Yesterday, during a brief moment of sunshine of an otherwise dreary day, I rode my new bike to one of my favorite cafés, Le Peloton. This coffee and bike community spot seemed like a fitting first outing with my bike. The children of one the owners were hanging out; neighbors were chatting. As I sat there, the other owner rode up on their special delivery bike — child in tow — to drop some coffee beans off before biking his child to tennis lessons. Everyone seemed to be appreciating the nice weather, newfound freedom after months of confinement, and the reopening of restaurants and cafés (outside seating only in Paris for now).
Dressed in her full habit, a nun on a bicycle stopped by to say hello.
“Bonjour, tu vas bien ?” she asked one of the children out front.
“Yeah, but I wish that there were no more covid and no more racism,” the 12-year-old girl replied, tucking her long brown hair behind her ears.
Me too. Here I was, enjoying my cappuccino peacefully. Time to check my privilege.
There was another reason that I chose to go to Le Peloton. Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis now-former police officer Derek Chauvin, the owners of Le Peloton took a stand. They asked Hillary Dohoney, an American artist who lives in Paris, to paint a mural honoring George Floyd on the window of their café. Surrounding George Floyd’s portrait are the names of other Black men and women who have been killed by the police in the United States.
The portrait has been up for a couple of weeks now, and it’s certainly garnered a lot of attention on social media. But Christian and Paul, the owners of Le Peloton, have done more than painted a picture. They are using their platform to speak out. In Paris, they have protested; their children have protested.
In the city there are both protests in honor of Black Lives Matter and protests calling for Justice for Adama, a Black man killed in police custody several years ago. Adama’s sister, Assa, seized on the momentum and anger after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s killings to demand justice for her brother as well. For Adama’s case, the trial and investigation are still ongoing, and no police officers have been suspended or convicted.
The government response in France is tepid at best. So far, President Emmanuel Macron has stayed silent. He has previously said that there is no police brutality in France. Although Assa Traoré emphasized that her brother and George Floyd were killed in similar ways — both suffocating under the force of police officers, the French government has sharply denied these claims.
France is not the United States. Their history is different because France practiced brutal colonization overseas instead of building the country from slave labor and stolen land like the United States.
France is also notorious for denying culpability for the dark parts of its history, particularly colonization. In French schools, the brutal and bloody Algeria War, sparked by the revolt against France’s colonial control in 1954, is still over. Macron was the first president ever to apologize for France’s use of torture during the war. He was also the first French president born after the war ended. As late as 2012, former president François Hollande said he did not feel the need to apologize for France’s colonial history in Algeria. Last year, I had a professor who said that “Algeria was kind of a colony.” Kind of?!
So, yes, France is not the United States. But the government’s denial that police brutality and racism exist here too feels like a tired trope.
France is a country of protest. And anyone who’s been to a protest, myself included, will tell you that France has a problem with police brutality. I have seen people beaten, tear-gassed, shoved down with metal shields, shouted at and abused. And, no, it is usually not the protestors instigating the violence.
On Monday, the French government did go so far as to pass a law banning the police from using chokeholds — hey, United States take note — which was how George Floyd was killed. But now they’re suggesting giving the police tasers instead. No. No. No.
The last thing we need is more weapons. In France last year, the police killed 19 people. That’s still far too many, but exceedingly low in comparison to the United States, and that is largely due to the fact that the police here are not trained to use guns as a first resort, are much less likely to carry weapons and rarely fire them. So the last thing we need is to arm the police in France.
France is not doing enough to combat police brutality. The government needs to acknowledge that there is a problem before they can start to address it. Adama Traoré was not killed in a chokehold. The medical report ruled that he died from plaquage ventral — essentially when someone is pinned down on their chest and suffocates. Police officers still have the authority to do that here.
I am glad that citizens are mobilizing here, too. We need people everywhere to continue to protest. I am grateful for businesses like Le Peloton that are using their platform to do more and to call out systematic injustices. Every business should. And evaluate how they contribute to systemic racism, including who they hire for executive positions, if they donate profits to organizations that empower those who are oppressed.
Let’s keep fighting.