Protests over slaying of Brazil politician a watershed moment

Murdered legislator Marielle Franco was a living riposte to an entitled political caste

A popular Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman who was an outspoken critic of police killings of poor residents in shantytowns was gunned down in what police, prosecutors and even drug gang leaders said on Thursday looked like a political assassination.

 

Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco had little following outside her native city, and no known enemies, according to her family and party.

So when she died in a hail of bullets after an apparent ambush on Wednesday night, even the crime-calloused Brazilians were shocked.

Yet what happened next was even more remarkable: Huge crowds poured into public squares across the country in protest. When was the last time a Brazilian politician became a symbol for anything but corruption and venality, or grist for a Netflix series?

Ms Franco was the opposite of all that. A black woman raised in a crime-torn favela, or slum, the 38-year-old legislator was in many ways a living riposte by a rising Brazilian generation to an encastled political caste that uses public office as a Monopoly board.

Electoral politics

Instead of turning her back on politics, she embraced it. Ms Franco earned a diploma from one of the country’s most prestigious universities before jumping into the national debate and then into electoral politics. In 2016, in her maiden campaign, she handily won a seat on Rio’s city council.

Aerial view of a massive demonstration against the murder of Brazilian councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco in front of Rio’s Municipal Chamber, downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday night. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images
Aerial view of a massive demonstration against the murder of Brazilian councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco in front of Rio’s Municipal Chamber, downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday night. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

To be sure, not all Brazilians mourned Ms Franco’s death. She was an unrelenting critic of official neglect of blacks, women, homosexuals and the poor. Her strident defence of human rights was pepper spray to the police, whom she frequently called out for rogue behaviour, as she did just last week.

Sadly, the gangland-style slaying followed by outbursts of schadenfreude suggest the pushback was more than rhetorical. All indications are that she was killed because she was bothering all the right people. Police are still investigating the hit.

Brutal crime

Sceptics have seized on the brutal crime as confirmation that the city of Rio de Janeiro is a lost cause, and that the federal intervention intended to rescue Brazil’s most storied metropolis from crime’s tightening hold is badly flawed.

But the outpouring over Ms Franco – young, black, bisexual and unapologetically political – also underscores something bigger and far more encouraging.

Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco of the left-wing party PSOL leading a session at the Municipal Chamber in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in February last year. Ms Franco, who was an outspoken critic of police brutality, was shot dead in Rio’s city centre this week in an assassination-style killing. Photograph: Renan Olaz/AFP/Getty Images
Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco of the left-wing party PSOL leading a session at the Municipal Chamber in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in February last year. Ms Franco, who was an outspoken critic of police brutality, was shot dead in Rio’s city centre this week in an assassination-style killing. Photograph: Renan Olaz/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilians aren’t so much desperately anti-authority or hungry for messianic outsiders as they are anxious for legitimate leaders. That’s one reason why headline politicians knew to keep their distance from the streets this week, where young protesters took the lead in turning a eulogy into a revolt.

Tellingly, right-wing presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro, whose pro-gun, torture-friendly, anti-establishment rants have galvanised many disgruntled voters, said nothing.

Will the diffuse outbursts of anger that have occasionally shaken Brazil since before the 2014 World Cup finally gain critical mass?

Perhaps. In her first political campaign, Ms Franco won 46,000 votes, more than all but four of Rio’s 51 city legislators. With machine politicians on the defensive, and public anger rising, those inspired by Ms Franco have the opportunity in this October’s elections not just to rail against Brazil’s dysfunctional leaders but to recall them. – Bloomberg

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