Assa Traore, 2017. (Photo by Julien Mattia/NurPhoto)
Artillery Row

Can victims forgive?

The case of France’s George Floyd, Adama Traoré

As soon as the news of George Floyd’s death reached France, it rekindled the embers of a judicial case that had been smouldering since 2016.

On the 19th of July that year, two black men were standing between two pubs in Beaumont-sur-Oise, a ‘banlieue’ north of Paris. Three gendarmes in civilian clothes apprehended them, asking to check their ID. One of the black men, Bagui Traoré, was suspected of extortion with violence. While he remained calm, the other man, his brother Adama Traoré, ran away — he was carrying weed and 1 300€ in cash.

Adama Traoré was caught breathless about thirty minutes later. The gendarmes used the ventral tackle method to handcuff him. According to their testimony, he looked exhausted after the race and this only got worse as they were reaching the Gendarmerie. He died a few minutes after that.

From a medical perspective, the Adama Traoré case bears many contradictions

Adama Traoré’s family heard of his death three hours after it occurred. Immediately, his sister Assa took control of the effort to shed the light on her brother’s death. Their father, a Malian builder, had four wives (notwithstanding polygamy being a criminal offense in France, the last pair simultaneously), and raised their children together in what Assa describes as a ‘loving’ household. The whole family got involved in the Comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama (Truth and Justice for Adama committee).

Several protests, sometimes with outbursts of violence, were organised. On the 22nd of July 2016, Assa Traoré addressed the crowd: ‘Killed by the gendarmes, alone, without us, on his birthday!’

Aside from numerous demonstrations, the family and the Comité have sought particularly for forensic counter-expertise for the case they wish to make. From a medical perspective, the Adama Traoré case bears many contradictions. The independent, non-official expertise commissioned by the family has tended to emphasise the responsibility of the gendarmes in the pulmonary distress that lead to the death, especially since the ventral tackle method is deemed risky if the subject is on drugs — which was the case in Adama Traoré’s death. After four expert and counter-expert findings being produced between 2016 to 2020, it’s still unclear whether Adama Traoré died because of a pre-existing medical condition, because of the intense physical effort entailed in running whilst heavily intoxicated by drugs, or because of the pressure exerted by the gendarmes. Many elements are still missing: a man in whose flat Adama Traoré took refuge before the gendarmes caught him has not been heard from, and the testimonies about Adama Traoré’s condition when he reached the Gendarmerie are contradictory.

The final expert medical finding, held on the 29th of May 2020, resulted the gendarmes being exonerated. George Floyd’s death offered a perfect frame to bring the case – a cause célèbre in France, whose profile had waxed and waned over the years – firmly back into the front rank of public consciousness. On the 2nd of June, Vérité pour Adama started a protest in front of Paris’s Judiciary Tribunal. Like the George Floyd protests that started on the 26th of May, this gathering was illegal as it went against the decree issued on the 31st of May concerning the state of sanitary emergency that forbade any public gathering of more than ten people during France’s pandemic Lockdown. Police sources reported 20,000 protesters, the Ministry of the Interior 22-25,000, while the organisers claimed the protesters were as many as 60,000.

Public figures of the banlieue sub-culture, like the actor Omar Sy, the singer Camélia Jordana, the director Ladj Li and the rapper Youssoupha have sided with the Traoré family. Assa Traoré has unquestionably become the leading figure of the movement and a personality to reckon with in French public discourse. On the 28th of June, she received the BET Global Good prize as a reward for her anti-racist activism.

Virginie Despentes, author of Baise-moi (and later director of her own film adaptation of the novel), described Assa Traoré as a modern Antigone. From 2016 to 2020, Assa Traoré campaigned against systemic racism and became a kind of public property. Her iconic t-shirt bears the slogan: ‘Justice pour Adama / Sans justice, vous n’aurez jamais la paix’ — ‘Justice for Adama / Without justice, you will never get peace.’ And this is how the ‘No Justice, No Peace’ and #ACAB mentality took root in French soil.

About five years ago, among French teenagers from different backgrounds, the trend was to use the word ‘victim’ in a derogative, dismissive way. If you were labelled a ‘victim’, it meant you were unable to fend for yourself against verbal or physical bullying. Words change meaning, however, especially amongst those at the cutting edge of approved verbal cultures, and now “victimhood” has become the ultimate modern substitute for sanctity.

Public discourse has canonized George Floyd and Adama Traoré. They are effectively secular saints, anointed and set aside by general commiseration, uplifted like the expiatory lambs of systemic racism. The first one to get the ‘victim’ label receives an occult immunity — until some dirty business comes up.

Justice has ways of its own. Just as the Black Lives Matter wave was about to overflow the banks of the Seine, an ugly monster of Adama Traoré’s past was brought back to light by the turmoil.

Another crowd — who feels just as left aside and abandoned by institutional authorities as ethnical minorities — wanted more light on Adama Traoré’s case. Overnight, right-wing French Twitter was sprinkled with ‘fork’ emojis. Why the fork? That is a rather crude side of the Traoré case.

From September 2012 to July 2014, then from December 2015 to May 2016, Adama Traoré was imprisoned for ‘minor offenses’ — concealment, wilful violence against law enforcement, outrage, extortion with violence, death threats, driving with no licence, drug abuse, and theft from motor vehicles. One of his childhood friends confirmed that, ‘Adama has always had problems with justice, for fights and thefts.’ In May 2016, a few months before Adama Traoré’s death, his sometime cellmate (later identified as “Steven”), then aged 23, filed a claim for repeated rape — oral sex up to three times a day under the threat of a fork.

