PARIS — Churning U.S. protests over the death of George Floyd have revived anger in France over police violence, systemic racism, and the complicated case of Adama Traore, a black Frenchman who died in police custody in July 2016.
For Traore’s family, the Floyd protests have also revived their hopes for change.
“During the coronavirus, people had a pause in their lives. They filmed scenes of police violence and they realized they were living in a country where there is violence every day against people of colour,” his sister, Assa Traore, said.
Over 20,000 people flouted a police ban and protested vociferously Tuesday in Paris to call for justice for both Traore and Floyd, and similar protests are planned around France this weekend.
“As long as police aren’t convicted, we will keep coming out in the streets,” Traore’s sister told The Associated Press.
Traore’s family believe three police officers piled on top of him and pinned him to the ground on his stomach after his arrest, and he asphyxiated. Lawyers for the officers deny police were at fault, and it remains unclear exactly at what moment, or where, he died. Unlike with Floyd, there is no video or recording, which has made judging the case harder. Four years later, no one has been charged.
French researchers have documented how police disproportionately target minorities for ID checks, and Traore’s supporters are not the only ones to accuse police of overstepping their authority.
Three days after Floyd died, another black man writhed on the tarmac of a Paris street as a white police officer pressed a knee to his neck during an arrest, this time captured on video.
And Friday, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into racist, sexist and anti-LGBT messages allegedly published by police in a private Facebook group. Some of the reported comments mocked young men of color who have died fleeing police officers.
Outrage is growing. But while in Paris some demonstrators clashed with police, Traore’s sister focused on the peaceful majority. She encouraged those who “have the luck not to be victims of this violence” to denounce it. “Don’t remain spectators.”
After four years of back-and-forth autopsies and grassroots activism for her brother’s cause, she described the pain and power of seeing a video of police kneeling on Floyd. He died after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
“These images that chilled the planet give the world an image of what happened to my brother,” she said.
Traore’s family says the same thing happened to him, and that he, too, repeated: “I can’t breathe.”
On that hot July night in 2016, Adama Traore, a 24-year-old construction worker of Malian origin, was walking with his brother Bagui in Beaumont-sur-Oise, about 25 kilometres north of Paris, where their large family grew up.
They were approached by plainclothes police officers who had identified Bagui in relation to another case, according to news reports at the time citing classified investigation documents. Adama tried to run because he had no ID on him.
He was later detained by the three gendarmes, put in a police car, and taken to a police station. Within three hours of his arrest, he was dead, according to the reports. He was still handcuffed when paramedics arrived.
The officers involved claimed they respected the “necessary use of force.”
Local authorities were accused of a coverup after claiming Traore suffered a heart attack linked to a pre-existing infection.
Local prosecutor Yves Jannier was quoted by Le Monde at the time as saying that Traore “fainted during the trip” to the police station and emergency workers couldn’t revive him.
Jannier also said that Traore had a “very serious” infection that had “impacted multiple organs.”
A second autopsy was completed shortly afterward that contradicted the first and determined his death was caused by asphyxiation.
Since then there have been multiple expert reports that disagree on the basic facts of the case.
Yet another expert report was released last week exonerating the police officers — but it was then quickly contradicted by another medical expert assessing the case on behalf of Traore’s family.
Last week’s medical report “confirms that the death of Adama Traore is not linked with the conditions of his arrest,” Rodolphe Bosselut, the gendarmes’ lawyer, told the AP.
He said he is confident that the three police officers “have no responsibility” in Traore’s death and that the causes were linked to pre-existing medical conditions, stress, hot weather, and cannabis use.
Traore’s sister said three gendarmes weighing a total of 250 kilograms (550 pounds) pressed on her brother, though there is no indication that police used the same technique as they did with Floyd.
She describes the official medical reports as obfuscation by a “war machine” of police, medical experts, and a judicial system stacked up against descendants of France’s former colonial empire living in low-income neighborhoods on the periphery of French cities.
She has led the family’s fight for clarity and justice and described going to schools and universities to raise awareness and donations and gradually learning from climate activists and other protest movements about how to make their voice heard.
This week, she said, she’s been in contact with Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. and other countries.
“The combat for Adama is for all the Adamas, all the black and Arab youth who are targeted by police,” she said. “The police don’t have the right to decide if they live or die.”
Tuesday’s protest, she said, “was just a foretaste” of what’s to come.
Adamson reported from Leeds, England. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.
Thomas Adamson And Angela Charlton, The Associated Press