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Assa Traoré: ”We are not something you scrub the floor with”

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Bild: Thomas Padilla/AP/TT (montage)

Dagens ETC

Despite the far-right threatening to take power in France, Assa Traoré, who became the country's biggest anti-racist icon after her brother was killed by the police, finds it hard to find the motivation to vote in the election.

"When we face racism, no one listens, but when they suddenly need us, they want us to stand up against the far-right extremists."

She believes the left has also contributed to the racism now sweeping the country.

Dagens ETC met her in Paris.

Read the interview in:

Swedish: Assa Traoré: ”Vi är inte något man skurar golvet med”

French: Assa Traoré: «On n’est pas des serpillères»

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The year is 2016, and we are in a scorching hot July in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise. A young man is out planning his birthday with his older brother when the police suddenly demand to see their IDs.

But the young man, Adama Traoré, doesn't have any ID and takes refuge in a nearby house. When he is eventually apprehended, he is brutally wrestled to the ground by three officers. "I can't breathe" are the last words the French-Malian Adama says before he dies. He passes away on his birthday at just 24 years old, and his death triggers major protests and riots in an already polarized and tense France.

Several autopsy reports are published, but none conclude what the family suspect, that the cause of death was suffocation, instead attributing it to everything from underlying medical conditions to drug influence. When the similar case of George Floyd emerges in the USA four years later, French authorities release a new report stating that the officers in Adama's case were innocent. This leads to new protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA.

In 2023, the French police were acquitted for Adama’s death by the court. In February 2024, the family’s lawyer released a press statement indicating that an independent autopsy report conducted by international experts confirmed what the family had always claimed, that it was the suffocation during the police arrest that caused the death.

During the events following Adama's death in 2016, one person steps forward and becomes a figure-head for the anti-racist movement in France.

Some call her an icon.

Adama's older sister, Assa Traoré, is a 31-year-old single mother of three at the time.

In 2020, she graces the cover of Time magazine as "The Guardian of the Year". Anyone who has seen the image cannot forget the focus in her gaze. It is an expression that shows a woman who will never back down.

Political crisis

It becomes clear that Assa is a person who takes every opportunity to speak out about police brutality, racism, and the power asymmetry that affects non-whites. This is evident in her Instagram feed and account, where 425,000 people follow her every move, including football star Joules Kounde (playing for Barcelona and the French national team) and other global celebrities.

It wasn't until the night before my departure, at exactly 00:03 a.m., that my phone pinged in the dark room as I was about to go to bed. A text from Assa with the address to the meeting place. Finally, it was confirmed.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a snap election after suffering a significant defeat in the EU elections, where Marine Le Pen's far-right party, National Rally [Rassemblement National RN], won over 30 percent of the votes.

It is a political crisis.

We meet in a cobblestoned suburban square in southern Paris, with a fountain in the center, brasseries all around and the scorching sun turning the place into a boiling pot.

There is Assa. She waves to me and the interpreter with a serene smile. There is an inexplicable calm about her. When I say inexplicable, I think about the terrible things she has been through. But maybe that's just it. Those who have been to the bottom and back find some form of calm or acceptance in everyday life. Or she’s always been that composed.

"France is not doing well, to say the least. You know when my brother was murdered..." Assa manages to say before we are interrupted. Two men come up and greet her, explaining that they have seen her on TV. Assa smiles kindly and exchanges a few words before saying goodbye. Now her friend Adja arrives with her 11-year-old daughter, and they hug and laugh while Assa gives the daughter her bank card, insisting she needs to have lunch, despite the daughter repeatedly saying she is full. Assa picks up where she left off.

"When my brother died in 2016, his death became a symbol for all French people who lost a loved one at the hands of the police, and everyone who in some way experienced police brutality."

Reported for defamation

She explains that the organization "Justice for Adama Committee," which she started after her brother's death, was created as a reaction, for all non-whites who suffer from violence, both physical and psychological. Primarily police violence.

When Adama lost his life, it was forbidden to say he had died from police violence. Assa was reported by the police for defamation. She was initially acquitted but was later fined in a civil lawsuit to pay one of the police officers. She described how horrible and surreal it was to sit on the defendant’s bench during the defamation trial against the police officer she claimed killed her brother. Critics later argued that this was just part of the attacks on individuals who condemn police violence.

She emphasizes several times that the reason she used the words "police violence" and "racism" was to genuinely raise the issue so that it wasn't just about another young black or brown man dying without the real cause being highlighted. She says that France refuses to acknowledge that racism exists within the authorities. Admitting it is not a weakness; on the contrary, it will save lives, she says, shaking her head.

Her gaze drifts across the square but finds focus again.

"When I say that France is not doing well, I think of the violence in deprived areas. The poverty. Not being able to escape, as if it was socially constructed to be that way. That the poor must live in these areas without a chance to influence their lives. How we have a justice system that protects the police. That is what the fight for my brother is about. Exposing the racism within the justice system. To show that when a police officer kills youths in the suburbs, it is for racist reasons."