Public discourse has canonized George Floyd and Adama Traoré. They are effectively secular saints

On the 25th of February 2017, Steven was severely beaten by Yacouba Traoré, Adama’s brother. It took three years before Steven received financial compensation. Eventually, on the 12th of March 2020, some €15,000 from the Commission d’Indemnisation des Victimes, to which €28,800 was added as a compensation for the beating.

Legally, the compensation is not so much an acknowledgement of the guilty party’s responsibility than a ‘gesture meant to ensure that the person concerned [the victim] receives it as an acknowledgement of what he or she has gone through’. Maître Yassine Bouzrou, the Traoré family’s lawyer, asserts: ‘One must either be illiterate in matters of law or deliberately malicious to state that a compensation commission can substitute itself to a penal judge.’ He added, ‘the sole purpose is to criminalize a victim in a case of police violence that lead to death.’

If the financial compensation is not, in itself, a proof of the facts, the facts are nonetheless true: the CIVI stated that ‘the materiality of the sexual assault offenses has to be considered as established,’ as far as Traoré’s victim is concerned.

While Maître Bouzrou speaks of ‘criminalising a victim’, Assa Traoré insists that ‘Adama Traoré is not a rapist, Adama Traoré is a victim and always will be a victim.’

The George Floyd and the Adama Traoré cases are strikingly similar in the way they rely on the immaculate quality of sanctified victimhood. The victimhood immunity has a flaw. If there is a victim, there must be a culprit or a persecutor. For black protesters as well as for their white opponents, the visible enforcers of authority are not reliable. Camelia Jordana, a pop singer of Algerian origins, launched the hashtag #MoiAussiJ’aiPeurDevantLaPolice — ‘I, too, am afraid in front of policemen’. Yet two of the gendarmes who apprehended the Traoré brothers were black — from the Antilles, not from Africa, which plainly goes against the straightforward racism narrative. Unless one wants to dig deeper into varieties of black-on-black racism in France, between people from the French Islands and people from West-Africa, than most pundits currently seem inclined to.

During the 2016 protests, a black policeman was accused of being a “traitor” and has pressed charges. Given the numerous viral videos of white BLM protesters lecturing black policemen on how to be black, the absurdity is rank.

Essayist and controversialist Éric Zemmour witheringly noted on the eve of the June Traoré protests, ‘George Floyd is no spring chicken.’ This underlined the difference between police violence in the US and in France: ‘American data shows that Black people are largely killed by other black people, at 97%. White people have twice as much chances to be killed by black people. […] American cops are not like French cops, they are trigger-happy.’ Is this distorted perception of transatlantic death rates involving the police anything other than pernicious unconscious bias? One that holds all ethnic minorities are always in a victim position. The ‘All Cops are Bastards’ narrative tells more about a general lack of trust, that comes prior to any precise action, through which any person siding with institutional authorities is seen as an enemy. Facts are not required: structure provides all the guilt which is necessary.

The French lack of trust in police and military forces actually trespasses the left/right divide. A similar distrust stems from a radically different experience. On the right, white, side people do not trust the police either. Indeed, many cases of violence against white French citizens are either dismissed or left to dwindle in never-ending legal meanderings.

The white victims of the CRS forces during the Gilets Jaunes protests still wait for justice. Mélanie Lemée, a 25 year-old gendarme, was killed on the 5th of July. On the 20th of July,  Axelle, 23 years-old, was ran over by a 21 year-old man— no protests, no T-shirts. Just an outraged hashtag on Twitter #OnVeutLesNoms, ‘we want the names’, that reveals a general suspicion about the fact that the police may be withholding information about members of ethnic minority groups’ acts of anti-white violence.

On both sides, fear and distrust prevail.

There is only one way out of the victimhood narrative, and that way is forgiveness. Stories of grief and varyingly well-tended grudges overflow in the media. One would wish to hear more of cases of forgiveness. To ask for justice is, of course, understandable; but human justice is about equating the plates of the scale. To forgive is not to give way to violence or to cower in front of it, on the contrary. It is the only way to assert that some losses are incommensurable, that there is not financial compensation, no life sentence, that can make up for the loss of a loved one.

There is only one way out of the victimhood narrative, and that way is forgiveness

Adama Traoré made choices that shaped his life. To pretend he was perfect is, paradoxically, denying him any agency, keeping him handcuffed in the position of the black victim with no responsibility, and therefore no voice or rights.

Assa Traoré proclaims: ‘I am not an heroine. I am not the symbol, my brother is. I am simply Adama Traoré’s sister. It is not my name that matters, it is my brother’s.’ The sister disappears behind the ghost of the brother, ventriloquizing through him the words he might have said.

It seems Adama Traoré could only be cast apart from society, by his defenders and accusers alike; the former propelling him to the heights of victimhood sanctity and the latter throwing him down in the dark pit of rape-guilt. Since the fork story was brought into light, Adama’s defenders have disappeared.

If the gendarmes did anything legally reprehensible, they should face the consequences because law should be applied — not because Adama Traoré was the victim of systemic racism. Antigone did not stand by her brother because he was a victim, she stood by him because he was legally entitled to a funeral, and their uncle Creon denied it.

The victimhood position is untenable, because it is so easy to fall down from it into a persecutor position. Our age of simplified speed-communication makes no room for complexity. It makes no room for silent grieving. No one can condemn Assa Traoré’s grief. Adama Traoré can be a rapist, and yet a beloved brother.

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