Published: June 9, 2020 4:34:44 pm
With France confined to fight the virus a video circulated online in April showing a young man lying on the bloody ground next to two police officers _ and quickly set off protests in struggling neighborhoods around the Paris region.
Sometime before the man had been on a motorcycle. Then he crashed into a suddenly opened police car door. Whether the door was opened on purpose or not is unclear but what was clear was the anger the video sparked. A protest that night in the town of Villeneuvela Garenne led to others in a dozen Paris suburbs and similar neighborhoods around France in the ensuing days.
The relationship between police and marginalized residents of Frances low income neighborhoods, many of whom are Arab or black and trace their roots to former French colonies, has long been tense. Safety measures intended to curb the spread of COVID19 further empowered police, but also empowered community activists using apps or online sleuthing to track and challenge what they see as an abuse of police power.
George Floyd’s death in the US has resonated especially loudly in places like Villeneuve, one of many banlieues or suburbs where poverty and minority populations are concentrated in France. Floyd related protests against police violence and racial injustice have been held around France and more are planned for Tuesday evening.
In a pivotal moment for modern France, rioting engulfed the country for three weeks in 2005 after two boys who were running from police Zyed and Bouna were electrocuted, while hiding in an electric generator in the Paris suburb of Clichysous Bois. A state of emergency was declared and almost 3,000 people were arrested.
Despite billions of euros in government improvement programs for the banlieues since 2005, tensions with police persist and the deaths of other young men periodically rekindles anger. Protesters marching in solidarity with Floyd notably called for justice for Adama Traore whose death in police custody in 2016 is still under investigation.
The anger in those neighborhoods is so present and police impunity so frustrating that we dont need much for it to blow up said Ilyes Ramdani editorinchief of the Bondy Blog which was founded in 2005 to tell the stories of young black and Arab French people in the banlieues
Under Frances strictest virus lockdown measures from March 17May 11 the government restricted peoples movements to a kilometer halfmile around their homes and required that anyone leaving their homes carry a signed paper stating why Punishments included fines starting at 135 euros about 150 or even prison
On the first day punishments were doled out 10 of the fines given in the entire country were given in the region of SeineSaintDenis on Paris northern edge where unemployment is twice the national average almost one person out of three is an immigrant and many others are the descendants of immigrants
Government officials defended the fines as necessary to fight the virus in a region with especially high infection rates
But police union leader Yves Lefebvre lamented that the lockdown measures again made the police a repressive tool
Public services have deserted these neighborhoods and police are the only presence left which necessarily leads to confrontation he said
Lefebvre general secretary for Unite SGP PoliceForce Ouvriere union said trust has been broken because police only enter those neighborhoods to restore order
The Villeneuve incident is being investigated by prosecutors and by the French state police watchdog agency which said it received 166 citizen reports of problematic police behavior and seven formal complaints of police abuse during the 54 days of Frances coronavirus lockdown
Under pressure to act Interior Minister Christophe Castaner pledged Monday to ban police chokeholds and said more officers will be equipped with cameras to help ensure that identity checks dont lead to discrimination against minorities
Frustrated activists are taking matters into their own hands
At the start of the lockdown Sihame Assbague an antiracial profiling activist and journalist started to collect reports of police harassment citing a multiplication of police violence videos on social media
Shes crossreferencing and verifying about 40 cases most of them from videos shes received I dont expect much from the state or public authorities but what I know is they respect strength Thats why its important to organize she said
Amal Bentounsi whose brother Amine was shot in the back and killed by the police in 2012 founded a group to support families of victims and provide legal help to bring abusive police to court The officer who killed her brother was sentenced to a fiveyear suspended prison sentence _ a rare legal victory for families like hers
In March, Bentounsi and three other families launched an app called EmergencyPolice Violence designed to record abuses.
The idea is for people to develop the habit of filming not to make buzz but to create a tool for citizens to contradict the polices version of events and dissuade police who will be filmed from abusing their authority Bentounsi said.
Users can record arrests live and the videos are directly uploaded onto the apps server so they can be salvaged if the phone is seized or broken.
Since March the app has been downloaded more than 30000 times.
Their group wants to encourage people to press charges even if chances of conviction are slim Bentounsi said. The government says numbers of police abuses arent big enough for it to be an issue. We want to change that Because if there are no charges there are no statistics.
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