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People Falling All Around Us

Why the killing of Marielle Franco?

On the night of the 14th of March, elected councilwoman for the city of Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco, was shot dead in her car while returning from an event dedicated to black women’s empowerment. Nine gunshots were fired against the car, four of which hit Marielle directly in the head, and three hit and killed Anderson Pedro Gomes, the driver, who unfortunately was in the bullets’ trajectory. An assistant of Ms. Franco’s, sitting by her side in the backseat of the car, was not shot and had only minor injuries caused by glass shattering. All of the belongings inside the vehicle remained untouched. This brief description of how the shooting happened already points to a number of factors: that it was an execution performed by professional gunmen, who knew where she would be seated in the car and, therefore, had been following her vehicle for some time. Also, that the group did not think twice before opening fire in the busy streets of the second largest city in the country against its fifth most voted official — a kind of petulance that belongs to those whose power extends so deeply and are so certain of their impunity that they are not minimally disturbed by ripping the already all-too thin gloss of normality that hardly coats everyday life in Rio.

Marielle Franco, 38 years old, was a queer black woman, mother of one, born and raised in Maré, one of the largest favela conglomerates in Rio. She was a fierce activist for human rights, especially LGBTQ-, black- and women’s-rights. Until yesterday she represented a rupture within the fate that dictates the lives of poor women of color in Brazil: death. She graduated in Sociology, had a Master’s degree in Public Affairs and was holding office for the first time through PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade), being an important and active member of the party for many years already. Marielle had been a vocal and active critic of institutionalized brutality in Rio, and of the rule of militias (groups formed by sections of the police, who command not only the drug traffic but also access to public services such as electricity, water, “security,” or even authorization for opening small businesses, amongst others) in the slums and in the periphery of Rio. Only two weeks before her assassination she was named reporter for an investigation commission led by Rio’s City Council on possible abuses perpetrated within the mandate of the ongoing military intervention in Rio. [1] A few days before her assassination, she posted on her Twitter account that militia members connected to the 41st Police District of Acari had been responsible for murdering two young men of color in the area as they were leaving the local church. The Acari Police District, also known as “the death discrict” (“Batalhão da Morte” in Portuguese), is the deadliest police district in the city, and this is saying a lot in the country with the most violent police force in the world.

To have a full grip on the elements behind and the relevance of Marielle and Anderson’s murders requires a vast understanding of Brazilian society and politics. The systematic genocide of people of color, the rampant sexism, the indecent and fast-recovering social inequality, the drug trafficking and the consequent disputes for territory and markets, the connection of militias with high politics, political parties, evangelical churches, and others. Wednesday’s execution more or less directly encapsulates so many conflicts that it is nauseating. Marielle’s work was precisely to bare nude the mechanisms of a system that exterminates at will: killing opposition when needed. [2] Her work was in the service of unmasking the narrative widely supported and broadcasted also by the great media in Brazil that criminality is perpetrated by a parallel power, and that we need the suspension of the rule of law in order to restore peace; that order requires the suspension of democracy. As our flag reads: “order and progress.” However, what is reported as a state of exception set in place by an abstract enemy, a moment of exception that needs to be fixed by a further suspension of rights, is actually a state of affairs whose cyclic exacerbation only deepens its roots.

The popularity of such a narrative supporting the intensification of militarization and policing increases even in a moment of mourning and also of growing solidarity among progressive sectors of society. Last week, on March 15th, more than 100 thousand people marched in Rio and many more followed in other cities within Brazil and abroad. Simultaneously, outrageously, others celebrated Marielle’s execution. The celebration, reported above all on social media, focused precisely on her work as a Human Rights activist. Sentences like “this is what happens when you defend criminals: you end up being killed by them” and worse — including violent hate speech directed towards her gender, race, political affiliation, and sexual orientation — were echoed. Only two days after the execution, fake news and slander abound. While some believe that the best we can do is to ignore such hateful manifestations in order to deprive them of an audience, I firmly disagree. Although we have to be mindful of not echoing hate speech by sharing it in social media — even if with the aim of criticizing it — the depriving of an audience should not be equated with ignoring or disavowing its existence. We cannot ignore that this is, too, a form of fascism. It is naive to ignore it on the assumption that hate speech results from the ignorance of a few, an exception to the masses of presumably good-willed citizens — such moralizing arguments are useless if we have people falling around us. It is important to acknowledge the — sometimes lethal — efficacy of such speeches and how they infiltrate and shape public opinion slowly but powerfully. Simultaneously, large media vehicles and conservative politicians, including members of the current administration, are desperately seeking to use the execution as an excuse for further expanding the military intervention. Throughout the week there has been an intensified effort to instrumentalize Marielle’s and Anderson’s deaths for further trampling Human Rights in the name of security, while criminalizing and vilifying people of color. This phenomenon has been called Marielle’s second death: using her execution to undo her life’s work. However distinct they may be, it is crucial to understand that both hate speech and the instrumentalization of the execution are self-supporting strategies that work in tandem for the further deepening of social inequality, fascism and racism.

There is an intimate connection between last Wednesday’s execution and the systematic criminalization and elimination of resistance, above all of black, disenfranchised populations. We need only to follow the route of the bullet that killed Marielle and Anderson last Wednesday to figure it out. According to information released by the ongoing investigation on the case, the serial number of the ammunition used last Wednesday shows that it was originally purchased by the Brazilian Federal Police back in 2006. Not only this, but bullets from cartridges bearing the same serial number were used in 2015 in an episode known as the “Chacina de Osasco” in which 17 people were executed by members of the military police. Further details are still to be clarified, but it is safe to state that the ammunition that killed Anderson and Marielle was the same used in Osasco in 2015.

Marielle’s execution is part of a very precise calculus of those who know that they will never face any real justice, and decide for silencing the “threat” she represented before it could spread. Marielle identified herself as “feminist, black, an offspring of the favela.”[3] She held a huge popularity already in her first term in office. She did not give up her grassroots activism in the favelas of Rio, especially among women of color and was slowly but steadily opening up the place of institutionalized politics for the disenfranchised sectors of the population. Her assassination was a strong message against everything she, literally, embodied. It is certainly an attempt to silence hope. It is, however, a message that directly and distinctly targets young women of color from the peripheries of Brazil: “be silent or you will be silenced; nothing will protect you.” We have the responsibility of making sure their voices are uplifted.

As a Brazilian song echoed nationwide during last week’s numerous protests says: “companheira, me ajuda, eu não posso andar só. Eu ando bem sozinha, mas com você ando melhor.” (“comrade, help me, I cannot walk all by myself. I walk fine on my own but with you by my side I do it so much better”.) [4]

 


[1] Rio de Janeiro has been, since February 16th, under a military intervention created by the current president, Michel Temer, and authorized by the Congress. The commander of the intervention, General Villas Bôas, in one of his first public appearances, affirmed that is was imperative to reassure that the intervention would not suffer the scrutiny of “another Truth Commission” –referencing the Truth Commission which investigated crimes against humanity perpetrated by state officials during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

[2] Since the beginning of 2017 more than 60 activists have been murdered in Brazil. It is also worth remembering the assassination of Judge Patricia Acioli in 2011, responsible for condemning more than 60 police members connected to militias in Rio, which happened in a similar manner to that of Marielle’s.

 

[3] Regarding elected municipal council members across Brazil, only 3.9% of them are women.

[4] It is important to emphasize that “companheiA” maintains the gender specificity of being a female identifying comrade.

 

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