When I first saw the photo last fall, a feeling of disgust and hurt returned to the gut of my stomach. The photo showed a white male political candidate holding up a broken street sign that paid homage to Marielle Franco, the slain Afro-Brazilian councilwoman who dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. Her mourners created the street sign in her honor and placed it in central locations throughout Rio de Janeiro.
For this white man, however, the honorary street sign was a public nuisance. So he pulled it down, broke it and showcased it at a conservative political rally. For me and many Afro-Brazilian women, this public act was a violent emotional attack on us. It felt like Franco was being assassinated again. But this time it happened in plain sight for everyone to take photos and record.
I will always remember March 14, 2018 the day Franco was assassinated.
Franco, 38, a Black queer councilwoman had organized an anti-racism panel called “Jovens Negras Movendo as Estruturas.”—Young Black Women Shaking the Foundation. The event, held at Casa das Pretas (The Black Women’s House)—attracted dozens of Rio’s most active young Black women—writers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, musicians.
After two hours of talking about Black heritage, invisible boundaries, economic independence, feminism, and education, the women left the event empowered and excited about the future. Instead of joining them for a beer afterward, Franco decided to go directly home. As Franco was heading home, around 9:20 pm, a car pulled up alongside hers and an assassin unloaded 9 shots into her vehicle. Four of them hit Franco in the head, killing her immediately. Her driver, Anderson Gomes, also died. Those four shots killed a mother, wife, academic, and human rights advocate who was fearless in defending the dignity of women, Black people, LGBTQ and the poor.
At that exact moment, I was also in Brazil experiencing my own political euphoria. I had traveled to the city of Salvador for the World Social Forum, a global gathering of progressive activists. That night I attended a packed panel in which Brazil’s most influential Black YouTubers invigorated attendees with their accounts of trailblazing in social media amidst a new Black consciousness movement. I joined the panelists for caipirinhas in Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic center. As we were sitting there, rehashing the antics of the panel, our phones began to ring one by one. My stomach sank. I tried to stand up, but I fell to the ground. Franco was dead.
Franco’s assassination hit Black women the hardest. Some of my friends fell physically ill. Others just went into mourning. It felt like a direct attack on the potential for Black women to ascend to the halls of Brazil’s political power. Less than three years earlier I had reported on the first ever Black Women’s March in Brasílía, the capital of Brazil. More than 50,000 Afro-Brazilian women gathered in Brazil’s capital to demand attention to and support of their issues—poverty, health, and violence. The solidarity I witnessed in Brasílía left me excited about the future of black women in Brazil. But Franco’s murder left me in despair.
I immediately felt a strong duty to make sure Black women throughout the diaspora knew who she was and what she represented for black women in Brazil. This is Franco’s story—before and after her assassination.
In 2016, Franco mounted a campaign to become a councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro. She ran on a platform of 50 ideas for the advancement of women, Afro-Brazilians and favela dwellers. Her election campaign materials featured a profile silhouette with her natural hair wound up in a colorful headwrap, emblazoned in purple–the symbol of feminism in Brazil. Her slogan: I Am Because We Are, the Ubuntu principle. She was the first Black woman to turn herself into a piece of art and social media turned that into an icon.
Franco received the fifth-most votes to become the only Black woman in the 51-person assembly. Her win was remarkable because she grew up in Maré, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most impoverished and violently policed favelas (hoods). Despite these circumstances, Franco studied in Maré’s first college preparation course and gained acceptance to Rio de Janeiro’s prestigious Pontifical Catholic University. When her friend was shot and killed by a stray bullet in 2000, she decided to pursue a career in human rights. She went on to complete a Master’s degree in Public Administration.
During her first year on the council, I saw her navigate spaces of power previously off-limits to Afro-centered Black women. She wore African-print dresses in the chambers, sported t-shirts with pro-Black messages and she always rocked a natural. In her short time in office, she proposed at least 10 laws that aimed to help Black people, women, LGBTQ and the poor.
When I attended her 38th birthday party in 2017 it was the first time I had seen an all-women’s group playing samba music–still a novelty at the time. Of course, Franco held the party at Pedra do Sal, the birthplace of samba as both a musical form and act of resistance.
Franco shook things up so much, there was bound to be a backlash. Just the day before her assassination, Franco had boldly called out Brazilian police on social media for killing young Black men in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. This state-sponsored violence is one piece of a system of terror and exclusion that constitutes genocide against Black people.
The day after Franco’s assassination thousands of people gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro for a vigil in her memory. In Salvador, I attended a protest march organized at the World Social Forum. The chants of “Marielle Presente!” (Marielle is Here!), and “Marielle Vive!” (Marielle Lives) united people of every stripe of the rainbow as they displayed their sadness and demanded that her killers be found. Within a week, this massive vigil grew into protests against the genocide of Black people in dozens of cities across Brazil and around the world.
Franco’s assassination came at a critical time—six months before Brazil’s state and national elections. After Franco’s death, Black women understood the power of running for political office. Fortunately, Franco had already planted seeds. In 2017, Franco launched an initiative to recruit more women into politics
. Her own cabinet included two women with favela backgrounds who decided to run for state representative in 2018—Monica Francisco and Renata Souza—and won. Dani Monteiro, a 27-year old mentee of Franco, became one of the youngest state representatives in Rio. The proof is in the numbers. The number of black women in Rio de Janeiro running for political office statewide in 2018 almost doubled from 2014–from 128 to 231. Nationally, Black women candidates were more visible than ever. In São Paulo, Brazilians elected a transgender woman as state deputy—Érica Malaguinhos—a first in Brazil. Collectively, these women are known as “Sementes de Marielle”—the seeds of Marielle.
Franco’s life was cut short, but her legacy will survive even longer through these Black women who have gained a powerful political voice. And I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to experience all that she had to offer Brazil.