On June 16, 2017, Jeronimo Yanez, a Minnesota police officer, was acquitted in the July 6, 2016 death of Philando Castile. A 32-year-old Black American who worked as a school nutrition worker at a local magnet school, Castile was pulled over as he drove with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and their 4-year-old daughter. After Yanez shot Castile multiple times, claiming Castile was reaching for a gun even though he was reaching for his ID, his girlfriend streamed the aftermath live on Facebook. Despite the numerous deaths of Black and Brown individuals at the hands of the police that went unpunished, Castile’s death—at least in part because of the video—seemed like it might be treated differently following Yanez’s arrest on second-degree manslaughter, among other, charges. Yet, it ended the same—no justice for Castile and his family.
I learned about Yanez’s acquittal late in the night of the 16th. His death and those of many Black Americans at the hands of police alarmed me but I barely had enough time to process this horrific news. I was in Paris conducting ethnographic research for the summer on French antiracist mobilization and police violence.
The next morning, I woke up early to take the train to Paris’s 20th Arrondissement—not far from Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery where Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison are buried—where I would participate in a commemoration and demonstration for the 10-year anniversary of the death of Lamine Dieng.
On June 17, 2007, Dieng, a 25-year-old of Senegalese origin who was born in France, died following a struggle with multiple police officers during which he was restrained face down on the street with his hands tied behind his back and his feet strapped together. He was taken into a police van and, by the time he arrived at the station, he was no longer breathing. The medical report stated that he died of asphyxiation. Yet Lamine’s family and supporters want a full investigation, and punishment for the officers involved.
The horror and parallel circumstances of these two incidents is striking.“Speaking solemnly into the camera, Ramata said before bursting into tears, ‘The police kill us, they don’t police us. We’ve been fighting this for ten years. We need to know what the truth is.’”
Following Lamine’s death, his 45-year-old sister, Ramata Dieng, with some friends and family members formed a collectif, Vies volées (loosely translated as Stolen Lives) as a way to mobilize others against state-sponsored violence. They hold a march throughout the 20th Arrondissement each year on June 17 demanding justice. The 10th anniversary demonstration was much larger than in previous years (or years since). That morning we watched a documentary created by another collectif in which Lamine’s friends and relatives, including Ramata, discuss who he was, his life and circumstances of his death, and the miscarriage of justice. Speaking solemnly into the camera, Ramata said before bursting into tears, “The police kill us, they don’t police us. We’ve been fighting this for ten years. We need to know what the truth is.”
When I later spoke with her privately, Ramata told me that in the United States, police brutality and violence are much worse, with many more victims. “Yet, this happens in all Western countries because it comes from the state. The state is racist.” She expanded on the contours of this issue: “Police violence in France, really, is a racial question; it is the racism of the state, because when you look at the list of victims, you see that essentially, more than 90 percent, are Blacks and Arabs.”1The term “Arab” is often used synonymously with “North African” or “Maghrébin.”
That a French person would make such a statement belies the supposedly colorblind and race neutral ethos upon which France rests. While there is disagreement about the actual numbers of victims who have died at the hands of police, there is a sense, particularly by activists, of this growing injustice in France.
For over a decade, I have been conducting research on race, racism, and migration in France. My research focuses on understanding how individuals remain on the margins of mainstream society and what this reveals about how race and racism “work.” As an American sociologist, I’ve been fascinated by the insights gained by studying race and racism in a different society. As a Black American ethnographer, I know that many of the issues affecting Black populations in the United States are not unique to the United States. Using these insights and research, I explore how antiracist mobilization and mobilization against police violence navigate France’s colorblind ethos.
Police violence in France and the United States
While police violence is not a new phenomenon in either the United States or France, there is growing mobilization against it in both societies. Yet the contours of this activism are different, because the framing of race and racism is different.
In the United States, activists associated with BlackLivesMatter2While Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi are often credited with starting the social movement BlackLivesMatter, the first use of the BlackLivesMatter hashtag was actually by sociologist Marcus Anthony Hunter. DeRay McKesson, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (New York: Viking, 2018). and the Movement for Black Lives have mobilized to bring attention to incidents such as Castile’s death. Using social media, demonstrations, and other protest tactics to spread slogans such as “Hands up, don’t shoot” or “White silence is violence,” they have brought attention to the deaths of Black Americans.3Among them: August 9, 2014: Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri; March 21, 2012: 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot by white detective Dante Servin in a Chicago; November 22, 2014: Tamir Rice, 12 years of age, was shot by white police officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland; April 12, 2015: 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police after sustaining a spinal cord injury during a “rough ride,” the name for driving arrested individuals without seatbelts; July 13, 2015: Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman, died in jail three days after her arrest for a minor traffic violation; May 16, 2010: Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old sleeping at her grandmother’s house, was shot in the head by Office Joseph Weekly in what he called an accidental discharge during a midnight raid. None of the officers involved faced any punishment. “When we say that Black Lives matter,” Alicia Garza, one of the activists associated with BlackLivesMatter, explains, “we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement that Black poverty and genocide is state violence… And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.”
And this applies to Black populations outside of the United States as well.
Lamine is not the only victim of violence at the hands of French police. In July 2016, Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black construction worker, died under unusual circumstances after being arrested in the banlieue of Beaumont-sur-Oise, north of Paris. Police first claimed that he had died of a heart attack and then changed their story, saying he had a severe infection. His family is asking for another autopsy because they say he had no health problems prior to his death. Since his death, there have been numerous protests demanding justice for Adama led by his sister, Assa Traoré, who sees this cause as not just about her brother but for all forgotten populations in France.“The four police officers at the scene claimed they were checking the identification of men they suspected of drug activity and later said that Théo’s assault was an accident and unintentional.”
