A little over two weeks have passed since Rio de Janeiro city councilor and former Rio Human Rights Commission member Marielle Franco was shot and killed along with her driver in what authorities believe was a targeted assassination. Since then, protests and memorials have engulfed Brazil in honor of the 38-year-old political rarity: an openly queer, black single mother, born and raised in a favela.
The hashtag #MariellePresente has gone viral and black cultural luminaries like singer Janelle Monae, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, model Naomi Campbell, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Black Lives Matter movement co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi have signed an open letter calling for a full and independent investigation into her death.
The global outcry over Franco’s death has rightly focused on her criticism of the police on human rights grounds. She had been serving on a city council committee looking into the recent federally-ordered military takeover of the Rio de Janeiro state police department and had called out a specific police battalion on her Facebook page for three murders in the Acarí favela three days before unknown gunmen tailed her vehicle as she left an event on women’s empowerment. Brazilian media has reported that the ammunition found at the scene was sold to the federal police in 2006, furthering suspicions that the police were behind her killing.
But Franco also doggedly pursued another topic in her all-too-brief term in office: public transit.
Franco was originally from the Maré, a favela community wedged between two highways, not far from Rio’s international airport. When she earned a scholarship to study sociology at the prestigious Catholic Pontifical University in Rio’s affluent south zone, that meant an hours-long commute on multiple buses to and from her classes.
“She told me once how she discovered an entire other city when she began her studies,” says an advisor, who preferred not to be named because Franco’s assassins are still at large, via WhatsApp. “She didn’t even know how to get [here] at first!”
The advisor says Franco recounted how sometimes she and other passengers would have to disembark and push the buses when they stalled.
“Lots of experts talk about mobility from a technical and efficiency perspective,” the advisor says. “She spoke from daily lived experience about how this technical debate exists separate from women’s demands and from a democratic perspective on urban mobility that takes into consideration the favela as part of the city.”
During her 14 months in office, she helped draft legislation banning public bus companies from relying on the driver to also collect the fare. (Brazilian buses commonly have a second employee on board responsible for fare collection.) She also authored legislation that legalizes the mototaxi profession, one of the key forms of transit serving hillside favelas’ narrow, winding streets.
Her biggest effort, however, was around women’s safety on public transport. Her campaign, Assédio Não É Passageiro (Harassment Isn’t a Passenger), called for the city to fund public education efforts, provide hotline numbers for reporting sexual harassment, mandatory training on unwanted sexual attention for transit operators, and fines for bus companies that don’t follow the law.
“Harassment and public safety are the principal problems that women face with regards to getting around the city,” says Clarisse Linke, director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Brazil office, whose studies on the issue backed up Franco’s public campaigning.
Linke was instrumental in making Franco a keynote speaker at the institute’s international conference last year, in Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed her after we took a bike tour of the city with local cycling activists.
“We were putting together a program with a focus on social inclusion, so I thought it was important to have people from Latin America that were black and legitimate representatives of the people,” Linke says.
Linke calls her “an illuminated person” full of “integrity.”
“Marielle’s legacy will be the visibility she gave to these topics. We can’t ignore them,” Linke says. “The people who make policy in Brazil historically are privileged people like me, you, all of us. She showed us it was essential to give a voice to those are not privileged. She was a guiding star for all of us who were close to her.”
Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.