Racism and Police Brutality: In Paris Just Like Elsewhere

Tuesday’s gathering in support of the family of Adama Traoré, who died in a Val-d’Oise police station in July 2016, brought together tens of thousands of people in front of the Paris Judicial Court.

In the same evening, a new counter-expertise clearly blamed the “plaquage ventral” (prone restraint) used by the gendarmes in the death of the 24-year-old man. Since his death, no less than eleven medical documents have been produced for the ongoing judicial inquiry. This shows how the combativeness and the quest for justice of his relatives, in particular his sister Assa Traoré, have been indispensable in shedding light on this tragedy.

After the unprecedented media coverage of the events, after this new demonstration against racism and police violence that will remain engraved in history, will the “forces de l’ordre” now be more vigilant about their practices and their implications? Nothing is less certain.

As recently as May 28th, as the outrage following the death of George Floyd spread around the world, French police demonstrated the full extent of its blindness, disconnection and brutality. The scene takes place in the Fougères district (20th arrondissement), one of the poorest in the capital. At the crossroads of rue Léon Frapié and rue des Fougères, a black person is stopped by the police. On videos shared on social media, the man is seen lying down, probably handcuffed, surrounded by two white policemen. One of them blocks the victim’s neck on the ground with his knee.

We are in 2020, and in Minneapolis as in Paris, it is regrettable that it is still necessary to display bruised black bodies to testify to the seriousness of racism and police violence. It is not difficult to find these videos. Yet, with a few rare exceptions, there has been no political and media outrage surrounding the incident.

That the police would resort to such a practice in our capital, just three days after George Floyd’s murder, is a tragedy in itself. Should we have waited for the situation to take an even darker turn before mentioning this case, which is representative of practices that are now widespread? From the point of view of police impunity, the “days after” are decidedly similar to the days before.

Danielle Simonnet, an elected representative of the 20th arrondissement who is also a candidate for city hall for “Décidons Paris” (left), is one of the few Parisian political figures to have taken up the subject. She visited the neighbourhood the very next day, anxious to “make sure that light is shed on the incident, because nothing justifies such a gesture on a person who is immobilized. […] We are planning to return to the neighbourhood to encourage young people to testify in this kind of situation. And I will also write to the prefect of police to ask for an internal investigation”.

The Paris representative is also surprised by the silence of the media and political landscape following this brutal arrest. Were they not the same politicians and reporters who did not hesitate to point the finger at the systemic racism and brutality of the American police? Clearly, French society prefers to look away from the transatlantic mirror that is held up in front of its eyes.

Because things are speeding up — the evidence is piling up. Numerous videos shared during the lockdown pointed to repeated cases of police abuse, especially in the Paris suburbs. On April 27th, on the riverbanks of Île-Saint-Denis, particularly serious racist insults were uttered by agents filmed without their knowledge. On the night of May 25th, in Bondy, four policemen disfigured a 14-year-old boy: “four broken teeth, a fractured jaw extended to the floor of the left orbit with a subcutaneous haematoma, […] insomnia and nightmares”.

On Wednesday, June 3rd, several media outlets revealed that the Human Rights Defender (an institutionalized position in the Fifth Republic) Jacques Toubon denounced “systemic” discrimination in a case concerning a neighborhood in the 12th arrondissement. The analysis is based on the daily lives of “18 black and North African inhabitants”, reporting incidents that occurred between the summer of 2013 and the summer of 2014 when they were between 13 and 21 years old. The Rights Defender thus evokes an “accumulation of practices and stereotypes that target groups of people as a whole”.

In concrete terms, the “discriminatory harassment” perpetrated by the local police officers led to abusive identity checks, repeated searches, individuals taken the station, insults (particularly of a racist nature), acts of violence, and “palpations that could be likened to sexual assault”. Such bravery displayed to attack teenagers! The case may be older, but have practices changed? According to the testimonies and videos that are coming in today, everything leads us to believe that these humiliations are daily occurrences, well anchored in the institution.

