Black Brazilians seek political voice

When black Brazilian filmmaker Anderson Quack and rapper Nega Gizza launched their bids to run for office in October’s elections, the absence of a murdered colleague cast a long shadow over the event in the district of Rio de Janeiro.

Rising political star Marielle Franco, a black Rio councilwoman, had been instrumental in bringing the two candidates under the banner of her Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), but did not live to see them start their campaigns.

She was shot dead in March, a murder which investigators have linked to her many years of denouncing militia activity in Rio’s shanty towns, known as favelas.

One suspect is a fellow councilman accused of links to militias, two sources with knowledge of the investigation said on Wednesday.

Thousands took to the streets to protest her death, which has become a rallying cry for favela residents and black Brazilians seeking a greater voice in their country’s politics.

“Let’s have a round of applause for our companion Marielle, who was one of our greatest supporters in this process,” Quack, who is running for Congress, told a cheering crowd of nearly 200 people assembled late Tuesday in a courtyard in the hardscrabble neighborhood Madureira, on the outskirts of Rio. “Marielle is present!”

Quack and Gizza are part of the Favela Front of Brazil, a political movement attempting to unify the voting power of favelas and other poor black neighborhoods historically overlooked and underrepresented in Brazilian politics.

Some 11.4 million Brazilians live in favelas, according to government data, although a study by the United Nations estimated a favela population five times that size, encompassing more than a third of the country’s population.

Yet late into the 20th century, favelas received little if any public services and were often left off official maps.

Outcry over the murder of Franco has galvanised the Favela Front’s efforts to push for change, tapping widespread disillusionment with traditional politicians to win more visibility for the concerns of poor black Brazilians.

“It was a bullet in all of us, an attack on our voice,” said Derson Maia, president of the Favela Front. “(Marielle) is a role model for us.”  

Brazilians who are black or ‘pardo’, a Portuguese term for mixed race, make up 55 percent of the country’s population, but only constitute 20 percent of Congress.

“This democracy everyone talks about, in many cases it doesn’t exist. It will take a lot more black legislators,” said Gizza, the rapper running for state assembly in Rio, whose legal name is Giselle Gomes Souza.

Brazil has never had a black or pardo president and this time around only one black candidate, environmentalist Marina Silva, is a major contender, locked in a dead heat for second place.

 “It is hard for those coming from popular movements to become candidates for mainstream parties,” said Chico Alencar, a PSOL congressman from Rio, who identifies as pardo.

He blamed the high cost of campaigns for empowering traditional interests.

Even before fundraising, the Favela Front has run into hurdles trying to register formally as a party, a process that requires thousands of signatures and will not be completed before the October election.

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