French Black Lives Matter activist Assa Traoré with an Afro and a "justice pour Adama" t-shirt.

Assa Traoré wearing a "Justice pour Adama" t-shirt.

Photo credit: Anne Charlotte Arnoult

In Conversation: France's 'Black Lives Matter' Leader Assa Traoré is Still Fighting for Her Brother, Adama

As police brutality in France intensifies under coronavirus restrictions, we talk to the leader of "Justice for Adama" about her campaign to protect Black communities and get justice for her brother's death.

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has been used as an excuse by the French state to take a more authoritarian approach to controlling poorer areas. Across all of France right now, the population is not allowed to go outside unless they can show a permission slip. French police conduct even more identity checks, targeting poor areas with people of color leave, leading to more tension. In March, a Black woman who went out to do grocery shopping was beaten up by the police who accused her of not buying necessary items. There were protests in a few cities outside of Paris after a motorcyclist was injured following an altercation with the police. But violence toward Black communities in France is not new.

On the day of his 24th birthday, July 19th 2016, Assa Traoré's brother Adama was asphyxiated to death in a gendarme station outside Paris. That's the official account, but Assa and her supporters say the evidence shows that the gendarmes—members of the French national police force—had crushed him during the chase and before entering the police station. Since then, Assa has been leading the fight to find out the truth about what happened to her brother, creating the "Justice for Adama" movement in the process. In a short amount of time, Assa has become a major figure against police brutality in France. She has found worldwide support from many activists and celebrities such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker.

Her fight is a reminder that Black lives still don't matter in France, prompting comparisons to the treatment of Black communities in the US and all over the Western world.Police brutality against Black people is global and it keeps communities terrorized. In France, the justice system maintains the police power by not sentencing and indicting them, showing that not all assaulters/murderers are treated the same. We reached Assa Traoré by phone in Paris.

This interview has been translated from French and edited for length and clarity.

What was your life like before Adama's death?

I was living an ordinary life, working as an educator with young people, taking care of my family. Growing up in the French projects, we were always aware of police brutality. But the death of someone I love, in these conditions, changed my life forever.

The day my brother died, he went out to pick up his new ID at the city hall. He saw his other brother being stopped by the police. He ran away to go back home, as he knew they would stop him as well. They saw him and ran after him. They tackled him, putting their weights onto him, more than 300 kilos. He told them: 'I can't breathe'.

They chose not to take him to the hospital. They threw him in a cell at the police station and said that they would provide first aid. Adama died shortly after. Our family started looking for him at the hospital. Then, they went to the police station where the officers told them that he was fine.

He had already died by then.

A small group of people had gathered outside the station to enquire about Adama's state. That's when the police officers revealed the truth. The official death was ruled by the coroner as asphyxiation, but it has never been proved. We created the movement "Justice for Adama" to get the truth.

What is the goal of your movement?

The collective's primary focus is to prove that the three police officers involved in Adama's arrest caused his death. Some of my brothers have been sued by the state and put in jail. We also fight for their liberation. In addition, we are actively promoting social equality and supporting racial minorities.

French justice courts dismiss cases relating to racism and police discrimination on a regular basis. However, the ECHR has ruled that France, as a state, has an obligation to protect the health of detainees. Identity checks and the the state requesting a form of identification is oppression. Philosopher Elsa Dorlin says that the first form of identification in France was been created for the Black slave. Every time he was to step outside, he could be controlled and die if he didn't have his ID.

Police brutality and racism are among the many consequences of colonization and slavery.

When it comes to police brutality and racial profiling, the justice system automatically sides with the police. It is a machine that turned us into soldiers. The media often helps by painting negative narratives around the victims of police brutality. That's why we use the media to tell our own stories with our own voices. I co-wrote a book, "Letter to Adama", to tell the truth about my brother and my family.

How do you remain hopeful when institutional racism means that police officers are seldom indicted when they kill people?

We remain hopeful through our fight and our determination. Had we not fought, my brother would have died in vain, the police describing him as a criminal under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We won't stop until we get justice and restore my brother's honor and dignity. We haven't won the war yet but we have won many battles. The judges hide behind "experts" who confirm the police's lies so that the officers will be acquitted. We have successfully sued an expert who wrongfully ruled my brother's death.

How does your family heal from this?

From the very beginning, my brother has been painted as a criminal and the system attacked us. We have received countless death threats. It was incredibly hard. There are four lawsuits against me. My brothers became political prisoners. Because they are Black men, they've been jailed. The more they attack us, the stronger we remain.

Police brutality is a global issue. How do Black communities work together, especially the Black French and the Black Americans?

My brother died because he is Black. It makes sense that we have received support and help from other Black communities in the world. We work in Canada and in the US .

Black communities have to fight twice as hard to be heard and for justice to be served. The institutions are tools to promote inequality. Nowadays, more people are aware of police brutality but we also have other systems in place to further marginalize us, like the school to prison pipeline, the education system and the job market being skewed towards us. We are robbed of our ability to build a world for ourselves and be a valuable part of our society.

Police officers are deeply racist. In France, half of them vote for the far-right party The National Rally. When they see us, they are triggered to commit acts of violence. Police officers target cities and neighborhoods where communities of color live. Our neighborhoods are training camps, they use our lives to practice.

What is next for you and your movement?

The case is still ongoing. We have been through many rounds of counter-expertises to determine Adama's cause of death. The judges haven't indicted the police officers. We asked for another legal expertise regarding his autopsy. We will hear from them in a few months.

It's important to keep hope and to fight, even when it's a long one.

People living in the projects are being controlled and harassed daily. Sometimes, as many as 5 times a day. I am not the spokesperson against police brutality, but I'll do what I can to seek the truth.

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