As France struggles to come to terms with a high-profile case in which a French police officer is accused of using a baton to anally rape a young black man, our team spoke to residents of working class and immigrant neighbourhoods across the country about their relationship with the police.
Protests continue across France ten days after a young black man was allegedly injured while in police custody in the Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. Théo, who was hospitalised after the incident, had a ten-centimetre anal fissure reportedly caused by a policeman’s baton.
Last Saturday, 2,000 people protested outside a courthouse in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny to demand justice for the 22-year-old victim. Despite calls for calm from Théo and his family, dozens of people have been arrested during several consecutive nights of clashes with police. Police reported that 37 people were arrested in Bobigny.
While the French body responsible for investigating the police, the IGPN, declared after examining the case that the penetration of the baton was “accidental”. Théo’s lawyer, Mr Éric Dupont-Moretti, has called this finding “intolerable” and continues to accuse the police involved of rape.
French president François Hollande recently visited Aubervilliers, another zone in the same north-eastern suburb where Théo was assaulted. He called for "justice" to be served in the case, but also condemned the rioting.
One of the police officers who arrested Théo is under investigation for rape while the three others are accused of aggravated assault. All four are currently suspended. Théo is still in hospital.
“We need a new power balance to stop this violence”
Nawufal, age 28, has a degree in urban planning and works with local NGOs in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb in Seine-Saint-Denis, where he grew up.
The last time I was searched was right in front of my building. Four officers stopped me at 1am. They were actually pretty nice; luckily, not all police officers are awful.
I’m lucky to have moved into a neighbourhood where there is less of a police presence. But police violence occurs regularly in Clichy. Until we are able to shift the power balance to stop the police and make them actually listen to us, any solution is just papering over the cracks.
No solution will come from online activists who do nothing more than like a status. I am not saying that virtual protests are completely useless, but it isn’t concrete action. No elected official is going to respond to an online post that was liked or shared 10,000 times. But if 10,000 people show up to protest outside city hall — that carries a actual weight.
"Some police officers are making money from cases where they are insulted"
I think that arbitrary searches would have been halted if [President François] Hollande’s promise to require police officers to provide written evidence for each person who is searched had been delivered [Editor’s note: This campaign promise meant to address the targeting of minorities in police “stop-and-frisk” actions was voted down in the National Assembly last June]. In the meantime, some police officers are actually making money from this. If they are verbally or physically assaulted, officers can get paid a compensation of 300 to 700 euros [Editor’s note: The fact that police were making soo many claims for this kind of payments was denounced in a report for the Interior Ministry].
Nawufal interviewed his friends about police searches for an article published in January 2016 through the FRANCE 24 Pas 2 Quartier project [in French].
“Police should face more severe punishment because they represent the state”
Miad is a high school student and a sports instructor in Marseille. For the past few years, he’s been living in Busserine, a low-income neighbourhood in the north of Marseille.
As time goes on in Busserine, things are growing calmer. Right now, there are fewer cases of police violence, but there are stop-and-searches that get out of control. I’m really lucky to attend a high school [Editor’s note: located in central Marseille] where students come from all different socio-economic backgrounds. My friends who come from wealthier neighbourhoods have never been ID'd and searched by police. However, for those of us living in lower-income areas, it’s so common that it has become banal.
When people are subjected to this kind of humiliation, it creates animosity towards the police. When the police get out of control, they should be punished more severely than civilians because the police are supposed to represent the state and justice. It’s too bad, because there are police officers who try to do their jobs well. That’s why each case should be considered individually and why it isn’t good to generalise.
“I said I was afraid of dogs and the police officer let go of the leash”
Anthony, 29, lives in the Alma neighbourhood in the northern French city of Roubaix. He served in the French military and now works as a property manager.
I’ve been a victim of police violence and have been subject to aggressive searches. I actually reported two of these instances to the IGPN [the police body tasked with investigating the French police].
One day, I had just left home to accompany my mother to an appointment at the bank when we came across several police officers with dogs in the stairwell.
