Special Report | Stolen Lives: A new generation rises up against French police violence
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Monday, July 15, 2013 0:00 - 1 Comment
By Ali Meziane
Paris, 23rd of March 2013. March against police crimes called by the Stolen Lives Collective. (Photo: Ali Meziane)
« Justice without force is impotent, force without justice is tyranny. Unable to make what is just strong, we have made what is strong just.” – Blaise Pascal
Saturday afternoon in Paris is traditionally a day of protest. On March 23rd 2013, a march was organised from Place de l’Opera, an upscale tourist area where department stores can be found alongside the cultural highlights of central Paris. At 3pm, a procession of around 300 demonstrators gathers. Their banners are all centred on a common set of demands: “truth and justice for victims of police crimes”; “no more impunity for a criminal police”; “no to the licence to kill”; “no justice, no peace”.
The Stolen Lives community group had called for the march to take place during the international week against police crimes. The group is composed of several families whose relatives died at the hands of the police. The victims remembered that day are part of a long list of people who have been seriously injured or killed during police questioning, while being chased, or in detention. All were unarmed victims, and had been constrained, beaten, or shot dead. The families* of the victims were present to denounce and raise awareness, turning the streets of Paris into a space of resistance.
On that day Ramata, Lamine Dieng’s sister, spoke and told her brother’s story. On June 17th 2007 in Paris, Lamine died after suffocating in a police van while his hands were handcuffed and his feet tied. His family and friends are unable to accept the version of events given by the police. Many grey areas remain: how dozens of bruises on his face and body had appeared; how one man could have “overpowered” eight policemen, as the latter allege; whether the police had used carotid restraint to control him – a banned technique of constriction in many countries, yet one that had earned France a condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights in 1998.
This same method was used in the case of other victims reported by the group, notably on Hakim Ajimi, killed in 2008 in Grasse, and Ali Ziri, a 69-year-old retired Algerian man who died in hospital two days after his arrest in June 2009 in Argenteuil, near Paris. None of these three cases had led to charges against the police, the justice system having dismissed any notion that the police might carry any responsibility for these deaths.
The three victims also share a common mention by Amnesty International in a damning report entitled “France: our lives are on hold. The families of those who died at the hands of the police await justice”. The report focuses on the case of five peoples who died in French police custody, and confirms the many accusations that the families of the victims have made, highlighting a number of concerns emanating from these cases: the disproportionate use of force; the lack of impartiality of the investigations; the reluctance of prosecutors to indict public order officers; the overly light sentences compared relative to the weight of the evidence presented; the deteriorating relationships of law enforcement representatives with citizens, and the tendency to stop and search a higher proportion of foreign or foreign-originating persons.
A list established by the collective of people killed by French police over the past thirty years gives rise to a key observation: whenever the police is involved, the justice system – acting on behalf of the State – is complicit in granting impunity to murderers, and the victims’ families never obtain justice. The Police and the judicial system, as well as “the media and politicians who designate those killed as always guilty and never victims” are challenged by the protesters.
When the police kills, the families proclaim, the judiciary, the state, and the media are all complicit. The demonstrators denounce the unfairness of the decisions and the racism of French institutions. And yet, politicians routinely dismiss these accusations and, instead, always give the police the benefit of the doubt by highlighting the difficulty of police work. The police unions are constantly defending the police officers in question, contesting homicide charges and claims of racism within their ranks.
All the families of the victims of the Stolen Lives collective are also organized into independent “truth and justice” committees working all-year round, organising commemorative marches in support of other families who share the same pain. After the memorial walk for Lamine Dieng that was organised on the 22nd of June 2013 and marches to the place where he was killed six years earlier, Ramata recalls the collective demands to fight more effectively against police impunity by bringing stronger elements and evidence to obtain justice rather than depending on the decisions of judges perceived as complicit in their plight. The families’ demands included a three party committee, a census of the victims by an independent organisation and counter-autopsies.
Also present at Lamine’s memorial march were members of the group Justice for Christopher Alder, a British soldier who died in police custody in 1998, a strikingly similar case to Lamine’s death. They came from London to support the Dieng family and exchange information and methods of action to better fight together from a transnational perspective. Based on their model of action in the UK the Justice of Christopher Alder campaign emphasised the importance of gathering and publicising statistics on the ethnic composition of victims of police brutality, statistics that remain prohibited in France to date.
