“Identity papers, please”

By Rym Khadhraoui

On the day of his 24th birthday, July 19 2016, Adama Traore was meeting his brother in the street when the gendarmery approached to control them. As is common for many young men living in poor suburbs encountering the security forces, Adama runaway from them. The gendarmery found him in his house and immobilized him, using a technique that is forbidden in most European countries. During his detention Adama lost consciousness. Later, his heart stopped. The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, with contradicting autopsy reports from the prosecutor who first stated Adama died from a heart infection, before a counter-autopsy required by the family found that the cause of death was actually asphyxia. That is when the struggle for truth and justice started for Adama’s family, with his sister Assa Traore on the frontline.

Following Adama’s story, the New York Times titled an op-ed “Black Lives Matter in France, too”. This story is not surprising for the U.S. society. That is why using the hashtag #HisNameWasAdama a video was made, with English subtitles and captions, telling the complete story of Adama Traore. French associations, and Adama’s family and friends had the intuition that civil society actors in the U.S. could feel the link with their struggle. The summer Adama lost his life, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling also tragically met the same fate in the hands of U.S. police. Because the two countries are facing similar situations, social movements are trying to build a bridge between the two. In France, a local association even chose the name “Ferguson in Paris”.

The core difference between the two countries political campaigns and debate addressing police violence is the explicit recognition or explicit denial in the U.S. of the  role of race and racism in police violence and criminal justice system. For instance, Hilary Clinton in the first debate claimed that race “still determines too much…. it determines how they are treated in the criminal justice system.” Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that he was  “the law-and-order candidate” and advocated for the controversial stop-and-frisk technique, which was ruled as unconstitutional by federal judge in 2013- linking this technique to racial profiling. Although by contrast, most French politicians avoid debating or acknowledging the racial profile of victims of police violence. The French discourse focuses instead on the urban area where victims are from, or the impoverished suburbs that have become overly populated by post-colonial waves of immigration.

French policemen patrol a street in a Paris suburb, Aulnay-sous-Bois, early Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2005. Unrest spread across troubled suburbs around Paris for a sixth night as police clashed with angry youths and vehicles were torched in at least nine towns, local officials said. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Although there has been more explicit discussion of race and police violence in the U.S., it takes more than new frameworks and legal reforms to address a rooted systemic issue that also is intertwined with economic and social conditions of some communities, as well as the gun culture in the country. It is for this reason, the Movement for Black Lives, which includes Black Lives Matter and 60 other organizations, launched in August 2016 a platform of demands involving calls for reparations remedies, more economic justice and political power. Despite clear differences between the two US presidential candidates on the institutional violence suffered by African-Americans, BLM chose strategically not to collectively endorse any candidates. One of their NYC representatives, Darnell More, explained that the end of systemic racism within the criminal justice system, and in the police forces daily behaviors, is not about the leadership capacity of one candidate but about structural policy reforms that the movement will have to advocate for notwithstanding the candidate elected.

In France, those cases of North African or Black people dying in the hands of the security forces are called police “bavures”, which literarily means drip or burr but figuratively it means an error, if death occurred it was a professional mistake. None of the prominent French presidential candidates for the election of 2017 have yet underlined the role of racism underlying police violence, as did Clinton in her speech in Harlem in February 2016.  The language of “systemic racism” far from being used by current presidential candidates in France.

France like the U.S. has a long story of police violence targeting North African and Black people. In 2005, the death of the now sadly famous Zyed and Bouna triggered several weeks of uprisings in the poor suburbs of the country. Ironically, a state of emergency was then declared- a first since 1961, when it was used to neutralized the Algerian nationalists protesters. In 2009, Amnesty International launched a report titled France: Police above the law? In this report, international organization claimed that “unlawful killings, beatings, racial abuse and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials are prohibited under international law in all circumstances. Yet in France, reports of such human rights violations are rarely investigated effectively and those responsible seldom brought to justice.

For now, despite the recent case of Adama Traore, the issue is absent of the political debate in France, even with the future presidential and legislative elections on the horizon, later this year. When a French deputy, Pouria Armishahi confronted the Minister of Interior, Bernard Caseneuve, about Adama Traore’s death, the Minister’s answer focused solely on the defense of the police institution without even pronouncing Adama’s name or expressing sympathy to his family.

In response to the political and institutional silence on this issue, civil society organizations in France are becoming active. For instance, the association Stop Ethnic Profiling in Police Controls (“Stop au Contrôle au Faciès”) is providing legal assistance to the victims’ families and advocacy work. In France, a black man has 6 times more chances to get stopped for identity checks by the police than a white man; for a North African man it is 7.8 times more than a white man (according to a study from the CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research). To fight against ethnical profiling, one of President Hollande’s campaign promises in 2012 was to require police to issue a receipt during random police identity controls. But the proposal was rejected and abandoned by the government.

Despite the more explicit recognition in the U.S. of the racial profile of victims, many in the U.S. are rightly disappointed by the lack of accountability for police violence. In both countries, police officers are almost never condemned in those cases. “No justice, no peace.” The same words resonate in communities of both countries. The vivid tragedies of their respective situations calls for a shared effort toward the truth and justice needed.