I told them that I was afraid of dogs and the officer thought it would be fun to let go of the dog’s leash. I was really afraid, but he didn’t do anything about it. I thought he had crossed a line and I got carried away and started insulting him.
The problem is, they don’t respect us and they push us to boiling point. The officers started hitting me in front of my mother and I defended myself. They put me in an armlock, choked me and then handcuffed me. When I got out of police custody, I filed a complaint. My father had taken pictures of the incident but the police entered into our home without authorisation and deleted the pictures.
I reported the entire incident to the IGPN and included testimonies from neighbours. But no one was punished and the case was filed away somewhere. After an incident like that, how can you not feel hate?
This same story gets repeated over and over in low-income neighbourhoods across France. Even if all you are doing nothing, just hanging out in front of your house, you risk being hit and humiliated by the police. If someone hits me for no reason, they shouldn't hang around and wait for me to give them a bunch of flowers. They affect your self-esteem. Their injustice and arrogance is hurtful.
Because the state and the judiciary system systematically fail to address this issue, it feeds resentment. And because the police are always backed by someone, they push their limits. What will these incidents look like in the future?
"Having neighbourhood police could create a relationship of trust and dialogue that we don't have anymore”
In the army, there is no tolerance for abusive language used against civilians. You can’t sully your uniform in that way or you’ll be dismissed. It should be the same with the police as well. I worked with them as part of the Vigipirate plan [Editor’s note: France’s national security alert system] and I couldn’t get over my resentment enough to even shake their hands. I know that it’s conflating two different things, but I'm only human. I can’t be a hypocrite. I also know that you can’t blame the police for everything. That doesn't solve anything.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you are always associated with your neighbourhood”
Kader, 34, is the manager of a company providing transportation for people with mobility issues. He lives in Sevran, in Seine-Saint-Denis.
We act surprised and cry crocodile tears when we hear about one of these incidents, but, in reality, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Cases of police violence aren’t random occurrences, they happen systematically and on a daily basis. Police come into low-income neighbourhoods like it is either a war zone or a zoo. We can’t shake the stigma that is attached to our skin. It doesn’t matter who you are, you are always associated with your neighbourhood and considered a delinquent.
This is the result of a double discrimination. First of all, it has to do with the way that minorities are treated here. My parents and grandparents were born in France and my great-grandparents invested in France, but I am still considered a “fourth-generation immigrant”. How far are we going to go with that? Until the 12th generation? This kind of racism is a factor, as is poverty. And as long as we are not allowed to share the same country with people more privileged than us and as long as we are considered second-class citizens, we should keep organising under the slogan “no justice, no peace.” That said, I do know police officers who are professional and, more than that, who are human.
"We need to get economic power... because, when money is involved, people shut up"
If the police officer involved in Théo’s case is not convicted of rape and his fellow officers of assault, that could ignite this simmering rage. Things would just go up in flames, and it's going to be Seine-Sainte-Denis that is going to set the tone. Except I don’t think burning your neighbours' cars is the solution [Editor’s note: Historically, violent protests in these neighbourhoods have included lots of cars being burned]. But protesting or voting won't improve our situation either. In my opinion, we need to acquire economic power and not be afraid to make money. Because, when money is involved, people shut up.
“I’m afraid for the future”
Dounia lives in Grande Borne in Grigny, in Essonne. She is a founder of Jeune Aumône, an association that helps young homeless people.
The international declaration of human rights charter says that we are all born equal. However, what equality do we have in low-income neighbourhoods?
If we let these police officers get away without punishment, that would be shameful for our country and might open the door for even more serious offences. I’m afraid for the future. The mothers who I speak with are afraid for their children. I’m angry at the police because no one spoke up to denounce them.
The French newspaper Humanité revealed on Monday morning that the current police chief of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Vincent Lafon, was already given a one-year suspended prison sentence for police violence that occurred in 2004 when he was part of a night patrol in Paris.