On Thursday, June 4th, a report by Arte Radio revealed racist exchanges between police officers in Rouen. The case is recent. It is no longer “just” insults against colleagues or citizens, but calls for “racial war” made by actual fascists, detailing the personal arsenal they are building up in order to “finish off the animals”. Misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia are also on the agenda. The white supremacists with Neanderthal intellect heard in this report are still in office, paid by the Republic and its citizens. In how many police stations are similar remarks still being made today?

Following Tuesday’s rally, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner defended a police force that, according to him, “protects women and men in this country from everything, including racism”. In today’s edition of Le Parisien, the director of the police nationale, Frédéric Veaux, assures that “the police in France is not racist”. Those in charge have chosen to ignore the evidence through some Orwellian spell, but a repeated lie does not make a truth.

Their discretion in the Fougères incident served as a reminder: the media also have their share of responsibility in the current blindness. First of all, let the people concerned speak! Television viewers still have to put up with pathetic losers who still find excuses to racism and refuse to use the irrefutable term “violences policières”. We are even forced to listen to the opinion of Éric Zemmour, a far right propagandist condemned for inciting racial hatred, and the chief representative of all the frustrated and mediocre people of France. What legitimacy do these people have to express themselves on such matters? What do they know about the daily life of a young black man in Minneapolis? Of a young black man in the Fougères neighborhood?

If the police force obviously need to review its practices, the French media would do well to urgently follow the same path. Through their silence, they too are taking their share of responsibility for the spread of a stagnant racism that eats away at the institutions of the Republic, especially those supposed to defend and protect all citizens.

Racism is not just physical or verbal violence. It is also expressed through a set of attitudes, behaviours and habits. Let us look at an isolated but revealing example with the photograph chosen by the editorial staff of Libération, a newspaper with a progressive reputation, to illustrate Tuesday’s rally at the Paris Judicial Court. A barricade, some flames, two lonely demonstrators. While the event lasted several hours and brought together tens of thousands of people, including families, the paper chooses to focus on the short episode of “dispersal [which] led to a few skirmishes” – a precision that can be found in the same article! So 25,000 people burned down a bus stop? No, a few isolated elements at most.

Wouldn’t the dignified anger of Assa Traore surrounded by the crowd make for a better illustration of this historical movement? What about these thousands of young demonstrators, from diverse backgrounds, demanding with one voice a fairer society? Even more obvious on the “news channels”, this widespread racism contributes to discrediting a just revolt.

For it is time to be outraged. It even seems to be working: after nights of demonstrations in several hundred American cities, the acts of violence that led to the death of George Floyd were finally reclassified by the courts. The four policemen who committed this assassination are all set to receive a sentence. While he had already been the subject of 18 complaints, his main killer could spend the rest of his life in prison. The three others are now accused of complicity due to their culpable indifference in the face of a man’s death.

In the United States, just like here, we can only welcome this growing awareness around systemic racism. The police institution is obviously not spared; it is even a blatant example of its influence and repercussions. In Paris, as elsewhere, the prohibition of dangerous practices such as prone restraint must be accompanied by real training of the workforce on the subject of racial biases. There is no room for negligence in a profession in which lives are at stake; it seems essential to confirm the ability of police officers to carry out their work through psychological testings. Lastly, the cheap Nazis that still belong to the police force must be expelled as soon as possible. Our Republic and its institutions were rebuilt on the ruins of the German occupation: their police force is certainly not intended to carry out the macabre designs of the former invader.

Beyond policing, France and its public debate would be honoured to finally take up the subject of institutional racism, the evidence of which is coming to light. It consists in observing the persistence, the depth of this evil. On August 4th, 1789, the Constituent Assembly voted to put an end to feudal privileges. More than two centuries later, privileges have changed in form but still contribute to the same social violence. Who are the men and women who pile up in night buses, who struggle to find accommodation, who clean our hotel or hospital rooms even under the threat of the virus? Who are the men and women who are dying the youngest, after having worked more difficult jobs, while being paid less and subjected to more unstable schedules? For whom have meritocracy and Republican equality remained nothing but fine words in the face of an unjust and implacable reality? Let’s open our eyes; we no longer have excuses.




Rally in support of Adama Traoré’s family – Paris, June 2nd, 2020
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