For four years, Assa Traoré has been fighting to establish the true circumstances surrounding the death of her brother, Adama Traoré, on July 19, 2016, on the premises of the gendarmerie of the village of Persan, forty miles north of Paris. As the head of the Truth for Adama committee, she has become one of the animating forces of resistance to police violence and systemic racism in France. On May 31st, she posted a flyer on her social-media channels, calling for a protest in front of the Tribunal de Paris on the evening of June 2nd. “Un pays sans Justice est un Pays qui appelle à la Révolte! ” it read. (“A country without justice is a country that calls for a revolt!”) “Justice pour Adama, Justice pour George Floyd, Justice pour Tous! ”
French authorities forbade the demonstration, on the basis that it violated a ban on gatherings of ten or more people. Traoré insisted that the event go ahead, expecting, she told me, “Ten thousand, no more.” Somewhere between twenty thousand (the prefecture’s estimate) and eighty thousand people (the organizers’) showed up, to her astonishment and presumably to that of the French government, which had spent the past four years, Traoré says, “acting as though Adama didn’t exist.” Many of the protesters carried signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” or, recalling the kindred final words of Adama Traoré and George Floyd, “Je n’arrive plus à respirer” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Contrary to some reports in the international media, which ignored Adama Traoré altogether, the protest wasn’t simply a demonstration of foreign concern for horrific events in a faraway land. “We are Black Lives Matter,” Assa Traoré said, the other day, sitting on a leather couch at her apartment, in Ivry-sur-Seine. “The two fights echo each other, so that we’re pulling back the curtain on France, in saying, ‘People of the whole word, look what’s happening here.’ ”
“I saw you, I saw you all become targets,” Assa writes in “Lettre à Adama” (“Letter to Adama”), her book, from 2017, of Adama and his male peers. According to a report by the Défenseur des Droits, France’s civil-liberties ombudsman, the French police subject people of black and Arab appearance to identity checks twenty times more frequently than they do people who appear to be white. Running for president in 2012, François Hollande promised to institute a receipt system in order to monitor identity checks, but abandoned the plan under police pressure in wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks. In 2016, France’s highest court held the state responsible for “gross misconduct” in practicing racial and ethnic profiling. Civil-liberties groups describe the stops as frequent, arbitrary, and ineffective. A new report by Human Rights Watch, issued this week, characterizes the practice as “a brutal means” of exercising police authority, “often accompanied by intrusive searches of bags and mobile phones, as well as humiliating body searches, even in children, sometimes as young as ten years old.”
After the June 2nd protests in Paris and other cities, Twitter went crazy for a picture of a barricade that protesters had erected in the middle of an avenue using flaming Lime scooters, plus the odd moped, bike, and bistro chair. This wasn’t just a bunch of French people “cosplaying Les Mis,” the historian Arthur Asseraf explained in a thread. “We are not a country of baguettes and nice people in villages. We are also not the only country that has a problem with a racist police: this is not about France, or the USA. People are trying to connect the situations they face around the world.” The global struggle has local particularities, its own set of painful dates and sacred names. The sociologist Mathieu Rigouste has written that “the modern-day French police are shaped by the violence of their history,” having honed their methods of “surveillance and repression” in the former French colonies. The majority of their victims are young black and Arab men. They include the dozens, maybe hundreds, of demonstrators for Algerian independence that the Police Nationale shot and threw into the Seine, in October of 1961; the striking workers massacred in Guadeloupe, in May of 1967; Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, electrocuted as they fled an identity check on the way home from a soccer game; Théo Lukhaka, beaten and sodomized with a police baton; Lamine Dieng, whose family, after thirteen years of litigation, received a hundred-and-forty-five-thousand-euro settlement from the government, this week. A popular slogan goes, “Théo and Adama remind us why Zyed and Bouna ran.”
Working alongside other activists, Assa Traoré has built a movement that speaks in the voice of France’s young black and Arab citizens rather than on their behalf. By contrast, the slogan of SOS Racisme, the emblematic anti-racist movement of the nineteen-eighties, is “Touche pas à mon pote,” or “Don’t touch my friend.” Unlike SOS Racisme, which is closely aligned with the Socialist Party, the Adama campaign has stayed pointedly aloof from party politics. Its aims are both narrow (obtaining a conviction; banning certain police techniques) and far-reaching (challenging the entire system of “social elimination of blacks and Arabs” that makes the concrete goals so hard to accomplish). Its iconography is revolutionary: Traoré, an admirer of Angela Davis, whom she met in 2018, is often pictured with a fist in the air. Early on, she rejected the archetype of grieving relation, preferring to meet the public with stone-faced discipline–a “soldier, despite myself,” leading a “machine of war.” She speaks of “Generation Adama,” an analogue to the “Climate Generation” collectively mobilizing to save the planet.
Assa Traoré was in Croatia on the day her brother died. A special-education teacher in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb, she was chaperoning a group of students on their first trip abroad. When she learned of her brother’s death, she recalls, she felt an “electricity” going through her. “I’m going to defend you, I’m going to defend us.” she writes. “Do they know who we are? Do they think we’re going to keep quiet?” She never went back to her teaching job. Last year, the French singer Mallaury released a song called “Assa”: “Head high, arms raised, you lead the fight.” The afternoon of the protest, representatives of the Paris prefecture came looking for Assa at her apartment. She recalled, “I told my sister, ‘Take nothing from them. If they want to see me, come get me, I’m at the Tribunal de Justice!’ ” (The prefecture did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the French press, Traoré is often likened to Antigone, avenging her dead brother at all costs. The comparison is a little off: as the sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, who often collaborates with Traoré, has pointed out, she is calling for the enforcement of the law rather than revolting against it. Furthermore, while Antigone was intent upon securing a proper burial for her brother, Traoré says that she is trying to secure proper lives for “all the Adamas.” At her apartment, she was taking calls via wireless earbuds and admonishing two of her sons to clear the dishes from their afternoon snack. As they watched “Peter Rabbit” on TV, she talked about the damage that the fight has inflicted on her family. On the day of Adama’s death, none of her many siblings was in prison; four of her brothers were imprisoned in the years after his death, although three have been released. Traoré is facing several charges for public defamation, as the result of a Facebook post in which she named the three police officers that she believes killed Adama. She believes that the charges are part of a campaign of harassment against the family, while its critics have used them, along with accusations against Adama, to cast doubt on their credibility. Last week, a prominent morning show aired a segment titled “Who is the Traoré Family?,” in which a correspondent spent six minutes cataloguing the criminal records of various siblings.