Looked North African

Assa explains, with greater seriousness, that when someone refuses to stop and obey a police officer and instead runs away, they can be convicted of disobedience, and it is almost exclusively North Africans and black people who are stopped.

The whites who are stopped are because they look like people from the Middle East.

Cédric Chouviat was French but looked North African, which was the reason the 42-year-old delivery man was stopped near the Eiffel Tower in the winter of 2020. He was suffocated to death, which the autopsy later confirmed. After his death, the Chouviat family released a statement asking the public to remain calm while explaining that "France is not the USA, but France is becoming like the USA".

That non-whites are stopped more than the rest of the population is well-known in France and has been highlighted by, among others, Amnesty, which claims that young North African and black men are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white men. Studies also show that ethnic profiling is enabled by the extensive powers of the French police to frisk people and search vehicles, often without a clear suspicion of a crime.

Most of those shot dead by French police since 2017 have been black or brown. Criminologists link this to the 2017 law change that, in practice, allows police to shoot at a vehicle when a driver does not follow an order. A law passed by then-President François Hollande's socialist government.

"These harassments and violence, combined with a class-contemptuous and racist policy," says Assa, "create protests and riots in the suburbs, and when that happens, no one cares. But when it spreads to white areas, it becomes an issue for the whole society. It needs to affect whites for the issue to be noticed," she explains. Police officers who go into the suburbs are heavily armed, and the young people are treated as if they were in a war zone.

The UN says France must address racism within the police force, while the French Foreign Ministry denies that racism exists. Why is it denied?

"It is primarily the state that denies the existence of racism."

She says that to understand the reason we need to understand how the French police work. They function as an extension of the colonial policy the country has long been guilty of. To justify taking over other countries, people were dehumanized by the French.

France needs to acknowledge its role as an oppressor and colonial power

Assa explains how her French-Malian grandparents fought and died for France in World War II but were never described as heroes; instead, they were rendered invisible.

Had they been recognized by France, people like her younger brother Adama would likely be alive today, she explains. Then he would have been celebrated and respected as the grandchild of a hero. Today, people like him are regarded as the opposite.

What must be done to get to the root of the problems within the police?

"France needs to acknowledge its role as an oppressor and colonial power and understand how it has and continues to affect non-whites in the country. It is not possible to believe that the police and other authorities are isolated from the ideology that so strongly shapes the country. With an acknowledgment, the country can move forward together with the people."

Do you think an acknowledgment can heal people?

"It can at least change many things. Young people today would more easily find their place in society. Feel that they belong and are not a burden. And with an acknowledgment, society would genuinely be given the opportunity to dismantle the police, which today is a violent and racist institution. When the state does not take responsibility, it is as if they continue to condone police violence."

What else needs to happen for racism to end?

"The short answer is that the justice system needs to be impartial. Today it is not. Children and young people need to be given dreams and hope instead of being demonized and criminalized by the police and the rest of the justice system. Then we have come a long way."

During the conversation, happy passersby nod to Assa. Sometimes she notices and warmly greets them back; other times, she is unaware of the attention her presence creates.

And today, the people are shocked, but we in the movement are not

What are your thoughts on the election?

"People are shocked that the far-right National Rally [RN] did so well in the European Parliament election, even the whites in the big cities are taken aback. They have allowed it to happen. I think of the politicians – the majority in society that are not personally affected by racism, and French media that have normalized a right-wing and racist policy. Our politicians have had great access to established and social media, and because of the accepted tone, they have been able to make sexist and racist statements without repercussions." Assa exhales, takes a sip of orange juice, and continues:

"When over 1.6 million euros are raised by the public for the police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel last year during a traffic stop, no one should be shocked by such an election result. When such things are left unchecked, it is not surprising that votes are cast for far-right populists. We have tried to expose racism for a long time, but no one has wanted to listen. And today, the people are shocked, but we in the movement are not."

Football players Marcus Thuram and Kylian Mbappé have urged people to vote due to the far-right populists' successes, but yesterday I met a young French-Moroccan who said he didn't plan to do so because his vote doesn't matter.

"When it's election time, politicians often reach out a hand to stand up against a certain party. I don't like that at all. Today, openly racist parties like the National Rally are allowed, and then everyone affected by their propaganda, especially non-whites, are asked to counteract them."

"You can't demand that we don't vote for certain parties and then accept the party-political racism through political elections. That is not democracy. When we say we are subjected to racism, no one listens, but when they suddenly need us, they want us to stand up against the far-right extremists. We are not something you scrub the floor with. As a principle, I think it's important to vote, but it would have been much better if they had done something about it much earlier."

The youth in the suburbs share the feeling of betrayal, she believes. They are told early on that they and their parents don't belong and are a burden. They are destroyed from within, she says, and are subjected to racism and violence daily, thinking that nothing will get better.

