In July 2019, we interviewed Assa Traoré and Almamy Kanouté from the Comité pour Adama. Camille Champeaux, Project officer at the Centre de recherche et d’information pour le développement (CRID) said, “On the 19th of July 2016, the young Adama Traoré, aged 24, fearful of a police identity check, flees and ends up being brutally arrested in Beaumont-sur-Oise, a Parisian suburb. His arrest by prone restraint leads to his death, in the police station. The circumstances of his death have been largely commented and analysed in the French media for the past three years. Whether he fled for good reasons or not, he should not have died. The “struggle for Adama” began then. His family, with the lead of his sister, Assa Traoré, fights for the truth about his death to be recognised. “Justice and Truth” is what Assa is asking for. The Comité pour Adama settled with this aim has become very well-known in France. It has become the symbol of the struggle for all victims of police mistreatment without justice. It is a fight against violence from the police, against impunity for public officials, and, by extension, for the right to live and to be safe whether you are white, black or Arabic, whether you are rich or living in a poor neighbourhood. In July we interviewed Assa Traoré, who has since become the target of four lawsuits by gendarmes and police officers she publicly accused of being accomplices to the death of her brother and covering the truth, and activist Almamy Kanouté. Their struggle is not over.” This interview with Comité pour Adama belongs to the six stories of Resistance collected in Acitivizenship #4.
Can you tell us your brother’s story and the events of July 2016 in Beaumont-sur-Oise?
ASSA TRAORÉ: On July 19th, my brother’s day began at 10 a.m. when the local town hall called us to inform that his identity card was ready. This ID had a very important role that day. Unfortunately, Adama never had time to pick it up, and when he met the gendarmes who were checking the identity of his brother Bagui to arrest him around 5 p.m., Adama did not have his identity document.
Like all the young boys in the suburbs, like all black or foreign origin men when they do not carry their identity document, Adama immediately felt scared. He ran away from the police checkpoint, even though he was not the one they were looking for. This was 2016, but this experience is undoubtedly the inheritance of France’ slavery and colonisation times. As Elsa Dorlin wrote in one of her books, the first French passport was created for slaves. It was okay to beat a slave on the street if he was caught without an identity document.
In 2016, my brother was still killed because he did not have that shield in his pocket, he did not have that bulletproof vest, he did not have his ID. In France, today, young people of colour who do not have this shield, this identity document, can die as a result.
That day, my brother ran away. The police chased him. At first, he was knocked in front of the Town Hall. He ran again to hide in the apartment of a person he knew. There, the police subjected him to prone restraint: he was kept by police officers with his face to the floor with over 250 kg weight on top of him. This immobilisation technique is prohibited in several European states, but it is still used in France leading to the death of many black and Arab people arrested by the police. That day, Adama told them “I can’t breathe anymore”, but they continued to compress his rib cage. They put him in their vehicle. There again Adama told them “I can’t breathe anymore”; he urinated on himself. Yet, they did not take him to the hospital even though the hospital was only two minutes away. Instead, they took him to their barracks, the gendarmerie. They left him in the yard. They let him die.
Later, when the firemen arrived at the scene, he was handcuffed, his stomach against the ground. The police later said they had given him first aid and put him in the recovery position3. Though, thanks to our lawyer Yacine Bouzrou we found out that the first-aid doctors’ reports were missing. According to these reports, when the firemen arrived at the gendarmerie, Adama was not in the recovery position. He had not been given first aid. A fireman asked the police to remove the handcuffs, and the police answered: “No, he’s faking it!” The fireman insisted that “He is a 24-year-old young man; it is not possible to let him die”. My brother’s death was officially declared at 7:05 p.m.
The day went on. Someone came to see my brother, Samba: “Adama had a heart issue, go see if he is in the hospital”. My family went to the hospital, but Adama was not there. Samba called the fire brigade, who tipped him directly towards the gendarmerie. This was abnormal.
