Fighting the virus with a baton

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Police, violence and containment: different narratives

« In Paris, if you don’t respect the confinement, you get a fine, in the suburbs you get your leg cut off.

Lyna Malandro(1)

During the containment, we all felt the increase in pressure police. The incessant patrols of the police cars, the deafening noise of sirens all day long, the warning messages played over the loudspeakers, and by France, regular checks to verify the attestations … À At the time of deconfinement, this increased presence is still a reality, and paradoxically, it is a reality that a strong sense of insecurity, as well as a distrust Increasingly, police officers are being harassed by the police. It must be said that this situation has something of Kafkaïen: who could have ever imagined that sitting on a bench would be liable to a fine of 150 euros? That there should be a attestation to go out and buy bread? Like the character of the Trial, you end up feeling guilty to exist, and the encounters with the marshals take on disproportionate proportions. The most perverse is probably the guilt-inducing rhetoric mobilized to justify the infraction, as if by sitting on this bench, we carry on our shoulders the weight of all the dead of the last days.

The ethics of individual responsibility

It is by no means question here of questioning the merits or necessity of the containment measures, but the distribution of fines for non-compliance with these measures has something invariably grotesque, from the moment we consider that it is a means of transferring political responsibility to that of the individual, entrusted to the surveillance of law enforcement agencies in order to that no one harm the rest of society by braving the containment. In other words, police omnipresence has become the way to put the responsibility on the citizens rather than on the than on the bad decisions of the political class, and of to convey the dogma of individual responsibility rather than of a collective responsibility (but after all, what is the collective, since it is not the sum of all individualities?). In parallel to the fear of the contamination, we have therefore developed a form of guilt that grabs us by the throat as soon as we go out or as soon as we meet friends: we feel guilty, and this is the reason why feeling is largely reinforced by the omnipresence of the uniforms. 

Stories different

Nevertheless, one should not believe that we are all in the same boat: even if he is more often controlled by the « cops » since the beginning of the confinement, a white person will never be a black or an Arab in the eyes of the police. And vice versa.  » I’m of foreign origin, but I’m lucky enough to be white and live in a fairly quiet neighborhood, so I don’t get stopped by the police as long as I don’t open my mouth, » a friend of Portuguese origin recently told me. These words illustrate those of the journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo at the microphone of the political program Perm of the media Parole d’honneur(2)When she evokes the differentiated narrative of confinement between the affluent and the working class neighborhoods: « There’s a difference both in treatment but also in narrative, you could see that at the very beginning of the lockdown when they were describing the people in the working class neighborhoods as unruly, when they were talking about other people who just wanted to get some fresh air. »

Photo credit: RTL-TVI 

The media plays a large part in creating and conveying the narrative that the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods are « undisciplined » and unable to respect the confinement instructions that they are, in any case, incapable of understanding. Thus, in an article in the World entitled  » Coronavirus: in working-class neighborhoods, incomprehension in the face of containment measures », a journalist reports:

« It’s hard to take it seriously, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, » observes Larbi Liferki, president of Parkour59, in Roubaix (Nord). We’re going to have to use our imagination to get them to go home. » [on relèvera au passage le lapsus révélateur …] The same observation was made in the northern districts of Asnières (Hauts-de-Seine) where Zouhair Ech Chetouani, an association leader, said he was « very worried » about the lack of respect for the instructions and described situations that were « getting out of hand ».(3)

