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Assassination of popular Black Brazilian activist sparks outrage

By Brian E. Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Mar 20, 2018 - 2:03:36 PM

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People holding banners with the names of Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes shout slogans during a protest against the deaths of Franco and her driver, both killed the night before by two unidentified attackers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 15. Police said the 38-year-old councilor, who was known for her social work in slums, was killed by perpetrators who knew exactly where she was sitting in a car that had blackout windows.

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Tens of thousands of Brazilians flooded streets, protesting and mourning the death of Marielle Franco, a popular human rights activist and progressive councilwoman. Ms. Franco was murdered in Rio de Janeiro, after leaving an empowerment forum for Black women. Gunmen ambushed her vehicle, killing Ms. Franco, her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes and wounding Fernanda Chaves, her press officer.

The country is wrought with escalating violence and political discord. There are worldwide demands on the government of Brazil for an impartial and thorough investigation of who is responsible for her March 14 slaying.

 “All of the characteristics (point) to an execution,” said State Representative Marcelo Freixo, of the Socialism and Freedom Party/PSOL, Ms. Franco’s party. Ms. Franco was known as an outspoken defender of women rights, LGBTQ, Black Brazilians and a voice for the marginalized favelas (slums).

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In this Jan. 9 photo, Councilwoman Marielle Franco smiles for a photo in Cinelandia square, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Franco was slain March 14, while returning from an event focused on empowering young Black women. Her death touched a nerve in Latin America's largest nation, where more than 50 percent identify as Black or mixedrace yet most politicians are White men.
Street rallies honoring her were filled with messages of solidarity and determination to continue ahead. The crowds said the fallen councilwoman will never be forgotten.  “Her work lives,” they said. “Our message is that more and more of us Black women are going to occupy every space.”

“We can denounce every kind of racism from the State that killed Marielle, that has killed so many of us. We will not back down,” one speaker declared.

Ms. Franco was elected to the Rio city council with the 4th highest vote count in 2016. She was 38 years old and was born and raised in the favelas she served. To many people, she represented a new generation of revolutionary figures who fearlessly challenged the status quo of racial and economic discrimination in Brazil and the Americas.

 “She was part of an effort in Brazil to defend the interest of the Black community and Black working class, and poor people in general,” said Ajamu Baraka, National Organizer for the Black Alliance for Peace. The veteran rights activist spoke to The Final Call from his home in Columbia, South America.

“What many people don’t know in the U.S. is that under this right-wing government that executed a coup in Brazil and came to power with the full support of the United States administrations under both, (President Barack) Obama and now under Trump—the situation in Brazil has gotten very precarious for progressive forces,” Mr. Baraka said.

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In February, Brazilian Pres. Michel Temer placed the military in charge of security on the streets in Rio de Janeiro, where violence had intensified.

It’s a “full scale military occupation” of Black communities throughout the country under the guise of fighting violence and crime, Mr. Baraka explained. Tensions are high, and the police have notoriously used heavy handed abuse on Black Brazilians and extrajudicial killings are common.

“They have moved in various communities under the guise of so-called fighting crime and have engaged in full scale terrorist activities,” Mr. Baraka told The Final Call.

Mr. Baraka said Ms. Franco’s killing can be understood in a broader context of other targeted assassination of Black and indigenous rights activists that occurred recently.

“In these parts of the Americas where Black people are organizing to defend their community (and) their collective human rights, they are finding that they are under attack.”

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He said aside from being Black, these killings are also in countries primarily supported by the United States like Honduras and Columbia. Several prominent activists were killed since the beginning of the year.

In Columbia, Eleazar Tequía Vitucay, an indigenous leader and Temistocles Machado also known as Don Temis, a Black-rights leader were assassinated 48 hours apart in late January. Their organizations and communities formed part of the collective, Ethnic Commission for Peace. The commission represented the interests of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities during Columbia peace talks.

 A UK observer group, ABColumbia tweeted March 17: “Afro-Colombian leader Tomás Barreto was killed March 11, continuing the increasing trend of killings of Human Rights Defenders #HRDs representing vulnerable groups in #Columbia.”

It was reported gunmen assassinated Mr. Barreto, a member of the Negritudes Community Council in San José de Uré. In a report issued by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a leading human rights advocate with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA): Sandra Yaneth Luna’s body was found February 7, with three gunshot wounds in the Campo Dos Township of Tibú, Columbia. She was a community leader and president of her Community Action Board. She had been missing since September 2017 when armed men violently kidnapped her from her home.

These represent a few cases of activists and voices of conscious like Ms. Franco, losing their lives for causes bigger than themselves.

Like these fallen, Ms. Blanco began organizing communities and speaking out against the repressive actions of the police and government. Consequentially, she entered the cross hairs of the government and “paramilitary forces, that are not officially part of the government, but who work on behalf of the interest of the state,” Mr. Baraka explained. 

In a March 13 tweet—a day before her assassination—Ms. Franco expressed criticism about a murder she tied directly to the Brazilian military police and deteriorated situation in Brazil.

 “Another murder of a young man who may be entering the PM’s account. Matthew Manu was leaving the church. How many more will have to die for this war to end?”

Weeks before Ms. Franco was appointed as a rapporteur on a City Council Commission established to monitor the militarization of public security in Rio de Janeiro.

Such moves could have contributed to an interest to eliminate her, analysts note. She was a reminder against deliberate oppression, failed policies and corruption of powerful entities.

“Even as progressive as Brazil was, even a couple years ago, literally apologizing for its participation in the slave trade; this is obviously a different type of government,” said Tony Muhammad, a Miami-based Nation of Islam assistant student minister, who serves the Latino American community.

“It’s more mistreatment of the Black and ignoring of corruption of the lighter skin or the White,” Mr. Muhammad said.

Brazil is the world’s third largest nation with a population of 208 million people. More than 50 percent identify as Black or mixed-race, however, most of the ruling politicians are White males. Ms. Franco was a growing counterweight to the disparity. In a statement, Amnesty International called her death, a “targeted assassination” that highlights the danger human rights defenders face in Brazil.

“As a member of Rio de Janeiro’s State Human Rights Commission, Marielle worked tirelessly to defend the rights of Black women and young people in the favelas and other marginalized communities,” said Jurema Werneck, Amnesty International’s Brazil director.

Reactions flooded social media that bore witness to the tenacious strength of her spirit.

“Strong, bold, brave Women who defend the most marginalized are a threat to the status quo. We will miss you #MarielleFranco, but your work lives on,” shared Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour on Twitter.

Model, activist and business woman, Naomi Campbell wrote: “Saddens me to hear that #Mariellefranco who dedicated her life to fighting against racism, prejudice & police violence in Rio de Janeiro, was assassinated last night.  COME ON BRAZIL STAND UP!”

 “I am heart broken. Rest in Power to #MarielleFranco, a radical black councilwoman assassinated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Respect the work of Black women who put their lives on the line. Don’t wait for tragedy to say our names. Don’t wait until I am dead to appreciate my efforts,” posted Brittany T. Oliver, founder of ‘Not Without Black Women,’ a social and political movement of women.

Marielle Franco’s body was laid to rest Thursday, March 15 in a wide emotional range of applause and sadness, tributes and protests and reflections from family, friends, political leaders and the mass public.