On the evening of Wednesday, March 14, Marielle Franco — the thirty-eight-year-old human-rights activist, feminist, anti-racist organizer, and recently-elected city councilwoman — went to an event on young black women and organizing (“Jovens Negras Movendo as Estruturas”) in the central Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.1

At around 9 pm, Marielle left the meeting. She was in the passenger side in the backseat. Her adviser sat behind the driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Unbeknownst to the passengers, a car had followed them from the meeting, and at around 9:30 pm, the people inside opened fire. Four shots hit Marielle in the head, with three more hitting Anderson’s back. Bullet fragments hit the adviser, but she survived. Both Marielle and Anderson died. Investigators believe that because Marielle was hit directly in the head with only four shots, police officers were most likely the perpetrators.

I met Marielle in October 2015, when she was then leading the State of Rio de Janeiro’s Commission on Human Rights. My own partner, a police officer, had been executed by corrupt police officers and drug traffickers only months before, in a manner very similar to what would be Marielle’s own death. I came to her in a moment of extreme anger towards a Commission that I felt ignored the death of certain citizens. Yet she was respectful of my grief, and we had an open dialogue. She was critical of the police — and rightfully so — but she did not shy away from helping anyone whose human rights had been violated. She was a force to be reckoned with — and respected.

Marielle and Clayton had similar childhoods. She was born in the favela of Maré — the one, for those of you who have visited Rio, that spreads out next to the highway that takes you from the international airport to the tourist destinations in the Zona Sul. He was born to a poor, migrant family and lived alone and homeless on the streets of the city as a young child. Both felt the need to work and organize for a better Brazil.

A crowd marches in the streets of Rio, and some people hold up a sign that says "Quem Matou Marielle?"
“Ato por Marielle Franco.” (Pontes/Flickr)

Marielle and Clayton differed in how they viewed the best path forward. She addressed the structural inequality, racism, and sexism that forced the majority of Brazil’s citizens into poverty. These larger issues, and not individual acts of drug trafficking, needed to be addressed. Clayton saw things differently: selling drugs was a crime. He would enforce the law (and abide by the law), but he felt that drug trafficking, occurring in the city’s favelas but consumed by the middle class, must be policed. Marielle and Clayton came to different conclusions about what steps needed to be taken to address Rio de Janeiro’s violence. But they both were fighting for a more just Brazil, a more just world. The same corruption and violence killed them both.

The outpouring after Marielle’s death — in the streets of Rio, across Brazil, and the world — has shown how important her activism was for large swaths of the population. Marcelo Freixo, the leader of PSOL (Marielle’s political party) said that the people who tried to silence her had done just the opposite. She had now turned into a symbol of a movement. But damn, why did it take her violent death? Because for those of us left here, fighting for justice, that symbol fucking hurts.

One of Marielle’s last acts was to quote Audre Lorde at the “Jovens Negras” meeting: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” None of us are free, so we must keep on fighting.

Further Reading

Marielle Franco, “UPP – a redução da favela em três letras: uma análise da política de segurança pública do Estado do Rio de Janeiro,” (Master’s thesis, Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2016).

Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson, Living in the Crossfire: Favela Residents, Drug Dealers, and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro (Temple University Press, 2011).

Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. I am your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).


  1. The complete video of the event (in Portuguese) is embedded in this news report. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Marielle Franco (Carneiro/Flickr)

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.