Around 9 p.m. Tata, Adama’s mother, went to the gendarmerie explaining that she had heard that her son had felt unwell and that she wanted to see him. The response was: “Your son is fine; you can’t see him, it’s late.” She asked whether it was necessary to call a lawyer. The gendarmes replied that “If Adama needs a lawyer, we will call a lawyer”. She said a sentence that makes sense today: “If anything bad happens to my son, I will sue you”.
Fifteen minutes later, my other brother Yacouba brought three sandwiches to the gendarmerie: one for Bagui, one for his friend and one for Adama. The gendarmes took them – so he felt that something weird was happening. At this point rumours had started spreading; people had begun gathering in front of the gendarmerie. At around 11 p.m. Yacouba put his foot in front of the door of the gendarmerie, blocked it and forced himself in. He went to see a senior officer, and he was told: “if we tell you something, will you take it the wrong way?” Of course, my family said “no” as the possibility of death never crossed their mind. That is when the police told them that Adama Traoré was dead. It was around 11:15 p.m. So the death had been hidden for several hours.
Uprisings started taking place in the neighbourhood. As for Yacouba, he was put in prison for “violent intrusion into the gendarmerie” because he obstructed the door with his foot. We went to pick him up from prison one year later, on July 19, 2017. The revolts lasted several days in the neighbourhood. The Prosecutor immediately communicated that Adama Traoré was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, that he had died of a severe infection, linked to his heart. This was false. We knew our brother very well. That is when we realised that we would have were going to have to fight for the truth.
Three days later, we were summoned to the prefecture of Cergy-Pontoise. We were informed that authorities had taken the liberty of contacting Air France and the authorities of Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris so that my brother’s body could be sent to Mali the day after. We told them “no”. We asked for a counter autopsy. Babacar Gueye, who died in 2015 after being shot by the police with five bullets in his body was not that lucky. His sister did not speak and read French very well. The authorities sent his body directly to Senegal, without an autopsy.
Authorities often play on the fact that many citizens do not know how to exercise their rights. They tried with us as well, but the doctors had told us not to take Adama’s body out of France: the body would be contaminated and it would not have been any longer possible to do a second autopsy. This is why we made a brutal gesture: we refused the body, although we are Muslims and in our religion, the body must be buried within three days from the death. We were right to do so. The counter-autopsy revealed that Adama Traoré did not die of a severe illness, nor of alcohol or drug consumption. Our lawyer then asked the prosecutor Yves Jannier to be removed from the case. This happened three weeks later when the case was relocated under the jurisdiction of the Paris Prosecutor. The fight continued. In August we went to Mali, we buried my brother.
When the case arrived at the Paris Court, in January 2017, three judges requested further expertise – a rare occurrence in cases of police violence. We already had two expert opinions, one refuting and the other one confirming the causes of heart disease and severe infection. The result of this further autopsy was released in September 2018. One of the experts, specialised in cardiology, demonstrated that Adama did not have any heart problems: he had an athletic heart. An expert on infections said that he did not have any severe infections. However, Professor Barbet, a forensic expert, concluded that Adama Traoré had sickle cell disease. As he ran 480 meters in 15 minutes, he died out of breath.
We asked for a new counter-autopsy, but the court refused it. We carried it out anyway and paid for it. It was released in February 2019, made by internationally recognised specialists who confirmed that Adama did not die of an illness. He died of suffocation following his arrest. On the morning of the reveal of this expert report, the gendarmes wanted the case to be closed. However, the judges decided to reopen it that very evening. We filed a complaint against the first expert who stated that the cause of death was a heart disease because the cardiologist of the counter autopsy confirmed that there was no evidence of any heart disease. We discovered that this first expert had been summoned twice by the Order of Physicians for unethical conduct due to false expertise.
Today, that is where we stand.
Your fight for truth and justice has taken on a national dimension, but it is still very locally organised, right?
ASSA TRAORÉ: From the start, the fight was carried out locally. The strength of the fight is its local dimension. For one year, we did a massive work locally, and only then we asked people from outside to join.
