Philippe Labrosse / Hans Lucas, Reuters

‘We Want to Breathe’: Anti-Racist, Environmental and Gilets Jaunes Campaigners Are Joining Forces in France

by Olly Haynes

@the42question
21 August 2020
  • Estimated read time: 4 mins

In July 2016 plainclothes police officers approached two young black men outside a cafe in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise. They were looking for the older of the two, Bagui Traoré, in connection with an extortion case, but asked his younger brother, Adama, to hand them his ID too.

Adama, who had recently been released from prison on an assault charge, didn’t have any ID on him. He panicked and fled to a friend’s house nearby. After several attempts, the police caught him, pinned him to the ground and arrested him.

Later that day he died of asphyxiation in police custody. It was his 24th birthday.

In the months after Adama Traoré’s death, a mixture of peaceful protests and riots erupted in all of France’s major cities, drawing attention to the disproportionate impact of police brutality on black and brown people in the country.

Four years later, the Black Lives Matter movement has thrust the Adama Traoré case into the spotlight once again, reigniting public anger and, this time around, fuelling the establishment of links between different mass movements.

In July, a protest marking Adama Traoré’s death and what would have been his 28th birthday saw thousands of campaigners against racism and police violence come together with climate activists on the narrow streets of Beaumont-sur-Oise, under the slogan ‘Adama generation, climate generation: we want to breathe’.

Youcef Brakni, an activist who organises in the banlieues (suburbs) with the Adama Committee – a justice campaign set up by Traoré’s sister, Assa – says the slogan was chosen because of its relevance to both the climate movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

He tells Novara Media: “We chose ‘we want to breathe’ because it is the idea of being against pollution – air that will become more difficult to breathe over the coming years because of climate change – but also [it speaks to] the ability to breathe when police asphyxiate young Black and Arab men, like George Floyd, like Adama, like many others in fact. They stop them breathing.”

Organised together with the Alternatiba climate movement, the 2020 protest represented a “union [between] a generation of young people coming out for the climate and a generation of young people in the banlieues coming out in support of the Adama fight,” Brakni explains.

“Two generations who want to change the world, improve their lives and fight for justice.”

Elodie Nace, a spokesperson for Alternatiba, points out that in France pollution disproportionately affects urban working-class people in the banlieues, many of whom are black or brown.

“It would be completely incoherent and hypocritical for the climate movement not to accept that we are in a racist system which oppresses certain people because of the colour of their skin,” she tells Novara Media.

Meanwhile, protesters in France have at least some understanding of the police brutality young black and brown men are subject to. Nace recalls “repression by the French police that occurs to prevent us from protesting freely”, pointing to both the Gilets Jaunes movement and a climate march in 2019 which was subjected to heavy tear gas despite being mostly peaceful.

In the banlieues, people live with the impact of pollution on a daily basis, grappling with issues of “air pollution, questions about living conditions in flats and tower blocks, the lack of green space,” says Brakni.

Brakni says police compound these problems by making young men afraid to move around freely in public space. He says people in the banlieues die younger on average than the rest of the population and have suffered more during the coronavirus pandemic.

Brakni and Nace both refer to this analysis of the ways in which racism, poverty and climate change intersect ‘popular ecology’.

Nace believes it is an approach which has broadened the reach of an environmental movement that was initially largely middle-class, white and rooted in the city centres.

“Environmentalism and ecology are not the exclusive preserve of the urban white middle-class,” Nace says, insisting that many struggles in the banlieues are examples of the fight for climate justice in action.

“In the banlieues they have a huge amount of initiative and knowledge of issues intimately tied to ecology – like the fight to repair lifts, which prevents families and particularly elderly people from being able to leave their tower blocks,” she says.

She adds: “When local councils have put in place initiatives to improve the dietary conditions in the area, that’s also a form of environmentalism and it’s the kind of environmentalism that we want to put forward.”

*

The renewed salience of anti-racism and the question of police violence has also prompted support from sections of the Gilets Jaunes. Emerging in late 2018 and continuing as a mass force into mid-2019, the movement saw significant repression with hundreds of injuries caused by violent policing, as well as consistent kettling and regular use of tear gas.

Last year, the Adama Committee helped lead several protests against the violenting policing of the predominantly white protesters.

“The repression of the Gilets Jaunes allowed us to shine a light on the role of the police,” Brakni explains. “This sudden appearance of police violence upon other categories of the population definitely created a sense of solidarity with the struggle against police violence experienced by Black and Arab people in the quartiers populaires (urban working class neighbourhoods) and so that created links and an awareness of the situation.”

Antoine Boudinet, a 27-year-old protester who lost his hand attempting to throw a tear gas grenade back at police during a Gilets Jaunes protest, tells Novara Media his experience made him rethink his attitude to police violence and racism.

“It’s certainly true that before the Gilets Jaunes in 2018 people were kind of normalised to police violence when hearing about cases like Adama Traoré,” he says. “I was not aware of the scale of repression faced in the banlieues. So when we had people losing their eyes and hands, obviously there were people mutilated well before that period, but yes it was a shock to me.”

Boudinet recently co-founded a group called Mutilated for Example (‘Mutilé pour l’exemple’) which campaigns specifically for a ban on the ‘crowd control equipment’ that injured its founders, but also against police violence more broadly.

“Before this, I had thought it was about the person [subject to police brutality] themselves, that they were a bad actor. Now it’s clear that it is a system,” he says.

Boudinet says there are “loads of problems” with the police, “like the arrival of many new police after the terror attacks [on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan] and whose job is a priori racist”.

Human Rights Watch has reported cases of mass raids without warrants and house arrests carried out against innocent Muslims in the banlieues and elsewhere in France under the state of emergency that was brought in after the attacks. French president Emmanuel Macron then codified the measures into law with the 2017 counter-terrorism bill.

Mutilated for Example has both expressed support for the Adama Committee and adopted several of its demands, such as calling for a ban on the identity check practice that was used against Adama Traoré and is regularly used against black and brown people in the banlieues.

At a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Bordeaux, Boudinet spoke in support of the movement alongside committee member Myriam Eckhert, prompting cries of “Gilets Jaunes and quartiers populaires – same police, same fight”.

Brakni is hopeful the alliance will carry on as the Adama Committee continues to campaign: “We will continue going out into the banlieues to raise consciousness and create an even more massive movement than we have now.”

Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Tribune, City Metric, Open Democracy and elsewhere.

Published 21 August 2020

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