Fighting Marielle’s war: Women battle on after Rio councillor’s murder

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – It has been a month since the murder of Marielle Franco, a black Brazilian activist who fought her way out of the slums to become a popular councillor, in a killing which made headlines around the world.

The outspoken 38-year-old, who was a critic of police brutality, an advocate for minorities and the posterchild of a new type of politics, was shot dead on March 14 in an assassination-style killing with four bullets to the head.

A fierce feminist, her murder brought thousands to the streets in mourning.

People walk past a poster mourning activist Marielle Franco, one month after her murder, on Ipanema beach on April 14. – PHOTOS: AFP
Anielle Silva (left), sister of activist Marielle Franco, cries at a memorial in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, one month after her murder in Lapa
A protester looks up at a mural mourning activist Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday

Among them are four women activists who have vowed to carry on her fight and who spoke to AFP.

“This is very difficult, it’s like my whole life has stopped,” says Buba Aguiar, drying her tears as she watches a TV programme about Franco.

Brazilian activist Buba Aguiar

Since the murder, this 25-year-old activist – a vocal critic of the army’s intervention in Rio to take over security – has had to move out of her home in the Acari favela because the press broadcast footage of her angrily denouncing police violence in her neighbourhood.

Aguiar’s life is now subjected to a strict “security protocol” with a secretive routine filled with restrictions, forced to always wear a cap and hide her tattoos.

“The police are prepared to push ahead with an official policy of killing black people and poor people in all the surrounding slums” as innocent people get caught up in their armed war on drug trafficking, she says, predicting that things “will only get worse.”

“We will keep fighting without being intimidated because we have to honour this blood which has been spilled.”

Brazilian singer Marina Iris

“I say what I think, I raise banners,” reads a line from the song ‘Rueira’ by Marina Iris, a samba singer who has never shied away from speaking out, be it on the stage or the streets, to address thorny questions of race, gender and class.

“Music has the potential to speak to many people. It is an instrument for changing the social context,” says the 34-year-old woman.

She actively participated in Franco’s campaign, recording its jingle and handing out leaflets, with the two well known in the samba circles of Sao Salvador, a bohemian area where the late councillor often went.

For Iris, her friend’s rise into politics was a huge achievement, not only because of where she came from or the causes she defended, but because it increased diversity.

“Marielle’s execution was an attempt to destroy the way forward to a more equal society, but the symbol which she has now become gives us strength.”

Brazilian professor Thula Pires

Thula Pires is the only black professor in the law department at PUC, the prestigious college where Franco studied sociology thanks to a grant.

Despite spending 15 of her 38 years in academia, Pires still feels like an outsider, as if she shouldn’t be there.

It is, she says, as if she is always “in transit” between her life in Sao Goncalo, the violent suburb of Rio where she grew up and still lives, and her life at work in the comfortable, mainly white world that is Brazil’s universities.

Although things are changing thanks to racial quotas and social grants, Pires hopes her presence there acts as a glaring reminder of “the absence of other black faces in the same space.”

“Why do people still look at us with surprise? I live in a country where more than half of the population is like me!” she says.

The two women met at university two years ago, sharing both friends and struggles, with Franco’s murder leaving Pires “devastated.”

One of the most difficult questions came from her five-year-old daughter, who asked her, “Mummy, are they going to kill me too?” Not knowing what to say, she didn’t answer.

Brazilian plastic artist and activist J Lo Borges

J Lo Borges still hasn’t accepted Franco’s death. An activist from Iraja in Rio’s northern suburbs, she found in the councillor a political voice she never imagined existed.

A 30-year-old graffiti artist who belongs to the feminist urban artists’ network NAMI, she first met Franco last year when a handful of groups were invited to a meeting at the local municipal council.

“If it wasn’t for Marielle, it wouldn’t exist,” she says.

Despite having a degree in history and literature, it was only in art that Borges found herself professionally, becoming a tattooist.

“As a person who’s always felt very afraid, I’ve learnt to make the most of people’s racism. Since I was 15, people would keep their distance because they thought I was going to attack them, so I use that to protect myself.”