of her party, PSOL, for vice-governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro. And until the end of her present mandate for the city council, she would have proposed even more bills to protect and help mothers and women, to prevent harassment, to protect transgender people, to protect religious liberty, to defend Black lives. Her death is not the end. Her legacy is more alive than ever.

Allan M. Hillani holds a Masters of Theory and philosophy of Law (State University of Rio de Janeiro, UERJ) and is a PhD student of Philosophy (New School for Social Research).

Gabriela Azevedo holds a Masters of Law (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, PUC-Rio), and is a Masters and Doctoral student of Theory and Philosophy of Law (State University of Rio de Janeiro, UERJ), a lawyer, and a historian.


[1] IPEA & FBSP, Atlas da violência, 2017: http://bit.ly/2r00l7z.

[2] Amnesty International, You killed my son: homicides by military police in the city of Rio de Janeiro, 2015: http://bit.ly/1F0mysq.

[3] ICPR, World prison population, 2016: http://bit.ly/2HIf7bC.

[4] DEPEN, Levantamento nacional de informações penitenciárias, 2016: http://bit.ly/2AHz8Ag.

[5] Amnesty International, Deadly but preventable attacks: killings and enforced disappearances of those who defend human rights: http://bit.ly/2IB6CAk.

[6] For a discussion of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, see: Amand Taub, ‘All impeachments are political, but was Brazil’s something more sinister?’, in New York Times: http://nyti.ms/2o9JaSr.

[7] For a critical approach toward the intervention, see: Robert Muggah, ‘Military intervention won’t solve the violence in Rio de Janeiro’, in Los Angeles Times: http://lat.ms/2HLtKuD.

[8] For a great analysis of the period, see: André Singer (org.), As contradições do lulismo: a que ponto chegamos?, São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

[9] For a presentation of Lula’s case, see: Leonardo Avritzer, ‘Chasing Lula’, in Boston review: http://bit.ly/2FS0Fgx.

[10] For a presentation of the proto-fascist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, see: Lucinda Elliott, ‘The Tropical Trump: what the rise of Jair Bolsonaro means for Brazil’, in Prospect: http://bit.ly/2FS0Fgx.

[11] For an explanation of the relation between crime and police in Rio de Janeiro, see: Alexei Barrionuevo, ‘Militias replace gangs as Rio’s crime lords’, in The New York Times: http://nyti.ms/2GG4Hdm

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