Race and the Republic

A new minority movement against police violence in France

01 June 2016
Amal Bentounsi, who runs an organisation opposing police violence and helped organised the Marche de la Dignité, lost her brother when he was shot in the back by a police officer.
matthieu alexandre / afp / getty images
Amal Bentounsi, who runs an organisation opposing police violence and helped organised the Marche de la Dignité, lost her brother when he was shot in the back by a police officer.
matthieu alexandre / afp / getty images

When I sat down with Maddox, an 18-year-old teenager from Paris, he told me it was his first time speaking to a journalist. “I want to break the terrible silence,” he said, to “prevent these kids from going through the same hell as me.” He pointed to a group of black toddlers playing nearby. I met him in the office of Soleil—an association that has been in the national news since December, when it helped 18 adolescents file a complaint with the Paris prosecutor against a dozen police officers, citing charges that included grave voluntary violence, sexual aggression and discrimination.

Maddox, who wished to be identified only by his nickname, had his first encounter with the police when he was 12 years old. He and his friends were sitting on scooters parked on the street when the police accused his older friends of “attempted theft” of the vehicles. After that, he told me, as often as ten times a month, officers would find minor excuses to detain him and his friends at the police station for up to four hours at a stretch, often not even letting them make phone calls. He has been handcuffed, beaten, tear-gassed and insulted by officers—who are often called “Tigers” in his neighbourhood’s slang. Many of these incidents, he told me, occurred only because he was black. “It’s discrimination,” he said. “I am not allowed to feel as French as the others.”

His experience is far from unique. In France, black and Arab adolescents and men are disproportionately likely to face police harassment and brutality. In 2009, a study by the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the international organisation the Open Society Justice Initiative showed that in Paris, people who look Arab were eight times more likely to get stopped by the police than white people, and black people were six times as likely. In 2005, 2009 and 2012, the human rights group Amnesty International released reports on police impunity in France, highlighting cases of “illegal homicide, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments.” One of these reports, in 2009, cited how “the vast majority of complaints” of police violence that Amnesty reviewed concerned “French citizens from an ethnic minority or foreign nationals,” and in many such cases, “racist abuse was an explicit element.” In recent years, responding to these realities, a number of activists and organisations in minority communities have been leading a movement that highlights the connections between police brutality, structural racism and even the violent dynamics of colonialism.

Noopur Tiwari is a journalist based in Paris. She has covered Europe for the last 16 years for Indian media. She is on Twitter as @NoopurTiwari.

COMMENT