Another victim is Théo Luhaka. The 22-year-old Black man was hospitalized after being raped, beaten, and called racial slurs by several police officers in February 2017 in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a banlieue north of Paris. The four police officers at the scene claimed they were checking the identification of men they suspected of drug activity and later said that Théo’s assault was an accident and unintentional. In the immediate aftermath, there were several demonstrations throughout the Paris metropolitan area. Then President François Hollande visited Théo in his hospital room and promised that justice would be done. In a news video recorded during this visit, Théo pleaded with his fellow banlieue residents to remain peaceful and united—reminiscent of Rodney King’s call for all of us to “get along” during the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles that followed his beating by four police officers.
Social scientists have documented how identity checks by the police (or les controles d’identite), such as the one Théo experienced, are more likely to occur to “visible minorities” than to whites.4See Fabien Jobard and Rene Lévy, Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris (New York: Open Society Institute, 2009); Fabien Jobard et al., “Mesurer les discriminations selon l’apparence: une analyse des contrôles d’identité à Paris,” Population 67, no. 3 (2012): 349–375. These interactions with the police sometimes lead to violence and death, and reinforce that minorities are second-class citizens—despite how many of them are actually born and raised in France.
Antiracist mobilization in France
Despite being a multicultural society with a long history of immigration, France does not acknowledge or otherwise measure racial and ethnic categories. This is its republican and colorblind ideology. Everyone is either French or not, and French law does not make any distinctions among its population. Therefore, how do individuals protest against racism—and issues caused by or related to racism—in a society that denies its existence? Despite the persistence of racial profiling and police violence, French perspectives on identity-based groups make mobilization more challenging for Ramata and other activists who seek to bring attention to this growing social problem. Though Ramata understands police violence as a facet of racism in France, it is not as easy to openly discuss it in those terms. When Black populations do attempt to organize, they are often accused of communautarisme, or the idea that identity-based communities would separate from other groups based on identity. As France espouses a nation-based cohesiveness, it fears identity-based groups, a distinct difference from the United States where identity-based communities are acknowledged.“While increasing the visibility of France’s postcolonial migrant population, the march failed in having its various demands addressed by the state.”
In what could be thought of as one of the first antiracist movements in France—or as French political scientist Abdellai Hajjat termed it, an “immigrants’ May 1968”—the 1983 Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme (March for Equality and against Racism), also known as the Marche des Beurs, mobilized activists against police brutality, unemployment, and difficult living conditions in their communities. This nonviolent march, whose leaders were inspired by the nonviolent ideology of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began in Marseille, in the south of France, and ended in Paris almost two months later, comprised of over 100,000 descendants of North African immigrants. When one of the march’s leaders, Djaïdja Toumi—who was born in Algeria and migrated to France at the age of five and who had been shot by police—arrived in Paris, he declared: “Bonjour à la France de toutes les couleurs” (Hello to France of all colors). But, while increasing the visibility of France’s postcolonial migrant population, the march failed in having its various demands addressed by the state.
During protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, then French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira said: “I will not make value judgments on the institutions of the United States but when the sense of frustration is that strong, that deep, that long-lasting and that huge, there is reason to question whether people trust these institutions. You realize that somehow it only happens to the same people: Afro-American kids.”
Yet it’s become increasingly clear that her statement also applies to racial and ethnic minorities in France. In recent years activists like Ramata have sought to raise awareness on police brutality and violence. They lead trainings on community organizing, align with other causes (including the current Gilets Jaunes movement), and use social media to share videos of encounters with police. Many activists are also paying attention to incidents of police violence in the United States and the BlackLivesMatter movement, and make connections between what happens here in the United States and what occurs in France. Through social media and public demonstrations like the one I attended in remembrance of Lamine, French activists continue to push for accountability for the deaths that happen at the hands of police.
Still fighting for justice
Back in the 20th Arrondissement on that June day, a crowd of over 500 people marched for over three hours. Ramata and other activists led us yelling into megaphones, followed by a giant Vies volées banner with outlines of the faces of police violence victims accompanied by the slogan: “Vérité et justice pour toutes les victimes de crimes policiers” (Truth and justice for all victims of police crimes). We shouted chants including, “Justice pour Lamine” (Justice for Lamine), “Police assassine, justice acquitte” (The police assassinate, the justice system acquits them), and “Zyed et Bouna, on n’oublie pas, on pardonne pas” (Zyed and Bouna, we don’t forget you, we don’t pardon your deaths), while holding signs that read “Qui nous protege de la police?” (Who will protect us from the police?), and “Police partout, justice nulle part” (Police everywhere, justice nowhere).
These forms of activism have brought more and more attention to police violence in France, including coverage in the US and international media, and pressure for additional investigations and autopsies for victims has intensified. But this mobilization is still limited. Struggles against police violence have to also be antiracist struggles, even though there is no language to combat racism in France. Activists seek to connect their struggles with similar incidents in the United States; they see the similarities between the deaths of Castile and Lamine. Yet French activists do so in a context where there are no “Black lives.”
Examining antiracist mobilization against police violence in two societies with different ideas about race and racism reveals what happens when Black populations are devalued. These struggles are interconnected and scholars need to explore the possibilities for how all Black lives really do matter, regardless of those who say otherwise.
Banner photo credit: Hervé Germain/Flickr