- Interview by
- Olly Haynes
While protests against structural racism have swept the US, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, France has also seen a wave of protest aiming to challenge the racist and violence policing that has killed several black and Arab people in France in recent years. At the forefront of this fight is a group called the Comité Adama, who are dedicated to achieving justice for Adama Traoré who was killed in police custody on his birthday in 2016 and to fighting against police violence in France. Members of the group include Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré who an icon of the struggle against structural racism in France is, the radical activist Youcef Brakni, the writer Edouard Louis and the sociologist and philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie.
De Lagasnerie co-wrote a book with Assa Traoré on the fight against state violence in France and is the author of several books on the carceral system, whistle blowers and other topics, as well as being a committed activist.
He speaks to journalist Olly Haynes about France’s ‘Adama Fight’, state violence and racism.
Several people have been killed by police in France in recent years; Zyed and Bouna, Lamine Dieng, Youcef Mahdi among many others. Why do you think the case of Adama Traoré in particular has taken on such resonance?
We first have to understand that it always takes a long time to produce a critique of the social order. So the Adama fight is the result of several local fights that got less public attention but which created the possibility for the Adama case to become visible. It is not as if it was a rupture, it is a continuity of the Lamine Dieng case, of the Wissam El Yamni case, of Zyed and Bouna and so on that the Adama fight was able to get more attention from the general public and the media and politicians. What is very new in the Adama fight is that Assa Traoré and the Comité Adama always had the strategy to expand and explain the facts in every social sphere possible. Not only in the political field or the activist field, but among academics, in the intellectual field, the cultural field. From the beginning, Assa Traoré wanted the name of Adama to become visible everywhere. That’s why she made alliances with me, with writers, with actors, with politicians in order to say we do not have to stay in our suburbs, in our streets, we have to make alliances to make the fight more visible. You also have the personality of Assa Traore who is indeed very particular, very intelligent, very powerful, very intransigent and charismatic. If she wasn’t there, perhaps the Adama fight would not have been so powerful because she was politically very radical and very smart and charismatic and I think it’s a kind of historical miracle that she appeared. Of course she would have preferred not to become an activist and for her brother to be alive, but in this tragedy there is this kind of miracle.
Beyond justice for individual victims, what are the specific goals of this new movement in France?
What people are mostly demanding is the prohibition of all the deadly techniques of arrest; the chokehold, strangling, kneeling on people’s backs. They want to forbid these techniques. Sometimes people in France are more reformist than me, they will not be against identity control, they will be for control of identity control. That is just terrible because it means that if blacks and whites were controlled the same way there would be no problem. The issue is not only that the Arabs and blacks are controlled more than the whites, it is the very idea of the control that is the problem. They want the dissolution of the proactive force in France it’s called la BAC – patrol cops who go into an area and drive around and get out of their car and stop people when they just suspect them of something. They are always very brutal and particularly racist as you can see in the movie Les Miserables for example.
For me, we have to change what is at stake with the police. What would be very important is to change the idea of identity control. So in fact I think the police should not be able to inaugurate a cycle of violence. So when you think of identity control, nothing happens and then the police appear and ask who are you? Why are you there? What is your identity? And this is a situation that is by definition anti-democratic because the state doesn’t have the right to ask me why who I am, why I am there and so on. So I think one of the most important reforms would be to forbid identity control and another thing would be to legalise drugs. You know the book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Her analysis is that the war against drugs is in fact a war against blacks because the whites and the blacks have almost the same behaviour in terms of consumption and traffic but the black people are jailed twenty to fifty times more than the whites. In fact the prohibition of drugs gives the police an extreme and arbitrary power over people because they can search you whenever they want and they can choose who they control and who they don’t. Those are concrete things because legalising drugs and ending identity control could disempower the police a lot.
In Le Combat Adama you comment on how Assa Traoré rarely ever uses the word racism to describe the situation of brutalised black and arab people and you both offer a critique of how the word racism is used in France. Can you explain this critique?
If we want to have an efficient political movement, we have to identify the specific systems of power and the specific mechanisms that we can change in order to save the lives of black and Arab people from the police, from the school system and from the carceral system and so on. This led me and Assa to feel that the word racism is too general and that it is sometimes used to hide the specific mechanisms that we should change in order to create a non-racist society. In order to be effective, the definition has to be practical. It is not enough to say that the police are racist, of course they are, but what you have to identify is through what concrete mechanisms do the police exercise racist or white supremacist functions and how can we change that in order to defy what we call racism. So isn’t it possible that the word racism is sometimes a way to have the impression of criticising the world without identifying the concrete mechanisms at play. So how do we substitute a concrete fight for this kind of abstract cultural mood. For example with the issue of the statues. In England and France people want to hide or destroy some statues. I think as a symbolic movement it is very important, but politically I’m not sure. Is it a diversion from much more concrete things that can help people to live a better life? I don’t think less people will be killed by the police or be sentenced to jail if we destroy the statues. I’m not saying it is not useful, but I think it might be a kind of diversion to a symbolic fight instead of a concrete political fight.
Between the Adama Fight, the Gilets Jaunes, the recent strike wave against pension reform and the Nuit Debout, it seems there are huge sectors of French society that are crying out for radical change. Do you think someone like Mélenchon could bind these groups together and lead them to create a new republic?
I think the Nuit Debout was a kind of movement for the little, white bourgeoisie who were thinking in terms of very abstract categories like “occupy” “we are the people” “we want another system and we want a new constitution”. That was too abstract. On the opposite, the Gilets Jaunes and the Adama Fight are very concrete. The Gilets Jaunes were people who were not able to drive anymore because fuel was too expensive and they were speaking about not being able to eat, not being able to just travel to see their mother in hospital and so on and the Adama Fight is based on not wanting to be killed by the police, so it is a very specific movement against very specific systems of power and for this reason they are much more powerful movements than the Nuit Debout. If you think in terms of the effect on the political field, Nuit Debout had almost no effect, it doesn’t exist anymore, it is just a memory. But the Gilets Jaunes? You can still see the possibility there and the Adama Fight is now becoming one of the most important movements today in France. So you could link the Gilets Jaunes and the Adama Fight (and indeed with the Adama Comitee we joined the Gilet Jaunes protests) but the Nuit Debout was very different kind of protest. In my book with Assa, she tells about the day she met Angela Davis and I said to her ‘you must have been very impressed or very moved’ and yet she says in the book ‘in truth I was very sad because Angela Davis said the same things that I am saying now so it is proof that nothing has changed in forty years’.
What is important about that is that on the left we know how to win the cultural fight: Big protests, a charismatic figure, images of enthusiasm, we know how to do this. So how do we transfer this energy into radical concrete transformation? This movement has to be linked to the capture of the state apparatus. We have to win elections. If we don’t win elections, we will not change enough. You can change structures of powers only through structural reforms and institutional changes. So, for me, the continuation of the Adama fight now is to make alliances with parties to win the 2022 election. We have to take control of the state and find the personalities able to agglomerate all this energy to win elections, to be part of the state, to be president. For me, Mélenchon is the most adequate person, I always support him – and the people who are around him of course because he has to be seen as the embodiment of a global movement. The task falls on both sides. It is for Mélenchon to be aware of these movements and to have a place for them in his programme and it is also for the radical movements to be intelligent enough not to be against elections. Often people say ‘we don’t want to be recuperated and instrumentalised’ I disagree, I want us to be recuperated and, I want Mélenchon to use what I say to win and then to implement concrete reforms.