James McAuley, Washington Post, August 8, 2016
His name was Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black construction worker who loved soccer and spent the summer aching for the much-anticipated French victory in the Euro 2016 finals that never came.
For Adama, what did come this summer was death in police custody on July 19, his birthday. According to police documents shared with select French media outlets, Adama and his brother, Bagui, were stopped on their bikes that afternoon in the center of this small town, which is about an hour north of Paris. The police were after Bagui, wanted in connection with an extortion case.
But when Adama fled the scene, three officers ultimately subdued him by pouncing on his back all at once. By the time they arrived at the station, the officers said Adama was not breathing. He was immediately pronounced dead, but his older brother, Lassana, said in an interview that Beaumont police then told the family they could bring their brother a sandwich while he was held.
The Traorés brought the sandwich to the station, recalled Lassana, 39, a real estate agent, in a cafe near the family’s home. It was nearly five hours after Adama’s arrest before they learned the truth, when, as Lassana said, the authorities first blamed the death of the recreational athlete on a cardiac condition, then on a serious infection. An independent autopsy the family later commissioned suggested the cause of death was asphyxiation.
In the weeks since July 19, the question of how Adama died has turned attention on police brutality and structural racism in a proudly egalitarian society that considers itself so institutionally color-blind that it refuses–per a 1978 law–even to collect data on race or ethnicity in annual censuses or government-sponsored research.
To the French state, race–as a quantifiable category but also a separate social experience–is not supposed to exist. In 2013, for instance, the country’s National Assembly passed a bill that would have completely removed the word “race” from the country’s constitution. The bill never became law, but its essence remained: in France, there are no distinct races, only equal citizens.
When about 600 protesters joined France’s first-ever Black Lives Matter demonstration in Paris four days after Adama’s death, they were taking part not only in what was couched as an international intervention against anti-blackness but also against what Fania Noël, 29, a founding member of the movement here, called France’s “Republican mythology.”
Born in Haiti, Noël moved to France at age 3 and grew up in a housing project in the distant Paris suburb of Cergy, not far from where Adama died last month. She described her family as the “nightmare of the French right”: low-income, immigrant and black.
Despite what she described as the success of France’s first Black Lives Matter rally, Noël said that there has been little substantive engagement from either French government officials, public intellectuals or journalists in the same way that there was during the widespread protests triggered by a controversial labor law earlier this year.
Most of the debate in French media on the Traoré cased has focused on the legal nature of police practices rather than on the question of structural racism.