The “Comité” was not created by anyone specific; it was really something that was done collectively. It was a local fight that was fought by the local community. People came from the neighbourhood; the fight is fought inside the neighbourhood with the people from the neighbourhood. But then, from the very beginning, Almamy Kanouté, who is here, and several activists and campaigners joined: Almamy Kanouté, Youcef Brakni, Samir and photographers Noman and Anne-Charlotte, there were Adama’s friends, my brothers. All of them have a very important role. Tell us, Almamy, what is your role?
ALMAMY KANOUTÉ: As activists, we are supposed to be at the service of families or people who need support, protection. We are simply available with our experience, but it is the Traoré family that makes the choices and takes the decisions. Even for external relations, it is the family who decides with whom to work or not, with whom to exchange or not. It is like this also for today’s interview, it is like this with any European network.
ASSA TRAORÉ: All these activists, Almamy, Youcef, Samir and the others, had a very important role since they already knew the environment of such a situation, which my family and I did not know. It was crucial in order not to fall into misguided exploitation by people who were there to use our story. Immediately, they helped us to protect our story and to say that no one would speak on behalf of the Traoré family except the Traoré family. I think that this is also one of the Comité’s strengths: no one is speaking for us.
The Comité Adama is indeed a local struggle. But if we are here today, with you from the European Civic Forum, it is a sign that our base is solid. It has been three years since the death of Adama, and the fight would have already run out of steam without people all across the country saying “We are going to march”. On Saturday (July 20, 2019), a march will be held from our home with the residents of the neighbourhood. The security and the kitchen will only be done by the local people. The base is there, and that is what supports us today to reach out to other cities. You say this is the fight for Adama, in fact this is the fight for all the other Adama Traoré. This fight is about the invisibility of our suburbs. We said this is the fight we are taking with the suburbs. We are not going to fight FOR the suburbs, we are going to fight together WITH the suburbs. I am not a spokesperson [for the fight], I am only a spokesperson for my family, and I am Adama Traoré’s sister.
The goal is for the voices of all these people in the suburbs to be heard and for people to say “Their voice is as valuable as anyone’s”. Their word must be visible. Our role is to show that they are there, but no one will speak for them. The goal is to have spokespersons chosen everywhere in the suburbs and to have their voices as strong and powerful. That is right: not to speak for them, but for them to speak.
Almamy, why did you decide to support the Comité Adama among so many others?
ALMAMY KANOUTÉ: First of all, the suburbs rose up. We can go back to 2005 when Zyed and Bouna died while escaping police controls. There was a lot of anger, which was expressed spectacularly. The violence of the people has turned against their own space, and this can be shocking. When people start destroying their own living space, it is because they have reached their limit. In the case of Adama, his story had a similar effect in the suburbs; the press took hold of the damage caused, the fire, the riotings. This had an international impact.
France is concerned when its image is tarnished at the international level, so the government was forced to answer questions in the Assembly. Unfortunately, as it often happens in these cases, they defended the police and justified this repression. They justified the violence against Adama like it was legitimate. This response of incriminating victims of police violence is systemic — however, this time they had to face a family that decided to stand up. As the family members say: “We wept Adama one day, the next day we went into battle”.
Nowadays, with the Yellow Vests mobilisation, the issue of police violence is central, and as we see not new…
ASSA TRAORÉ: There is one thing I insist on: we worked on the issue of police violence for two years, but we learned from what happened in 2005 when the people in the suburbs stood up, fought. A lot of kids went to jail; it turned out negatively. The Comité Adama worked for the past two years to make this fight against police violence a priority. Had it been a priority before, maybe my brother would not have died.
Today’s violence against the Gilets Jaunes is a fact in itself, but when we discuss it, we need to be very accurate. I warn journalists: “Yellow Vests do not legitimise the fight against police violence in our suburbs”. On the other hand, when the Yellow Vests talk about police violence, they are told: “Be careful, there is a long story behind.”
It starts in the suburbs, all those young people who died… and my brother. I tell them, many young people of colour have been suffering police violence for long.
Today, we will join with the Yellow Vests in the fight against police violence keeping in mind the history of this violence that dates back long, long before 2018. It has roots in France’s history of slavery and colonisation.