Killing someone with a bullet in the back is legitimate self-defence
Noisy Le Sec, 20th April 2013. Commemorative event in memory of Amine Bentoussi, killed by a police officer one year earlier. (Photo: Ali Meziane)
Present at the protest of March 23rd, Amal Bentoussi can barely contain her anger. Sister of Amine Bentoussi, killed by a police officer on April 20th 2012 in Noisy Le Sec, Amal is a member of Stolen Lives. For her there is absolutely no doubt:
“there is an institutionalised denial by the state, the justice system, the media, and public opinion. All these families have several things in common that should not be overlooked and that cannot be just ascribed to mere coincidence. There is a slow process of extermination that was started several years ago in our neighbourhoods”.
Her words are powerful, matching the sense of injustice that she feels. The case of her brother is another symptomatic story, and for the past year she’s only been living to denounce this crime and demand justice. She has created a blog titled “Help! Our Police kills” to that effect. She refutes the official version, in which the offending policeman pleaded self-defence. The results of the autopsy and the testimony of a driver whose car was shot at during the incident confirmed that Amine had his back turned to the policeman, not facing him as the latter had claimed.
The policeman in question has been prosecuted for murder and his trial hasn’t taken place yet. In May 2012, the police union, Unité SGP Police-Fo, demonstrated against the decision to prosecute him. In support of the policeman, the the union denounced the security policies implemented by the State, (including the “numbers game”) and blamed the drop in police numbers for issues within its ranks. Without any respect for the family of the victim – who they labelled “a repeat offender” – the union called for the “respect and strengthening of the presumption of innocence” of police officers; a way for the police to put pressure on politicians and the judicial system before the latter reaches its verdict. While awaiting trial, the policeman remains free to exercise his duties and continues to receive his salary.
A few weeks later, on April 20th, 2013, Amal Bentoussi organised another march to commemorate the anniversary of her brother’s death by returning to the crime scene. She continues to seek justice, and to make her voice heard. The other families fully support her in her fight against the authorities:
“Our brothers were killed by the police, we are all -as they like to call us- “from immigrant backgrounds” and we all live in neighbourhoods known as “sensitive”. Who for and why? This is the question that we must ask ourselves. What is this will to harm a single population?”
Amal is determined and “won’t let go of the case” despite the complaint filed against her by the new Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, over the contents of her blog, alleging it amounted to “defamation against a public authority”. In fact, her blog merely lists police “bavures” (“blunders”) and protests against the seeming impunity of the law enforcement establishment.
In creating her website, Bentounsi say she and other families wanted to prompt “a governmental reaction to the families’ campaign”. For the time being, Manuel Valls has responded to the call by choosing the courts, to which Amal replies: “What we, the families of victims, are denouncing is that it does not interest anyone that victims of police brutality are young people from neighbourhoods whose names are Maghrebi- or African-sounding. Is this a coincidence since the 80s? At least they will talk about us.” However, like the other families, Amal harbours no illusions regarding the outcomes of the trial. On the 4th of June, she was called to the court and informed her trial will take place in February 2014.
Families of victims of police crimes: organising since the 80s
Paris, March 21st 1984. A group of mothers nicknamed “The Crazy ones of Place Vendôme” marched to denounce police crimes. (Photo: Im’media)
The Stolen Lives collective and the movement of victims’ families is heir to a form of resistance that is often unknown within the landscape of popular struggles of disadvantaged neighbourhoods in France. Here, Amal’s reference to “the 80s” is important. Every contemporary struggle carries the memory of a past one and, at the same time, calls for future ones.
Aware of the history of mobilisation of minorities in France, the collective Stolen Lives is a direct descendant of the protest movements that had marked the 80s in France. Most notably, the gathering of March 21st 1984 of a group of mothers, nicknamed “The Crazy Ones of Place Vendome”. Representing dozens of families affected by the loss of a loved one, they came together at national level to alert the public to the increase in racially-motivated crimes. Faced with the feeling of impunity and a “two-tier justice”, they demanded strong government action against police violence. Beyond its condemnation of racism, however, this mobilisation also questioned the escalating security policies and their tragic consequences, and had also ensured justice was served.
That decade marked the beginning of the resistance struggles of non-whites in France and their gradual disconnection from a strict ‘workers and immigrants’ framing of earlier movements, which had been established in France for decades by then. The children of immigrants increasingly considered themselves to be French and did not want to be reduced to the same status as their parents.