It’s not just about police violence but also the education system’s view of them. They don't listen to their needs but make decisions for them with regards to school choice and other things that are crucial for the child.

In the newly formed left front, 'New Popular Front,' created to challenge Macron's party and the far-right National Rally, there are parties that have contributed to destroying our areas

Assa explains how non-white children who are loud in school are easily seen as difficult, unruly, and cheeky, while for white children, mitigating circumstances and reasons for the child's behavior are often found. Assa also points out that non-white children's future prospects are rarely positive, with almost no chances of jobs or housing outside their home area.

It’s about discrimination, nothing else, she says firmly.

It's a bleak picture you describe. Do you have any plans to vote yourself?

"In the newly formed left front, 'New Popular Front,' created to challenge Macron's party and the far-right National Rally, there are parties that have contributed to destroying our areas. Therefore, I feel no need to vote for a single party but would rather vote for a person to strengthen the elected candidate."

She says she is, of course, for democracy, but today's parties are not the people's representatives; the people see through their lies. So does she.

People I’ve met in Paris say that a choice between Macron and the National Rally is a choice between the lesser of two evils. Do you agree?

"I understand how they think. If you can only choose between the plague and cholera, the choice is already made for you. Then the choice is never free. Many elections have looked exactly like that. You choose between a bad option and another bad option. That’s not how it should be in a democracy. The question we need to ask is how we get back to a situation where people feel represented and believe that parties pursue policies in line with their challenges and dreams. Where people feel they genuinely want the politicians they vote for."

How will that be achieved? And are you considering entering politics?

"Through the people and the various movements that are emerging, we can reclaim democracy. Movements that resist the current order. And we are already involved in politics! The purpose of our organization, 'Justice for Adama Committee,' besides seeking justice for Adama, is to raise awareness about police brutality and racism within the justice system that primarily affects people of Arab and African descent. That's where I want to focus my energy, not party politics."

Assa's gaze remains steady and focused throughout the conversation. It’s clear she’s not here to play. On the contrary, everything is deadly serious and highly personal. She suddenly smiles, shakes her head slightly, and gestures as if to show the absurdity of what she’s about to say.

"For politicians to reach ordinary people, France must move forward together with the people. It can't be that our politicians are almost exclusively white, without any contact with reality and the people they represent. Such people will never be able to understand their population and make decisions in line with what is best for them."

"We should be able to vote for more people who look like us, people from our areas who genuinely care and want to unite the people. For example, we have areas like Montreuil (a suburb east of Paris) where an Arab woman should have been elected as the party representative based on the population of the area, but instead, the party chose a white man. It can't go on like this. Power should be with those who know the district, not someone who comes in like a colonialist and decides.” She takes a deep breath, grabs the bottle of orange juice, the only stable thing in our vicinity, and continues.

"Only when power is rooted in the people can things truly change. I think organizing, just like what we are doing and the anti-racist movement in France in general, is of utmost importance for creating long-term change. Change that can benefit the people."

Is organizing the way forward against the injustice faced by black and brown people in France?

"Organizing is absolutely necessary, in France and internationally. The racists are organized. Politicians and the justice system. And I would argue that we have succeeded with our organizing. There is increasing support for the anti-racist movement in France, and it is not stopped by police harassment. Right now, we are at a crossroads. On one side, we have the violence and repression of the French state, and on the other, fearless young people within various movements who want to be heard. The state is afraid of resistance and therefore uses even more violence. That's why we need to continue the struggle. The more violent the state becomes, the closer we have come to their boundary. We are in the midst of a significant change. The state is, of course, terrified and becomes more violent to maintain the racist system that benefits them. And I promise you that this will go down in French history, for the change is almost here. And by change, I mean the force that no longer accepts the terms of the established power."

Are you afraid of what might happen if the National Rally wins the election? Worried for yourself and other non-whites?

"Absolutely, especially for their sake, but also for other vulnerable and poor people. If we don't resist, the violence will increase, rights will disappear, and life will quickly become much harder. Life is already hard for many today; not everyone can eat their fill in France. This also applies to some white French people."

Is it possible to be hopeful for France's future?

"If you have no hope, you will stop fighting. It doesn't help to tell people to go out and fight if you don't believe yourself. You must have hope to be able to inspire hope in others. We have no right to say there is no hope because many out there need our help and trust us. I think of all those who fought against slavery and colonialism before us who never stopped hoping. We have a duty to carry the struggle and hope forward."

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Den här konversationen modereras enligt ETC:s communityregler. Läs reglerna innan du deltar i diskussionen. Tänk på att hålla god ton och visa respekt för andra skribenter och berörda personer i artikeln. Olämpliga inlägg kommer att tas bort och ETC förbehåller sig rätten att använda kommentarer i redaktionellt innehåll.