The story I’m about to tell you is shocking, especially if you are sitting anywhere in Europe, North America or even in most of Africa. But in the country it took place, it happens pretty much every day.
It is a about a gay black woman born in a favela in Brazil being gunned down in the streets of Rio de Janeiro after attending an event for women of color. It is also about a racist police force and state machine hellbent on shutting down dissent, especially if it comes from people with a darker hue.
It’s been a bit over a week since the murder of Marielle Franco, a popular councilwoman born in the sprawling Mare favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro. A fierce feminist and human rights advocate, she was known for speaking truth to power, especially when it came to police brutality committed against the poor.
A day before she was killed, she tweeted: “Another murder of a young man that could be entering into the [military police’s] account. Matheus Melo was leaving the church. How many more will have to die for this war to end?”
Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff described Franco as a “tireless social warrior.” “Sad days for a country where a human rights defender is brutally murdered,” she said in a statement.
A day after her killing, hundreds of thousands flocked to the streets of central Rio to pay their respects, cry and embrace friends as Franco’s coffin was carried to the city’s Council Chamber. Many of my of friends, especially women, were too scared to go. “Do you think I should?” a friend of mine asked me via WhatsApp. Young people of color living in Rio know they have a target on their back. They know they might be next. But for now at least, there is safety in numbers.
Franco’s murder, of course, didn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurred in one of the most unequal societies in the world, where six men possess as much wealth as half the population; it occurred in the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, where only 10 percent of congress members are black, despite Brazil’s being majority black or mixed.
But at the crux of it all is the never-ending war on drugs, a war that takes place predominantly in Rio’s 763 favelas, where nearly a quarter of the city’s population (most of them black people) lives.
According to a 2014-2015 Amnesty International report titled “You Killed My Son: Homicides by Military Police in the City of Rio de Janeiro,” of 1,275 registered cases of killings by on-duty police between 2010 and 2013, 99.5 percent of the victims were men, 79 percent were black, and 75 percent were between the ages of 15 and 29.
The report goes on to say that a “culture of racism” within Brazilian society, coupled with a narrative that discriminates against and criminalizes the poor, contributes to the legitimization of these deaths.
I’ve experienced that discrimination firsthand while working as a journalist in Rio. Educated and middle-class, I thought somehow I would be “shielded.” I was wrong. Sitting here writing this takes me back to the times when white men in suits would enter the elevator of the building I worked in and order, “Tenth floor, please,” thinking I was the lift operator. (Yes, those jobs still exist.) Or the old lady in my apartment block in Leme, an affluent neighborhood in the south of the city, who saw me in the hallway one day and, thinking I was the delivery boy, said, “If you are nice, I will let you use the pool in the common area.”
In 2012, Rousseff enacted as president one of the world’s most sweeping affirmative action laws, requiring public universities to reserve half their admission spots for the largely poor students in the nation’s public schools, in the process vastly increasing the number of university students of African descent across the country. Officials said at the time that it signified an important shift in Brazil’s view on offering opportunities to large swaths of the population.
But those who face police brutality and put up with a corrupt state on a daily basis are not hopeful. Not today. Today there is fear and a sense that no matter what we do, we will always be devalued and discarded. Franco had a national platform; she was educated; she no longer lived in a favela. She had made it. And yet, her life was brutally ended, simply for doing what she was elected to do.
Last month, as the Rio Carnival got underway, black Brazilians took center stage, talking about social and political issues while parading the famous Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue on their floats. They sang about modern-day slavery, state corruption and the plight of the poor. In front of an international audience of millions, it was the safest way they could have chosen to make themselves heard. But this is not the norm. In this nation of 200 million, which in 2015 had more homicides than war-torn Syria, Carnival provides a welcome cease-fire.
In a highly hierarchical society, where harmony is achieved through obedience rather than consensus, educated and outspoken black people, especially women, pose a threat to the status quo.
Franco’s death made headlines around the world. Vigils and protests took place right here in London, and other cities, such as Rome, Lisbon and New York. Franco’s supporters say her voice will never be silenced, that her legacy will live on. As a black Brazilian, I’m not hopeful.
Two days after Franco’s death, a 1-year-old black boy lost his life after being hit by a stray bullet in the Complexo do Alemão favela. Too poor to bury their child, the parents had to rely on the donations from strangers to pay for the funeral expenses. It is business as usual in the Marvelous City.
Felipe Araujo is a Brazilian journalist and photographer based in London. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground. He tweets @felipethejourno