As such, the emergence on the political scene of a new generation of immigrant origin marked a break that resulted in a series of demonstrations and unrest throughout the decade. Among the most significant of these were the revolt in Vénissieux in 1981, the march for equality and against racism in October 1983, which had gathered hundreds of thousands of people from Marseille to Paris, and the national mobilisation of more than 600,000 people following the death of Malik Oussekine, a Franco-Algerian student killed in December 1986 by a policeman.
The claims raised then have been echoed by those of today, particularly the reports of police crimes and the daily repression faced by minorities in some areas. Others focused their efforts on more “civil society”-oriented claims, simply demanding equal civic rights. These movements also showed that minorities groups were not homogeneous and were not all facing the same realities. This was reflected in their claims, their organisation, and their domains of action. However, these movements shared a common thread: the denunciation of racial discrimination from the standpoint of those who live its realities, and an insistence on the importance of self-empowerment.
In France, anti-racism is often limited to the denunciation of the ideas of the extreme right and its rise, particularly since the 1980s. What these struggles and these forms of activism denounce is the structural nature of this racism. By deciphering coded expressions they bring another element to the equation, reminding everyone that racism is not the monopoly of the extreme right. The belief that being anti-racist because one is against the ideas of the extremist leaders of the Front National, or the notion that calling for diversity is enough to consider oneself not racist is thus challenged by these movements.
In France, the right and the left, sharing power alternately for 50 years, have failed to implement policies to combat racism, especially within the State’s own institutions. These are the contradictions of the French Republic that are denounced here and towards which these movements demand radical change from politicians. And yet, although plenty of measures were announced, not much had actually changed since the uprisings of the 1980s. As a result, the first decade of the milllenium saw a new surge of youth uprisings in popular neighbourhoods across France, reminding us that much remains to be done.
“Police everywhere, justice nowhere”
In light of the above, the march of March 23rd 2013 can thus be considered a successor of these struggles. Families present that day also remind us that, often when there are young people killed by the police, although many neighbourhoods erupt; and these crimes become triggers for many more revolts, the victims are soon forgotten, faced with a media torrent which keeps the spotlight on a “youth vs. police clashes” narrative.
The years 2000s in France saw many social revolts following the death of young people at the hands of the police, bringing media attention to neighbourhoods that would rather have been attended for reasons other than burning cars. Launched in 2002 under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, “a war to delinquency” was declared which focused French security policy mainly on the popular districts of the banlieues. This policy identified a main internal threat to the country: the popular neighbourhood youngsters, who became – in spite of themselves – the main face of fear in France.
The French police appears to devise its law enforcement policies in these neighbourhoods in terms of principles of war and territorial conquest. A real policy of harassment was implemented by the police towards the youth, worsening an already wide fracture between the Police and the communities.
In this regard, the genesis of the 2005 riots, the largest the country had experienced in 40 years, was symptomatic of the deep gulf between the police and suburban youths. The spark that had led to the revolt was the electrocution of two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, aged 17 and 15, in Clichy on the outskirts of Paris. They were electrocuted as they took refuge in a power station while fleeing police officers who were chasing them.
Despite the fact that the police officers involved were indicted for “failure to assist a person in danger” in 2007, that an independent report confirmed that the two teenagers were being chased, and that a judge sent the two officers to the criminal court,the court of appeal dismissed these charges and decided in favour of the two policemen in 2011. This decision was then overturned in October 2012 by the Court of Appeal, finally giving hope that the public trial that families have always demanded might take place. After hearing from both parties on June 4, the court will deliver its final decision, on whether the trial should take place or not, on September 20, eight years after the killings…
The riots revealed, once again, the dysfunctional relationship between the suburbs and the republic. The families of the victims denounced and questioned the function of the police in those neighbourhoods, seen not as a public institution protecting everyone, but rather an organ of power that is only present to maintain order by force rather than through preventive measures. In contrast, the judicial machinery works at full speed when it comes to condemning those taking part in unrest or clashes with police forces.
Two other cases of youngsters killed by the police were also remembered at the march of 23rd March 2013. On 25 November 2007, Moushin Sehhouli, 15, and Lakhamy Samura, 16, were killed in Villiers le Bel. Their motorcycle had been hit by a police car, and the police version – relayed by the mainstream media – was that the two young people had thrown themselves without helmets under the wheels of the police car. Another version, presented by the neighbourhood residents on various blogs told a different story: it was the police vehicle that cut across the motorcycle, a well-known police chase method called parechocage (“bumper-ing”).
