On March 14, 2018, a dual killing happened on the streets of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It was the killing of a young, dynamic black woman and her driver. This woman’s name was Marielle Franco, and her driver, Anderson Gomes. This wasn’t just another killing. This was the deliberate silencing of a powerful political voice.
Marielle Franco was a Municipal Councillor in Rio de Janeiro. A member of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Freedom Party), she was elected by more than 45,000 votes to the Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro. She created history by being a black woman to be voted into power at the municipality despite being in a country where over half the population is black.
What made Marielle an even further rarity were her roots. Raised in a favela, she was a black lesbian woman who managed to educate herself and rise out of sheer adversity to become one of the most outspoken critics of the Brazilian government and a spokesperson for several disenfranchised groups. She herself was the embodiment of the intersection of many of them – a single mother, a black woman, a favela-resident, and a lesbian.
Leonard Cortana’s film, Marielle’s Legacy Will Not Die, brings together various threads of Marielle’s life and work. From her bereft partner to the people from all the various causes she worked for, it’s a film that brings forward the intersections of her politics with her personal life. Marielle’s death wasn’t an isolated incident – time and again, Brazilian politics has seen the silencing of the voices of the opposition, especially when they’re from disenfranchised communities. What’s telling is that, while Marielle’s name resonates throughout the streets during the Rio Carnival, it’s otherwise lost in the annals of history. This has been done through political machination, and it’s not just a matter of the records getting covered in dust. The Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro has made flippant remarks about her death and his possible involvement in it.
What is rather poignant about Cortana’s film is that he brings about a feeling of anger towards the system along with a commitment towards the future while making the audience feel the enormity of the loss of Marielle’s life (and, thus, her work). It leaves one without closure and a feeling of needing to do something – something more than lip-service that governments are prone to do. It also makes one reflect on the necropolitics involved in the rights movements, especially when pertaining to minorities of all sorts.
In the last five years, the Global South has seen multiple rights-oriented political voices being silenced. In 2017, the Indian journalist-turned-activist, Gauri Lankesh, was gunned down just outside her home. Prior to her death, she’d been an outspoken critic of Hindu right wing groups and politics, and had been the subject of hateful comments, police complaints and so on by right wing groups, including the ruling party at the Centre, for her left-leaning politics. The New York Times reported that the sitting Prime Minister of India followed several accounts on Twitter that were spewing hate on her assassination.
In 2016, Bangladeshi queer activist, Xulhaz Mannan, was hacked to death in his own home by an Al Quaida affiliate. He, along with several others, was creating waves in queer acceptance in Bangladeshi society. His death saw the silencing of several human rights activists.
In 2015, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmentalist and indigenous leader was murdered in her home by armed men. The killing was linked back to the government-backed power company, Desarrollos Energéticos SA. Berta was opposing a hydro-electric project that was in the pipeline. Her death was preceded by 12 such deaths in 2014, and two more in 2015 itself.
Argentinian trans activist, Diana Sacayán, was brutally murdered in a possible hate crime in 2015. She’d been extremely vocal in advocating for anti-discrimination laws and empowerment of queer people.
Also, in 2015, Bangladeshi online activist, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death by people allegedly from the Ansarullah Bangla Team, an Islamic militant organisation. He was an advocate of free speech and expression, and ran a blog called Mukto-Mona. This blog often published pieces that were considered disrespectful by the extreme Islamic right in Bangladesh.
The body-count of activists is going up. This has seen several people rising up to protest the deaths. As in the case of Marielle, these deaths have mobilised people who otherwise would never have come together. The common goal is justice. Brutal assassinations of activists often do what the assassins or the people who ordered the killings never thought of. While the assassinations act as a silencing tool for a short while, they become a catalyst for change and revolutions. One question remains: How many more deaths of activists do we need to see that these people are fighting for the right to live?
Marielle’s family has founded an institute to further her life’s work. For more information on it, please visit www.support.institutomariellefranco.org.
About the main illustration: Poster of the film Marielle’s Legacy Will Not Die.