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The civil rights movement is far from over – the story of Marielle Franco

As we commemorate the tragic events at Sharpeville in 1960 with Human Rights Day in South Africa, Ricardo da Silva SJ reports on the shocking murder last week of one of the most promising women in Brazilian politics, Marielle Franco. Among many others, this is a heinous act that suggests the civil rights movement is far from over.

While broadly unknown in South Africa and outside of her native Brazil, Marielle Franco’s story is one all too familiar. Franco was a fearless defender of society’s most poor and marginalised people and a supremely untiring advocate for human rights. She was murdered brutally last week in what is feared to have been a politically spawned assassination in her beloved, yet corrupt and crime-infested home city of Rio de Janeiro.

Franco (38) was a prominent figure in her favela community of Maré, one of the largest shantytowns on the outskirts of urban Rio. In 2017, she garnered 46,000 votes making her the fifth most voted councillor out of a total of 51 — 1 of only 7 women — elected to what is an otherwise depressingly disproportionate white male enclave. It was a remarkable achievement for a first-time candidate on the city’s ballot.

We often hear that when the odds bought by exclusion and discrimination are so cripplingly stacked against one it is difficult to thrive. If that were true for all cases, then Franco would have had every reason to meet the expected sub-performing result. Not only was she subjected to gender, race and class discrimination as a black woman from the poorest favelas fighting for a voice surrounded by a  white male majority; she was also a gay single mother facing the prejudices that all too often accompany such a social profile.

Still, her circumstances only strengthened her resolve as a voice for those whose voice is unheard and even silenced. She fought to raise her daughter while completing undergraduate studies in sociology and later a master’s degree in public administration at two of the country’s respected universities.

Throughout her life she displayed dogged determination representing those most disfavoured in and by society. She was especially active on issues relating to racism, community development, social welfare and the rights of women and the LGBT+ community.

It is therefore, perhaps, no coincidence that she was murdered in Rio’s city centre following an event where she had been unapologetically campaigning for women’s rights.

On the evening of Wednesday 14 March 2018, the car that she was travelling in was mercilessly sprayed with bullets, four striking her in the head and neck, resulting in her immediate death and in the death of her driver, Anderson Gomes (39). She is survived by her 19-year-old daughter.

It has since been discovered that the ammunition used in the perceived hit was from stock registered to the Federal Police. However, a statement from the Minister for Public Security, Raul Jungmann, attests that the ammunition appears to have belonged to a lot stolen from the Brazilian Postal Service (Correios). They also confirm the perception that it appears to have been a planned assassination, though not naming any suspects or leads, but promising a full investigation.

Human rights icon, Marielle Franco was murdered on 14 March 2018. Image: flickr/midianinja

I am numb as I reflect on Franco’s murder and think that just a week before this tragedy we celebrated International Women’s Day. Not only this, but it is also a week after her death that South Africans will commemorate Human Rights Day. This is the very same day that the UN has declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

In South Africa, this is a day for us to remember the tragic politically driven murders of 69 people who were brutally killed in the Sharpeville Massacre at the hands of our police – who are the very people we, like Franco, expected to protect and defend us from harm.

It is paralyzingly sad that there seems to be a trend in this respect. I need not enter the specifics of South Africa’s crime statistics nor painstakingly recount the numerous recent episodes of police brutality, the tragic lives lost at Marikana stir enough pain, to make my point.

I am also reminded of the #BlackLivesMatter movement born in the USA following similar discriminatory events. It is difficult to overcome the sentiments of cynicism that arise in me, and surely in many others, that lead us to question the validity of such days of commemoration in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges. Only made worse when the motive suggested for Franco and Gomes’ killings follow this trend.

The statistics of murders in the state of Rio show that in January alone 154 people were killed resulting from police action, marking a 57% increase on the same period last year.

Last month the nation’s controversial president, Michel Temer, issued a decree to place the city, including its police force, under military control citing an attempt to curb the growth of violent crime in the city. Following this, Franco was appointed by the City Council as rapporteur for the Committee tasked to oversee the performance of troops during the intervention.

On her Twitter account, just days before she was killed, she denounced the deaths of at least two young people by the military— one as he left church on a Sunday— not knowing her own untimely fate.

Difficult though it may be to find redeeming notes after events such as these we cannot lose hope, for to do so is to play the tune of the barbarous orchestras of these odious crimes. Perhaps, our hope ought to come from the words hauntingly chanted by scores gathered throughout Brazil as they laid Marielle and Anderson to rest – transformar luto e luta – which is to “transform mourning into action.”

Image: Daniel Arrhakis

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.