The uprising that followed only lasted a few days but its intensity left its mark on the popular consciousness as strongly as had been the case after the revolts of 2005. Despite the neighbourhood being besieged for several days by an impressive military-police operation, several clashes and collective self-defence efforts undermined the police machinery. So much so that this revolt will later be called the “Battle of Villiers”, in reference to the Battle of Algiers. Dozens of police officers were wounded by gunfire, and it is thus the police who were – once again – presented as the victims.
What followed took the appearance of a “revenge from the state”, and highlights the mechanisms underlying the close alliance between the judiciary, the state, the police and the media. In February 2008, the police organised a raid leading to numerous arrests which culminated in the trial, in June 2010, of five young black males aged 20 to 30 accused of shooting at the police. The men faced possible life sentences “involuntary homicide of police officers” (“homicide involontaire au préjudice de fonctionnaires de police”), despite the fact that no physical evidence supported the accusations.
To compensate for this lack of evidence, the judiciary and the police promised financial rewards to anyone who could incriminate the suspects. Throughout the trial the only voice to be heard was the police’s, leading to the conviction of the five youngsters to sentences ranging from 3 to 15 years. To date, three of the five convicts have been released on appeal, and three of the four officers, indicted for false testimony regarding the speed of their vehicle at the time of the collision, were cleared by the courts in March 2013. The trial of the fourth police officer, who was the driver at the time of the collision, was held last month, in June 6th and 7th 2013. It was another blow to the victims’ families who had been hoping to see justice served. Instead, the court dismissed the responsibility of the police officer, according to reports from friends, support groups and activists who have denounced, once again, the judiciary’s patent partiality in favouring the accident thesis and thus taking the side of the police officer. The final verdict has been postponed to September 2013.
In 2010, the families of the victims, Lamine Dieng and Ali Ziri, joined the solidarity movements for the five accused youngsters as well as the families of Lakhamy and Moushin. They organised a march to the courts as well as a series of solidarity events throughout France. It was on this occasion that a collective of families of victims was born with the vision of establishing a joint strategy of action. It was decided to no longer use the term “bavures” to describe victims killed by the police, so as to highlight that these tragedies are the result of recurring practices among the police, rather than inadvertent “blunders”.
Indeed, these “bavures” are not accidents due to a loss of control. The families insist that the police were never threatened, and none of the victims was armed. Another central point they raised is that behind the police operates a state that directs and controls its actions. As such, it is not enough to denounce police brutality; the state should more broadly be held responsible, especially given the justice system’s systematic cover-up of police crimes and its consequent legitimating of police violence. Moreover, even though many of the victims’ families believe that there is no justice, they have taken their struggle into the courts as well, in order to restore the dignity, the honour and the memory of their loved ones. This is also a way for them to break their isolation, powerlessness and silence, by joining forces together against police violence.
It is here necessary to oppose the outrage-filled discourses that constantly condemning the “hatred” that many people seem to share against police forces without seeking to understand the reasons underlying such feelings and views. If clashes with the police took place in Villiers Le Bel in 2007, it is obviously because two teenagers died. however, this was also because the authorities had responded to the popular anger with lies, contempt and provocation. Moreover, it is also because these deaths occurred in the context of increasingly strained relations between residents and police forces. This is a situation that can be found in most disadvantaged neighbourhoods across the country, where the response of the state to the precariousness it imposes on these communities is too often through an increase of police presence under the banner of security measures, when it is in fact social justice that is acutely needed.
When someone comes from an area where one suffers arbitrary stop-and-search controls several times a day based on their physical appearance, and when one is subject to disparaging, insulting and aggressive police officers who enjoy complete impunity, there is nothing surprising in bridled resentment eventually reaching boiling point. And if major uprisings have not occurred since 2007, this certainly does not mean that the situation has calmed down nor improved in the popular neighbourhoods in France: nine victims of police crimes were recorded in 2012, and four since the beginning of 2013.
The actions of the victims’ families have thus also focused on increasing preventive discourse in popular neighbourhoods, reminding young people that it is important not to run the risk of having their lives stolen, by falling for the provocative methods of the police. Farid, Wissam El Yamni’s brother, highlights that he had joined the collective Stolen Lives not only to seek justice for his brother, but also to ensure that these crimes cease completely, thus uncovering the collective’s main purpose: that of saving lives.
*The families of Lamine DIENG, Youcef MAHDI, Nabil MABTOUL, Wissam EL YAMNI, Amine BENTOUSSI, Mahamadou MAREGA, Bouna TRAORE , Zyed BENNA, Hakim AJIMI, Ali ZIRI, Lakhamy SAMOURA, Moushin SEHHOULI
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