On Wednesday, March 14th, countless Brazilians and others around the world were saddened and angered after learning of the devastating news of the brutal assassination of Marielle Franco, 38, an Afro-Brazilian city council member from Rio de Janeiro. Franco, a Black lesbian feminist, grassroots organizer, favelada, human rights activist and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSOL), was shot four times by two gunmen after presenting on a panel entitled “Black Women Moving Structures” in Rio. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also murdered.
Growing up in the Maré favela, Franco was an outspoken and radical critic of military police violence and gang warfare in Rio’s favelas, which are predominantly occupied by impoverished Black communities. She was also known for her social work and activism in combating racism, sexism, classism, and anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Thousands of Brazilians in more than twenty cities mobilized in protest, demanding justice and police accountability for her death. Many around the world have offered digital and virtual social media solidarity under the Twitter hashtag, #MariellePresente.
Franco’s untimely and devastating murder speaks to the pervasiveness of the intersectional, racialized-gendered state-sanctioned violence against Afro-Brazilian women and LGBTQ+ Brazilians. While Franco’s death has received much-needed mainstream attention, there are countless Afro-Brazilian and queer lives lost to police brutality, vigilantism, homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia. In many cases, these stories are often overlooked–and even erased–in Brazil and in global manifestations and understandings of police violence in the African diaspora.
While statistics show that Black male adolescents are routinely murdered every 23 minutes in Brazil–with countless victims living in the favelas, data also shows that at least six in ten Black women in Brazil are murdered by police. According to a 2017 report by Grupo Gay da Bahia, the oldest non-profit organization dedicated to defending the full citizenship for the LGBTQ+ community, Brazil “has the highest rates of trans-related murders in the world–about 16.4 percent higher than any other country.” Their research also shows that “nearly 1,600 Brazilians were killed in hate-motivated attacks over the past five years.” “A gay or transgender person,” they add, “is killed almost every day in the country of 200 million.”
In 2017 alone, 445 Brazilians died of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks, with 387 murders and 58 suicides. The gruesome murder of 42-year-old Dandara dos Santos, a transgender woman whose torture was recorded by five suspects in February 2017 is one example of the rampant violence against the transgender community in Brazil. Moreover, anti-Black transgender murders, police violence, and discrimination against Brazilians of African descent––especially Afro-Brazilian trans women––are largely overlooked. A report by Global Rights: Partners for Justice, a human rights organization based in Washington D.C., indicates that Afro-Brazilian transgender women suffer disproportionately from discrimination, violence, inadequate access to education, employment and healthcare, and a lack of legislative protections.
In the report, Lohany Veras, Coordinator for the Rights of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Intersex People for Rede Nacional de Negras e Negros LGBT, spoke extensively about how police specifically target Afro-Brazilian trans women:
“So this violence with transvestites, which I speak of, and that I can attest to…how many years have I been working on the streets with these girls? Five years, six years. It is the police that kill them. It is the police that ban them [from the streets]. They even went on horseback once to expelled the girls from Rio Duto. They invade nightclubs just to take [them] out…And when they picked up a black girl, well then, they were just bound to kill her. Sometimes they kill them…”
Maria de Fatima dos Santos, Alessandra de Jesus, Joana Darc Brito and Cláudia da Silva Ferreira are also just a few of the Afro-Brazilian women who lost their lives to police violence within the last five years. Maria de Fatima dos Santos and her daughter, Alessandra de Jesus, were killed in an alley during a police operation in Costa Barros, which was also in Rio, in 2013. In 2014, Darc Brito was shot and killed in Complexo do Lins, a neighborhood in northern Rio de Janeiro. When her neighbors attempted to assist Darc Brito and take her to the hospital, they were vehemently denied by the police. Later, when given the opportunity to take her to the hospital, she died en route. During the same year, Cláudia da Silva Ferreira, a 38-year old mother of four, was also shot during a police operation in Rio–this time in Madureira. Video footage shows police placing Ferreira into the car but when the car door opened by accident, she was dragged 1,000 feet before the police car stopped. Ferreira later died at the hospital.
This pattern of violence can be traced back even further in Brazil’s history. In October 1994 and May 1995, police raided the favela of Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro, killing twenty-six people, raping one woman, and torturing and sexually assaulting two children. Known as the Nova Brasília massacres, it was not until May 12, 2017–20 years after the gruesome police invasion–that survivors received some semblance of justice when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned, indicted and sanctioned Brazil. The Court also highlighted that “women who live in communities where there are ‘clashes” generally face particular types of violence, and are threatened, attacked, injured, insulted and even subjected to sexual violence by the police.” According to Jurema Werneck, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, “this judgement shines a long overdue light on the appalling human rights violations perpetrated by Rio’s police force against young, poor, black individuals who were unarmed.”
In Black Women Against The Grab: The Fight For Racial Justice in Brazil, Keisha-Khan Y. Perry also highlights how police violence occurs expansively in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia–known affectionately as the Roma Negra (Black Rome). Exploring how Afro-Brazilian women challenge police brutality, poverty, the struggle for land rights and mass land eviction in the Gamboa de Baixo neighborhood, Perry notes that Salvador, “has a violent history–evidence of the racial violence of enslavement and colonialism that has shaped racial, gender and class relations in Salvador to the present day.” Other scholars of Brazil, including Kia Lilly Caldwell, Sarah Hautzinger, Christen A. Smith, and Erica Lorraine Williams, also show how Black Brazilian women in Bahia politically mobilize around several oppressive state and societal mechanisms, including machismo, domestic and intimate partner violence, anti-femicide, anti-Blackness, anti-LGBTQ+ policies, sexual violence and harassment, racial profiling and more.
In order to ensure that Franco’s name and the names of countless Black and queer Brazilians lost to police violence do not fall by the wayside, it is imperative that radical theoretical discourses, narratives, and praxis on police brutality are inclusive. First, our discussion of state sanctioned violence must center Afro-diasporic manifestations and variations of police violence that extend beyond the borders of the United States. Second, we must not overlook the oppression that Afro-descended women and queer communities face. It is equally important to center Afro-Brazilian women and Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ+ persons as agents of change and leaders in Black politics and more importantly, as essential in the fight for Black lives. As Keisha-Khan Y. Perry emphasizes, there is a dire need for a theoretical examination and political action of “globalizing and engendering racial justice.” Positioning these issues as global–and not simply area, country, or community specific–provides a broader context for continued solidarity across geographic, demographic, racial, gender identity and class lines.