Whiteness, preferential treatment

In addition to demonstrating class and racial disregard, this condescending rhetoric conveys a skewed representation of the disincentives that prevent inner-city residents from complying with containment measures. Indeed, the article in Le Monde emphasizes the « habits that have a hard skin » (« clusters of young people in municipal soccer stadiums, teenagers smoking chicha at the foot of buildings, mothers with young children on the apparatus… » ), dwells on the digital divide, briefly mentions the situation of large families in cramped housing (only three lines)… but forgets to say that if the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods do not respect the confinement measures, it is not because of a lack of understanding or discipline, but above all because many of them must continue to work to feed their families, and cannot afford the luxury of confinement. As the sociologist Saïd Bouamama, author of a work on the treatment of confinement in the media, makes clear(4) : « The discourse on « incivility » and « irresponsibility », that is to say the logic of moralization, allows to mask the economic and material realities. They attribute to individual behavior what is the result of constraints related to the conditions of existence. » Although these breaches of confinement measures are more legitimate in working-class neighborhoods, they are not interpreted in the same way in privileged neighborhoods, where when walkers defy confinement, it is agreed that they « could not resist the call of the sun »(5) while the former will be labelled as delinquents. According to the philosopher Norman Ajari, the example of the evacuation of the clandestine Easter mass in St Nicolas du Chardonnet(6), without anyone being verbalized except the priest, is quite revealing of this narrative differential in favor of the privileged populations (of Christian religion moreover!).

Violence police officers are never confined to

With regard to the logic of individual responsibility mentioned at the beginning of this article, the danger of this differentiated narrative is that it makes certain behaviors of people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods seem like an attack on collective health, which thus makes it possible to take the responsibility for the situation in these neighborhoods away from politicians and to legitimize the police presence. In other words, as Patrick Simon explains(7), director of research at INED and specialist in the socio-demography of minorities: « It was thus deduced that the excess mortality in Seine Denis was not related to all the criteria mentioned [d’ordre socio-économique] independent of the exact behavior of the people, but was related to the fact that these people did not respect the confinement […] so they could only blame themselves. Yet this rhetoric sets the stage for far greater coverage and police repression. » Indeed, these differentiated narratives inevitably lead to differentiated treatment, as illustrated by the case of 19-year-old Adil, who was killed on April 10 in Anderlecht when he was hit by a police car during a car chase: « We believe that this confinement has only exacerbated and legitimized inequalities of treatment through the behavior of some police officers towards racialized people from working class neighborhoods.(8)is explained in a video entitled  » Justice for Adil ». For Rokhaya Diallo and Grace Ly of the podcast Kiffe ta Race(9)Adil’s story is far from being an isolated case and resembles that of a young man named Sofiane in France, in the Essone region: having fled from the police, he was caught and then violently beaten without any justification. More recently, a man of Egyptian origin pursued by the police threw himself into the Seine(10) and was subjected to police violence with racist remarks by the police officers who rescued him: « A bean like you, it does not swim! », « You should have tied a ball and chain to your foot ». According to the activist Amal Bentoussi of the Urgence Notre Police Assassine collective , « since the beginning of the confinement, we have witnessed an upsurge in police violence, a relentlessness and a venting of anger on the part of the people who live in the suburbs, even though nothing justifies this violence.

A legacy colonial

These police blunders, which always follow the same pattern, are indicative of a system of oppression that racialized people have integrated deep within themselves and which explains why the police omnipresence linked to covid-19 is even more difficult to live with in working-class neighborhoods, where the sight of uniforms arouses fear and mistrust, given the systematic use of violence. In other words: if the most privileged among us are beginning to lose patience with the incessant coming and going of white and blue vans, then what about people from minorities or inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods? And even if it is only a passive presence, it does not take on the same meaning in privileged neighborhoods, where the police are synonymous with security, as in the suburbs, where the traumas linked to law enforcement are superimposed in layers, and transmitted from generation to generation. By digging further into this sedimentation of traumas, we go back to the colonial era when relations between the army and the colonized were very violent. According to psychologist Malika Mansouri, « urban revolts are rooted in the colonial past »(11). In the same logic, one could say that the relationship with the forces of order is itself a legacy of the colonial past and is also part of a differentiated and painful narrative. Acknowledging this colonial past and recognizing their responsibility for the violence inflicted on colonized peoples could thus be the first step in addressing the issue of police violence in countries such as France and Belgium. Perhaps a lead for the « after »?

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