In France, A Sister's Fight For Justice And Black Lives Gains Momentum

Jul 22, 2020

Crowds marched through the streets of the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise over the weekend to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Adama Traoré, a French Black man who died in police custody on July 19, 2016, his 24th birthday.

Leading the chants of "Justice for Adama!" was Traoré's older sister, Assa Traoré. She claims the police killed her brother, and for the last four years, she's been fighting to hold them responsible. Due to public pressure in France since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, Traoré's efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

Last Friday, the three judges in charge of investigating Traoré's case announced that 14 elements of the case would be reexamined, including the backgrounds and records of the police officers who arrested him. An outside medical examiner will be brought in. Legal experts say the ruling amounts to reopening the case and starting the investigation over.

Traoré has said she will never stop until she gets justice for her brother.

A protester holds a portrait of Adama Traoré during demonstrations to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his death, in Persan, France. Last week, judges in charge of investigating Traoré's case announced that various elements of the case would be reexamined.
Kiran Ridley / Getty Images

"When my brother died, the first thing I said to myself was that his death will not stay a simple news story," says Traoré. "The gendarmes killed you, but they will not kill your name."

Four years ago, Traoré founded the Committee for Justice and Truth for Adama. The death of George Floyd transformed her small advocacy group into a national movement against racism and police violence.

Now she has become an icon in France. In a gritty neighborhood around the Gare du Nord train station in the north of Paris, people recognize her and stop her in the street to thank her for what she's doing.

"She's the leader we never had in France, shining the spotlight on the police violence and injustices that we face every day being Black," 19-year-old Christopher Johnson said during a recent protest in Paris. "She's doing something no one else can do. She's fighting for her brother. She's tough."

Traoré has also gained global recognition. In June, she won the Global Good Award from the U.S. BET network.

"We had to go on the front lines and fight"

Traoré, 35, left her job as a special education teacher to devote herself to her brother's cause. She is a mother of three, and one of 17 siblings. Her father emigrated to France from Mali and married four times. Traoré says all of her father's wives and children are close and support each other.

She tells NPR she couldn't watch the video showing police kneeling on George Floyd's neck because it would have been like watching her own brother die.

She and many others in France believe that, like Floyd, Traoré was asphyxiated by police. They chased him after he tried to avoid an identity check because he wasn't carrying his ID. Two hours later, he was dead in a police precinct.

Assa Traoré speaks at a demonstration to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the death of her brother Adama Traoré, in Persan, France.
Francois Pauletto / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"Adama was asphyxiated when three gendarmes threw him to the ground face-down and put their full weight on his back," she says. "It was the day of his 24th birthday. He wore his Bermuda shorts and a flowered shirt and cap. He just wanted to go out and be free and enjoy a bike ride on his birthday."

Instead, Traoré says, her brother died "under the weight of three police officers and a racist system."

A state medical examiner ruled that Traoré's death was due to an underlying heart condition. The three officers were transferred to new jurisdictions and never faced charges. They were never questioned before a judge.

"We mourned Adama's death for a day," says Traoré. "Then we had to go on the front lines and fight."

She has been fighting ever since — holding rallies, filing lawsuits and engaging medical experts to examine her brother's death.

The medical experts disputed the official ruling. But progress was slow. Her protest movement never caught on beyond a core group of supporters.

Everything changed on June 2. Traoré had called a gathering to coincide with protests in the U.S. over George Floyd's death. The demonstration in front of Paris' main criminal court would have normally drawn a couple hundred supporters, but 20,000 people showed up — despite the pandemic.

French journalist Rokhaya Diallo says George Floyd's death the week before marked a turning point.

"And what Assa Traoré did is to say, 'Hey, we also have racism and police brutality in France. So if you cover what's going on in the U.S., you need to speak about what Black and brown people are going through here,'" Diallo says.

Ten days later, another large demonstration followed at Paris' Place de la République. People of all ages, races and social backgrounds came out to demand justice for Adama.

"The fight for justice for Adama belongs to all of France"

Now Assa Traoré has become the face of Black Lives Matter in France.

Sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, the co-author with Traoré of a 2019 book, Adama's Fight, says she made her struggle for justice a grassroots movement from the beginning.

"For the last four years, she has traveled the country doing a sort of Tour de France of troubled neighborhoods," he says. "She would speak with families, with mothers, with young guys. She would visit to settle a fight between two gangs or if a young guy had been killed. She would stay all night to help people and to give advice about lawyers. She has this very, very strong political desire to get connected with people."

De Lagasnerie says Traoré has no timidity when it comes to the authority of the state. "She's absolutely confident about her right to protest, her right to be a French citizen and her right to be respected by the authorities," he says.

Although some see her as radical — civil rights lawyer Slim Ben Achour compares her to Angela Davis and says, "That bothers a lot of people" — Traoré has allied with a broad range of climate activists, students, healthcare workers and "yellow vest" anti-government protesters. She says her movement cuts through race and class.

"It's not the committee for Adama anymore, it's the French people from all classes and horizons who are rising up," she says. "The fight for justice for Adama belongs to all of France."

Traoré says when people stop her in the street to ask if she's Adama Traoré's sister, she knows the movement will succeed.

"That day, the police had the power of life and death over my little brother," she says.

Now, she says, "My brother's name will go down in French history, whether they want it to or not."

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