Brutality of France’s police has precedent

This article was originally written for Harz Labour, a journal published by comrades involved in autonomous struggles in the West of France. It was published amid some of the largest anti-police protests of recent times against police impunity following the rape by baton of Théo, a 22-year-old social worker in the early part of the year. It was a moment of convergence between radical left groups and collectives of victims of police violence, the vast majority of them from the popular suburbs (banlieues) of major French cities.

Like a lot of people, we were outraged by the rape of Théo by four cops in Aulnay, by the beatings and racist insults that followed as well as by the IGPN (the French police disciplinary body) and the Ministry of Interior’s denial of what happened. Like many others, we are outraged but not surprised. And those who were still hesitating to declare their hatred for the police were then convinced by police unions’ defence of their colleagues (one union spokesperson went so far as to say that “bamboula”1 is “more or less appropriate” [in reference to Théo]).

As riots and demos continue, it is becoming difficult to ignore the testimonies of family members of those killed by the police, along with stories reminding us that acts of police violence are not rare “blunders.” As the collective Urgence Notre Police Assassine (Emergency: Our Police Kill) explains, racial profiling, racist insults, acts of humiliation and beatings are expressions of a neo-colonial French republic. But they are also the everyday means of law enforcement. To phrase it like a sociologist, getting people used to humiliation aims to produce the habitus of humility.2

Forty years ago, philosopher Michel Foucault identified a paradox in the notion of “justice:” the term works as a demand on the side of the oppressed and as a justification for the oppressors. Indeed, it is “justice” as a concept that is called upon every day by the institution of the same name when it prosecutes protesters and rioters on the premise of enforcing order. The same concept of justice is used when State agents urge protesters to calm down, promising that they will ensure justice for Théo.

At the same time, the visibility and irrefutable nature of police violence and discrimination evoke feelings of injustice for the victims. Recently thousands clashed with police outside of courts in Bobigny, many shouting “justice for Théo,” after denouncing the violent acts and lies of cops, attorneys and judges. Though some rioters call for justice, actual solidarity against police is rooted in an ethics that works against legality, or ignores it altogether.

Reading the appeals of the “Truth and Justice’ collectives, which bring together families of victims and their supporters, one can understand the difference between dignity and outrage. These groups do not ask anyone to be surprised or to feel pity; they organise. They do not ask for help; they fight.

How can we create conditions for a society without police? This is the question posed by the ongoing revolts. Demos and riots are more than just an initial burst. They also disseminate the basic practices of self-defence, they help in overcoming fear, and they reduce police to the rank of armed force guarding a demarcated camp. But riots must also be empowered by other means.

Samir Elyes, from the Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues (Immigration and banlieues movement — MIB), reminds us of this in an interview published on the website lundi.am. When talking about the reactions to the murder of Abdelkader Bouzian in 1997, he declares, “We organised the way we felt was best and the one we were familiar with: the riot […] But this had to be followed up with popular education. Our neighbourhoods are not void of politics — there have always been autonomous struggles and movements, but they have been stifled by stand-ins for the Socialist Party (PS) and the right.”

In the US, antiracist movements share the slogan of police abolition. Along with the idea of prison abolition, this demand gives direction to all the daily practices that seek to pragmatically organise without police. These diverse practices include methods to settle conflicts, acts of disobedience, calls to “decriminalise” most offences, and even the call to replace fear with a policy of mutual attention and trust.

The judicial system, as it exists in the West, is the rigid form, full of exceptions, established to regulate life in society. But this system has not always existed. We can track its history and decode its mechanisms, which are closely intertwined with the gradual development–since the 16th century — of modern States and their colonial Empires, of economic domination, globalisation and criminalisation of migrants.

Created during the last decades of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, that is to say in the wake of the birth of political economy, the function of the police is twofold. It is the link used to make our lives conform to laws that would otherwise remain abstract. And, in all its brutality and illegality, it creates the norms necessary for the functioning of society.

We are mistaken in believing that the police is repressive above all. The police is constitutive and normative, that is to say, it models the vital component of existence to give form to an order. This order is, however, not irreversible. Along with the discredit of political classes and institutions, the revolt following the rape of Théo is not a short term reaction, it reveals a profound divide within our society.

The renewal of high school blockades in Paris and Seine-Saint-Denis as well as demos in all the cities that organised against the loi travail a year ago and in all the popular neighbourhoods have been very encouraging signs. The same can be said when the families of people killed by the cops call for convergence. Beneath discourses, and despite the segmentation of the social body operated by the powers-that-be, in different places there is an irreducibility in self-defence practices and acts of defiance towards police.

This is the basis for realities to meet and become explosive. As many protesters remember the wounds and mutilations that came under the cost of trying to maintain order last Spring, and at the very moment when a law extending immunity for the cops when using violence has just been voted through, it is increasingly important that all those who do not feel safe in the presence of police join forces.


1 An extremely racist derogatory term to refer to black people.
2 Dider Fassin is an anthropologist and sociologist who has done extensive work on police

This article first appeared in the Summer issue of Freedom anarchist journal

Pic: Jeanne Menjoulet/CC 2.0