Artists like Juliana Fervo have painted murals of Marielle Franco across Rio de Janeiro.
Photo: Kiratiana Freelon

They walked 2.5 miles to the site of her assassination, all the while dancing, chanting and crying. On that hot and muggy night on April 14 in Rio de Janeiro, more than 3,000 people gathered at the center of Rio to demand police action in the murder of Afro-Brazilian politician Marielle Franco and to mark the one-month anniversary of her death.

Franco, known for her initiatives to help favela dwellers, blacks and the poor, was assassinated March 14. Armed men gunned the councilwoman down in her car in the center of the city with nine shots—four to the head. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, also died. Soon after her death, police matched the bullets that killed her to a lot that was sold to the federal police more than a decade ago, leading people to believe even more that her death was caused by someone connected to the police. Local police have yet to arrest anyone.

As news of her assassination spread across the world, celebrities and activists like Ava DuVernay, Angela Davis and Janelle Monáe signed a letter demanding action from the Brazilian government. Black activists shut down a major highway in Sao Paulo, denouncing what they describe as state-sponsored violence against black people. Artists in Rio de Janeiro and across the world are creating artwork inspired by Franco. Marielle Franco’s name now even graces a street and a library in Rio de Janeiro.

That peaceful April protest reached a tense high point when protesters passed police headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. The police stood silently as the crowd projected their pent-up anger toward them and the building in a nonviolent way. The chants grew larger and people danced harder. One woman, a follower of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, handed the police officer a white flower.

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé participated in the protest.
Photo: Kiratiana Freelon

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O guerra não acabou, tem quem acabar, eu quero o fim da Polícia Militar,” they chanted. “‘The war hasn’t ended, it needs to end. I want the end of the military police.’”

The war they were referring to is the war that happens in poor neighborhoods across the country when police enter these communities and kill residents with impunity in pursuit of drug traffickers. Franco spent much of her short political career fighting and denouncing this war and the mounting deaths of black and poor people it often causes. Many Afro-Brazilians refer to this endless killing of blacks as the “o genocído do povo negro,” or the “genocide of black people.”

“Marielle’s principal action was defending the human rights of people in the favela,” said Jurema Werneck, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil. “Brazil is the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. This murder rate at this size, which is mainly young black and poor youth, this speaks of a lack of will by the state to protect these young people.”

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A genocide happens when there is the deliberate, daily and systematic killing of a specific group of people by the state—in this case, Afro-Brazilians. Afro-Brazilians only need to point to the statistics to prove it. Afro-Brazilians make up just over 50 percent of Brazil’s population. According to the Atlas of Violence, more than 59,000 people were killed in Brazil in 2015. Of every 100 people murdered in Brazil, 71 are black. Black people have a 23 percent greater chance of being victims of homicide than people of other races. Of the total number of murders, more than 30,000 are young people between the ages of 15 and 29, and 72 percent are black. A black person is assassinated every 23 minutes.

At most, only 10 percent of these murders are investigated, so there is a culture of impunity that allows this genocide to persist. The death rates were so alarming that Amnesty International created a campaign in 2014 called Joven Negro Vivo (“Young Black Alive”) to mobilize civil society to bring about the end of the extermination of black people.

It is unclear how many of these murders were committed by police nationwide because high-quality data does not exist or is underreported. The state of Rio de Janeiro has one of the deadliest police forces in Brazil—last year the police force was responsible for more than 1,000 killings. Policemen also suffer from a high mortality rate. Last year, 134 policemen were killed, most of them black.

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Afro-Brazilians in the black movement also point to the history of Brazil, a country built on genocide, they say.

“The Brazilian state is the product of genocide,” said Negro Belchoir, a columnist with CartaCapital magazine. “There were almost 400 years of slavery, and the genocide of this population originated with the indigenous people and the genocide of the African population and their descendants. The result of this is a state that kills blacks and then creates conditions that allows people to kill blacks.

“The police and justice system was designed to imprison and kill blacks,” Belchoir contniues. “Genocide also happens when, through its institutions, the state supports historical racism and stigmas that make black people the target of general violence. Then, on top of this, there is the denial of basic human rights to black people. When the government implements policies that takes away the rights of workers, and reduces money in social initiatives that help reduce racial inequality, it is also murdering black people.”

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Amnesty International wasn’t the first organization to bring attention to this modern form of genocide. Reajá ou Será Morto (“React or Be Dead”) is an organization based in Salvador that has been working to bring attention to the issue since at least 2005. The group, led by Hamilton Borges and based in Salvador, has been leading a campaign against the genocide of Afro-Brazilians for the last 13 years. Since 2013, it has sponsored a protest march every August against the genocide of black people. In 2015, Reajá even brought a formal complaint against the military police to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

The first person to publicly acknowledge this genocide was Abdias do Nascimento, considered Brazil’s foremost black thought leader. Nascimento, an actor, artist and professor of black studies, published the book The Genocide of the Black Brazilian: Process of a Masked Racism in 1977. In the book, Nascimento described how Brazil, over the course of 100 years, has attempted to erase the black population by suppressing their numbers in the census, encouraging miscegenation and limiting social assistance to poor, favela neighborhoods.

The memorial site of Marielle Franco’s murder reads, “Black Lives Matter.”
Photo: Kiratiana Freelon

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“The political, economic, social and cultural repression experienced by black peoples of Brazil is deplorable,” Nascimento wrote. “Its ultimate objective is the obliteration of the Black as a cultural, physical or ethnic entity. ... To be silent would be to give tacit approval to the exploitation and destruction of one race by another through systematic oppression and racial ignorance. It would condone genocide: a criminal act which perpetuates an unjust society totally iniquitous to Blacks and native Indians in Brazil.”

Marielle Franco was never silent on black genocide. One of the laws she proposed as a councilwoman was to acknowledge June 20 as the day of the fight against the incarceration of black youths.

Unfortunately, Franco’s death didn’t slow down the genocide against black people that she fought relentlessly against. In the month since Franco’s assassination, there have been at least three massacres in Rio de Janeiro that have killed more than 15 young men, a majority of them black. Two days after Franco’s murder, a 2-year-old child, Benjamin, was shot in the head during a shootout between police and drug dealers. One week later, eight young men were killed by police in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. One-and-a-half weeks later, five young men, known for their involvement in hip-hop, were shot in the head outside an apartment complex. Militia members, typically off-duty police officers who extort communities for protection, are suspected of killing the teens.