With the Yellow Vests, many people are becoming aware of police violence. When we call on the Yellow Vests to go on together in this fight, it is to be reminded that there have been battles and struggles that have been fought long before. We are not asking them to legitimise Adama’s fight, they can just learn from his story.
Beyond the French perspective, there are movements against police violence on black people that are increasingly asserting themselves throughout Europe and the world: the Black Lives Matter campaign, for example. Are you in contact with other fights outside France? Do you have links with other movements?
ASSA TRAORÉ: There are Comities that have been set up all over the world. We went to Canada with Almamy, he also went to Kenya. We went to Italy, and we are going to Germany soon, then Spain. We saw people from the US Black Lives Matter last weekend; we call on them to support our movement too.
ALMAMY KANOUTÉ: We have many similarities with the movement in North America. That said, we are not going to talk about a convergence of struggles. To talk about convergence implies that these struggles are separate, while we are all fighting for the same things, for the same rights. We build relationships on common points, without trying to get everyone with our banners. In France, we consider that we all represent a hand, but this hand is open, it is harmless.
The “Comité” has always been open to cooperation with other organisations, even if we have to be vigilant about certain organisations pushing their own agenda through our fight. We really hope that one day the organisations opposing police violence can create a true coalition, with common funds, and that we can reduce the legal costs for families by supporting them. That would be a huge step forward because we are facing a power system that regularly covers the perpetrators of crimes, whether financially, politically, in the media…
We have no member of the Parliament to support us, to speak for us in the National Assembly. We hoped that some of the MPs who had more or less taken a stand in the Adama case would take symbolic action, like the American MPs after the Trevon Martin case, where they put on a hoodie in Congress. We just see that this did not happen.
Would you expect some help could come from the European level?
ASSA TRAORÉ: Of course! The day when Europeans will have seen enough and will denounce what France is doing. We must show other Europeans and the rest of the world that France is a racist country, a country where human rights are not respected, where there are inhuman treatments and violence. That is the work we are contributing to. French authorities are afraid that other countries will point the finger at France. It will hurt them to be denounced like the United States are.
Since 2016, the Government in France has changed, but has anything changed for the “Comité”, have you felt a change in the attitude of the authorities towards your demands?
ASSA TRAORÉ: Not at all. On the contrary, this government is even more repressive. We are facing a war machine that has no feelings, no moods, no remorse. Fortunately, from the beginning until now, the strength we have is in the “WE”. WE, the Yellow Vests. WE, the citizens. WE, the suburbs.
Whether or not you are subjected to violence, [regardless of] your sexual orientation, religion, hair colour… we have to go together because none of us is represented in this political system.
I am referring to all political parties, whether they are from the left or the right, in no way they represent us. They are part of a system where they share power and responsibilities. This is a system that stifles us at best. That is what we want to incorporate in the public debates with the book Le Combat Adama.
We question this power and how it is distributed in the system: what is the role of the prosecutor and the police in this repressive system? How can we dismantle it? How can we occupy public space? How can our messages be heard?
ALMAMY KANOUTÉ: People are used to standing still, they tend to be in a sort of wait-and-see attitude, so it seems that nothing is moving forward. The book Combat Adama demonstrated a balance of power. Faced with injustice, with hostile media, with the political power of the French state, with its violence, a group of inhabitants – a family – have succeeded in creating a balance of forces that we have not seen in the 2000s. And when the Comité Adama dares responding to a press release from the Prefecture of Police, dares responding to statesmen and stateswomen who convey lies, it necessarily provokes an electroshock.
People think we are crazy to stand up to the state. We have to tell them that this is unfortunately what we must do, to demand the enforcement of our rights and to demand truth and justice, something that is just supposed to be in accordance to the rule of law.
We have shown that we have to push in order to see even a small piece of truth. The state tried to incriminate the victim of its violence, to spread lies. Prosecutor Jannier was even thanked for openly lying to the public. But in the end, the Traoré family managed to demonstrate that they were telling the truth from the beginning, thanks to the latest medical expertise we were able to present.