Justice for Theo: ‘Police abuse is an everyday thing’

Activists speak of discrimination and abuse by police, as protests continue after rape of black man in Paris suburb.

France protest
There have been a number of protests since news of the attack on Theo broke [Aurelien Morissard/AP]

Paris, France – Youssuf Seck delivered an account of his first run-in with the French police in a calm and detached demeanour that belied what he described.

A teenager in the 1990s, Seck had just left friends at a sports club in Paris when he caught the attention of a group of officers.

“I was leaving a game of basketball when they stopped me for a random check,” Seck said, emphasising the word “random”.

“They frisked me heavily, and touched my private parts intentionally … I just felt very humiliated.”

They frisked me heavily, and touched my private parts intentionally … I just felt very humiliated

by Youssuf Seck, Activist

Seck, the son of a Senegalese migrant to France and a white French woman, said given his experiences, he was not surprised to hear about the rape of a black Parisian by a French police officer last week.

The man, known only by his first name, Theo, was sodomised by the officer using his baton, while being beaten by a group of policemen.

Police investigators claim the act was accidental.

There have been sometimes violent demonstrations in the suburbs of Paris demanding justice.

“Police abuse is a daily thing in Paris,” Seck said.

“I’m in my 40s now but when I hear the stories about what the youngsters are experiencing, I know nothing has changed.

“I know everything they’re going through.” 

Women hold a 'Justice for Theo' banner during a protest in Paris [EPA]
Women hold a ‘Justice for Theo’ banner during a protest in Paris [EPA]

Seck leads an activist group called “Ferguson in Paris”; its name is a nod to the protest movement that developed in the US town of Ferguson, Missouri, when an unarmed black youth was shot dead by police officers in 2014.

The group has been at the forefront of the protests against French police in the aftermath of the attack on Theo, and has published live streams of the demonstrations on its Twitter page.

Silence now, according to Seck, would be tacit acceptance of the alleged abuses.

“The [police] want to keep minorities in check, they don’t like someone who is different to feel empowered,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The message is, we [police] are in charge and you [minorities] are not …. Society needs to challenge that idea.”

Colonial legacy

Seck’s friend and fellow activist, Youcef Brakni, spoke of similar experiences of abuse as a youth in Paris.

“I remember once during the winter, they [police officers] made us kneel in a freezing puddle of water by the roadside for hours,” he recalled.

“There was no reason [why] …. Being stopped by the police always means humiliation, regardless of whether you did something or not.”

For Brakni, his Algerian ethnic identity was a crucial element in explaining why French security forces behaved the way they did with youths in the suburbs.

Like him, many are Algerian or descendants of migrants from former French colonies.

READ MORE: Paris police say rape of black man an ‘accident’

He said elderly residents of Algerian origin could directly relate their experiences of life during the French occupation of Algeria to what their descendants experience in France today. 

“The methods being taught in the police academies of France are directly inherited from the colonial practices of the casbas in Algiers. 

“Algerian families transmit the tales of defiance and fear from the repression that happened during the Algerian war.

“It goes from grandfather to father to son.

“What they’re doing to youth today was applied to our parents and grandparents.” 

BLACK FRANCE: A history of France’s black community and their long struggle for recognition.

Such explanations have some grounding among analysts, according to Leeds University’s James House, an expert on the Algerian War of Independence and colonial racism in France.

House cautioned that determining the degree of influence of colonial policies on modern policing required further study and that “the past often informs the present, but rarely totally explains it”.

Nevertheless, a link existed between the conduct of police and “which human group was being policed”, he told Al Jazeera.

“The 10-11 December, 1960 demonstrations in Algiers illustrate this differentiated repression very clearly, for example, with both lethal and non-lethal repression used against Muslim Algerians while European protesters were met with non-lethal repression,” House said.

“Similarity between colonial and more recent periods might be seen in the way that some police officers act with perceived impunity when dealing with racialised groups in ‘non-standard’ ways that are likely to go unpunished, unless such actions are made visible, for example … through social media.”

Community initiatives

When asked what could be done to improve relations between ethnic minority youths and the police, both Seck and Brakni said they saw no other way but continued protest and pressure on politicians.

Seck, however, did recall improvements during a brief period between the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade, when the police undertook relationship-building initiatives with youths in the suburbs; projects known as “community policing”.

“We did have some interaction with the police … we used to play sports together, such as basketball, football and boxing, but these ended with [then interior minister] Nicolas Sarzoky,” he said.

Academic and author Andrew Hussey, who has written extensively on youth culture in France’s mainly ethnic minority suburbs, told Al Jazeera that such forms of policing were needed in today’s climate.

“If the police can do anything to salvage trust it’s a longer-term, generational change towards community-style policing rather than confrontational, paramilitary-style tactics,” he said.

Neither Seck nor Brakni felt such methods could be reintroduced given the rise of far-right political rhetoric and growing acceptance of racist language.

They pointed to an appearance that day by a police official, Luc Poignant, on national television, where he argued that the racial slur “bamboula” used for African men was acceptable to use in everyday conversation.

The French Minister of the Interior, Bruno Le Roux, later condemned the remarks, but activists are angry that Poignant received no punishment for his comment.

“We can’t rely on politicians to change this for us,” said Seck.

“We activists need to reverse the balance of power.”

Police investigators claim Theo was sodomised by accident [Arnaud Journois/Le Parisien]
Police investigators claim Theo was sodomised by accident [Arnaud Journois/Le Parisien]
Source: Al Jazeera