Marielle Franco’s Legacy and the Fight for Rio’s, and Brazil’s, Future

Catalytic Communities (CatComm) Executive Director and RioOnWatch Editor Theresa Williamson was invited by Americas Quarterly to write an op-ed on the importance of assassinated City Councillor Marielle Franco as a symbol of and for favela leadership. See the original shorter article here on Americas Quarterly, and the full piece below.

“They tried to bury us but didn’t realize we are seeds.” – Proverb being used widely at events in Rio, across at least twenty Brazilian cities, and around the world in association with Marielle Franco’s death.


Enter Marielle Franco. Assassinated most likely by police actors, or ‘exterminated’ as many are now saying, last Wednesday night in central Rio, City Councillor Franco represented a direct and powerful affront to this system: someone who crystallized in one person the groups meant to ‘stay in their place’ in Brazil. As The Brazilian Report summarizes, in Brazil a black youth diesevery 21 minutes, a woman every other hour, an LGBTQ person daily, and a human rights defender every five days. Franco was all of these.

A 38-year-old black LGBT woman from a favela in Complexo da Maré, a single teenage mother who went on to study sociology and receive a Masters degree in Public Administration, coordinate the state government’s human rights division and just over a year ago win election with the City Council’s fifth largest vote count, or 46,000 votes, Marielle was a force of nature (and still is, as we are now witnessing).

Rather than, at best, black women sitting on the bleachers at City Council meetings, there was now a black favela woman, with her beaming and captivating presence and her incredible courage, behind the podium. And she was using it faithfully, daily, effectively, to call out police abuse, to confront gender violence and a host of other deep-rooted issues.

In her 13 months in office she introduced 13 laws. A voice on issues deemed inconvenient enough by someone to justify taking her life. Just two weeks ago she had been selected to lead the City Council’s special commission to monitor the federal military intervention recently declared for Rio. Franco vehemently opposed the intervention, which places security entirely in the hands of the army, a force even less prepared to handle a civilian urban reality than the state military, civil, or municipal police forces, often associated with corruption and based on centuries-old institutions.

Franco’s decision to run for office took place on International Women’s Day in 2016, half a year before her election. As a human rights defender, she was on a panel on ‘Women in the City’ just hours after Maria da Penha’s house had been demolished in the iconic favela of Vila Autódromoa small community that fought vehemently against pre-Olympic evictions that would have benefited Brazil’s biggest real estate tycoons.

Petite but overpowering in her faith that she and her neighbors would prevail, Penha became an international icon of resistance and coined the phrase commonly associated with the community’s struggle—”Not everyone has a price“—referring to her unwillingness to consider any compensation for her home, since money had nothing to do with its value. Penha was supposed to sit on the same panel as Franco but missed it in light of her loss, though she went on to win an award on that incredibly emotional day. It was in this context that Franco decided to put her name in the hat. Read more via Rio On Watch