The Fire Non-Stop

Black Lives / Adama manif o2 June 2o2o Palais de Justice, La Garenne. photo jg

In early June this year there weren’t any takers at magazines in the U.S. for an article about Black Lives Matters in France. Nor for that matter on the Medium pages edited by black Americans. (The ones I found and contacted at any rate.) Americans tend to obsess about their affairs while keeping the rest of the world at a safe distance.

         Adama Traoré, from a large immigrant family of Malian origin, was born in Paris in 1992. In 2016 he died in the Persan (Val d’Oise) police station north of Paris. Forensics filed their report and medical examiners after them, one after another, and nothing came of it. His sister Assa is the vocal head of la Verité pour Adama, keeping his execution in the public eye and forging links with other advocacy groups across France. When the latest medical «expertise» exculpating the police was released at the end of May this year, suggesting Adama must have somehow strangled himself, it was the final straw. Assa Traoré called a protest in front of the new Palais de Justice, a sleek splinter jammed in the eye of Paris. She hectored everybody to come. They did.

         Things here have changed and not at all, a mirror image of race relations in the US. People took to the streets in both countries, in the process encountering a fearsome counter attack from police equipped to repel an invading army. Overwhelmed, protestors had only wooden crates and almost pitifully small amounts of mayhem at their disposal, nothing that couldn’t be swept up in the hours after. Meanwhile liberal keyboard warriors in the media went into overdrive proclaiming their sympathies and their intent to take action, although what this action is isn’t now and never has been clear. (Apart from telling the rest of us what we must do and must believe.) Those of us with a bit of history under the belt will guard our suspicions. Fortunately there are, in both countries, organizers who have spent the years since the end of the Obama-Hollande regimes and the following Trump-Macron autocracies making contacts across lines of color and class. In France, the Gilets Jaunes are far from a spent force, while protests continue against the most recent police actions even in the increasingly colder weather.

This brief retrospective is being published simultaneously on Medium and Substack, so I can hear the bellwether through the cloud of comments and likes. For Medium articles, see here.

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         Clichy « la Garenne » – natives don’t call it that, Clichy will do – is a lively quartier, working class, poor and not so poor, outside Paris between tony Levallois to the south and sprawling Saint Denis to the north. A rebellious district with a long history of agitation, Garenne is a mix of French and North African, a pleasant place to live where apartments in funky condition can be had for considerably less than Paris rates. It’s a neighborhood in transition, tenements with laundry drying in windows facing L’Oreal HQ across the street. The space between Port de Clichy and the entrance to the quartier proper has been a construction wilderness for years, as a shiny new Tribunal de Paris goes up. It’s the encroachment of ‘modern civ’ on the old Paris, surrounded by travellers hotels perfect for lawyers with business in court. The judges’ chambers must be de luxe but I get a chill everytime I navigate the marble and glass labyrinth, reading the mottos blazoned across the wall, things like « The law can only establish the strictly necessary and factual penalties» from the Rights of Man, 1789. My last time there was in the company of Jêrome Rodrigues, wearing a white bandage where he used to have an eye.

         The area around the Tribunal is still a mound of cement blocks and trucks, just like it was two years ago when I lived there. But it’s a different world now, with different players refusing to play by the old roles. The Gilets Jaunes have appeared, with Rodrigues as one of their spokesmen. And people everywhere have gotten fed up with the police. The list of the dead is long, not as long here as the States and not exclusively black – Cédric Chouviat, for one, strangled by the police on January 3rd after being apprehended on the Quai de Branley making deliveries on his scooter – but Adama Traoré was, and he figures prominently among them.

         The demonstrators were young, in their late teens and early twenties, a broad swath of jeune France that has no one to represent them anywhere. Many had in all likelihood never been to a manif (demonstration) before. People came in clutches of friends, with signs, plenty in English, I can’t breathe everywhere you turned. It was a heady mixture of classes and colors, they were all breaking the 10 person limit together and the cops for once held off. I suppose they calculated that the publicity from breaking 20 year old heads wouldn’t be so good; there might be a minister’s daughter among them. There were speakers on a jerry-rigged PA at the entrance to the courthouse but nobody could make out what they were saying. A burly middle-aged French guy with a loud hailer worked the packed street, turning I can’t breathe into a chant, and asking Are you tired ? to which the crowd roared back, No, I’m not tired! A serious event in support of Adama that felt like a celebration and a coming out party. It was in all likelihood the first time three disparate groups got a good look at each other : young black Paris had the chance to peer across the class divide at the demonstrators from the poor quartiers (banlieus). A broad swath of young, white France came that in all likelihood had never been to a manif before, many of them waving earnest variations on Black Life and Justice.

“A generational rupture,” in the words of the Adama Committee’s Almamy Kanouté. “Banlieu kids who’d never protested publicly, Gilets Jaunes who never imagined they had things in common with this struggle, high school students passionate about ecology, well-off whites who for the first time understood they have a part to play.”   

Some mysterious boundary had been crossed, an old failure of nerve trespassed. 

A second demonstration was held the following Saturday at République in Paris. Now ordinary Parisians of liberal sensibilities who couldn’t make the trip to far Clichy or be the first to break the 1o-person max law could join in and take the knee. The turnout was massive, 120,000 according to some estimates.

Debate, not just about Adama and others killed by the police, has quickly become intense, not least how to talk about the new reality. White privilege, essentialism, gangs are all terms being thrown around by various players. To assert that something like white privilege exists makes many uncomfortable : you confuse what people are with what some of them exploit. Likewise, communautarisme, defining people by racial or religious group, is a bogeyman who violates the ideals of the republic. Minority statistics haven’t been collected here since the late 1970s. Some feminists react as if mention of the term “white privilege” were bad tactics, almost a case, you might say, of bad manners. Ruffled feathers seems to be the order of the day among the commentariat. The lingo, as you’ve noticed – white privilege, essentialism – is yet another instance of Coca-Cola imperialism. The terms don’t adequately describe French reality.  

In any case, privileges were outlawed on that famous fourth of August, 1789, were they not ? Tell that to the banlieu. Young activists are fed up with the temporising of their elders. 

Apart from discussions of the finery of white privilege – surely a cruel joke to the French living in the abandoned towns – it’s hard to gauge if Parisians appreciate just how circumscribed black lives are in the rough suburbs and the projects. That may be their ultimate privilege : not to know.    

The ground has shifted, the cat is out of the bag, and this time no one is waiting for a presidential discours to explain what’s happening around them. The cafés have reopened so the endless debate will resume, and France – la France profounde ou la fronde, resistant ou collaborateur– is on the menu again. Paris, June 2o2o