It’s a hackneyed cliché of the travel writing genre: Viva Brazil! Sun! Sand! Speedos! Writing a travel piece a few years ago, I obliged with a dispatch from the spectacular beaches of Salvador in the state of Bahia. There was indeed sun, sand and Speedos, but this idyllic picture was rudely interrupted by the military police.
Smelling weed, the paramilitary unit charged in, singled out three black men, and all but strip searched them as beachgoers sipped beer and munched on cheese sticks and tried to look away.
The men acquiesced to this violation for what seemed like 10 excruciating minutes. After the strip search came up empty, everyone went back to their business. When I remarked at how everyone quietly submitted to this humiliation, my friend Isabel Christina Reis, who is Brazilian and teaches at a local university, explained: “They are afraid. If they complain, they could disappear.”
What happened to Marielle Franco — a 38-year-old Brazilian politician who campaigned against a corrupt military police occupation of poor neighborhoods in Rio, was worse than that. The city council member and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, were executed on the streets of Rio. According to reports, the bullets casings were from ammunition used by the military police.
It was a very unsubtle, very public message to anyone who might speak out about so many of the issues Franco championed: the rights of the poor, the rights of black women and black men, the needs of the LGBTQ community and the fight against the military occupation of civilian communities.
“For anyone concerned about the creeping authoritarianism and rule by the gun taking place around the world, Franco should be a cautionary tale and a rallying cry.”
For anyone concerned about the creeping authoritarianism and rule by the gun taking place around the world, Franco should be a cautionary tale and a rallying cry. We need to say her name every time the White House threatens to send in federal troops to Chicago or talks about arming public school teachers or executing drug dealers. Rule by the muzzle is the beginning of the end of freedom.
“People are finally recognizing that Rio is more than some sexual tourism fantasy odyssey,” said Zakiya Carr Johnson, an Atlanta-based Brazilian specialist who began her career at Sao Paulo’s pioneering Geledés Institute for Black Women and later spent seven years as a top U.S. State Department senior adviser and the director for the Race, Ethnicity and Social Inclusion Unit.
“I am just upset that this comes at the cost of someone’s life. [Marielle Franco] was so young and so unafraid. Who thinks they would be executed for being vocal and telling the truth about their community?”
To Reis, a historian, this tragedy reveals how prevailing myths about race and crime have been weaponized against the poor. There is a public perception that police need to deal with residents of poor favela neighborhoods roughly because these are criminal communities, filled with the “dangerous classes” that only respond to brute force and more prisons. “In reality, they are working-class people, they are suffering,” she told me.
“People in these communities are doubly victimized, by violence in the communities and the overwhelming state violence that is used instead of investing in education, job training, and other opportunities,” Reis said. “It is not the poor people in working-class communities who are the principal people responsible for violence in the country. They are not the people who bring guns in from across the borders. They have no control over that. But they are inundated with arms.”
“Marielle was bringing attention to this,” Reis lamented. “To this kind of structural inequality.”
The international human rights community has long debated the pros and cons of “pacification,” or military occupation of Brazil’s poor communities, especially in the lead-up to the Olympics and World Cup. This policy involved arming police with military equipment such as metal-piercing bullets and special armor and tanks. Critics such as Franco pointed out that this created a lot of opportunity for corruption, deaths of innocent people and abuses of power.
Days before her death, Franco spoke out against military intervention in Rio on Twitter: “Another homicide of a young man that could be credited to the police. Matheus Melo was leaving church when he was killed. How many others will have to die for this war to end?”
“When you criticize the police, the punishment by military police is death.”
Carr Johnson says that Franco “was defending access to justice. She was defending the possibility of having a fair trial and investigating murders the way you are supposed to, and the police not being corrupt. That is why her life ended. When you criticize the police, the punishment by military police is death.”
According to Rachel E. Harding, a Brazil specialist at the University of Colorado Denver speaking from Salvador: “The people who did it appear to be getting away with it. It is being done with impunity in a way to show others, ‘Don’t you dare, this can happen to you too.’”
The global community has to decide how we will protect the voices of people who dissent. And all around the world, we must also decide whether we are nations governed by laws and reason, or nations governed by brutality and guns.
Hours before Franco’s death, Sharelle Barber, a Drexel University epidemiologist studying links between race and health disparities in Brazil, met Franco at a gathering of black women. Garber vows to keep Franco’s memory alive, recalling her last public words, a quote from Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is a prisoner, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Natalie Hopkinson is an author, most recently of A Mouth is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents and the Art of Resistance from The New Press.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Sharelle Barber’s last name as “Garber.” Language describing Carr Johnson’s former position at the State Department has also been amended.