An estimated 20,000 people gathered in front of a courthouse in northern Paris on June 2, defying police orders, to protest the death of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old man who died in French police custody in 2016. The peaceful protest condemned racism and police violence, drawing parallels between the death of Traoré and the murder of George Floyd in the United States on May 25, 2020.

#JusticePourAdama

On July 19, 2016, Adama Traoré and his brother Bagui were approached by the police in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise. According to Adama’s sister and activist Assa Traoré, Adama was on his way to collect his new ID at the city hall. When Adama witnessed his brother being stopped by the police, he ran, fearing that he might also be arrested. However, three officers from the French National Gendarmerie saw Adama, caught him, and pinned him to the ground with the weight of their bodies. Adama died shortly after in police custody. Speaking at the June 2 protest, Assa Traoré reminded the crowd that Adama’s last words, echoing those of George Floyd, were: “I can’t breathe.” 

The Justice for Adama movement formed after Adama’s death, seeking to prove that the three police officers involved in Adama’s arrest caused his death and to call attention to police brutality in France. Coinciding with the protest, on June 2 an independent medical review commissioned by the Traoré family concluded that Adama had died of asphyxiation because he was pinned to the ground by police officers. Le Monde reported that an earlier court-ordered medical analysis attributed the cause of death to heart failure resulting from various factors, including pulmonary sarcoidosis and hypertrophic heart disease in the context of “physical exertion” and “intense stress,” “under an elevated concentration of cannabis.” 

Speaking at the protest, Assa Traoré emphasised the similarities between the French and American experiences of police brutality.  “What’s happening today in the United States sheds light on what is happening in France,” she told the crowd. “We have total police impunity, we have a police force that considers itself a Mafia in the whole of France. It does what it wants with impunity.” 

An unauthorised protest

The protest was announced on social media as early as May 29, but the Parisian police did not formally prohibit the gathering until a few hours prior to its start. To justify their decision not to issue a protest permit, Parisian authorities cited COVID-19 public health measures, specifically the May 31 decree forbidding public gatherings of more than 10 people. 

In addition to refusing to issue a permit, Paris police chief Didier Lallement also publicly defended the conduct of police officers faced with accusations of racism, claiming that the Paris police “is not violent, nor racist: it acts within the framework of the right to liberty for all.”

Despite the restrictions, protest organisers—Assa Traoré among them—chose to go ahead, and thousands of people gathered near Porte de Clichy to participate. Among them was Paris Globalist social media and global affairs editor Annina Claesson. 

“Everyone I saw wore masks, tried to keep distance as much as possible,” Claesson said, describing her experience at the protest. “People were also carrying hand gel, distributing more masks, so there was definitely full awareness of the virus situation.”

Claesson, echoing countless Twitter accounts and the majority of French media coverage, said that the protest was peaceful. “It was people shouting slogans, showing solidarity,” she said. “People were kneeling, doing the fist salute, just shouting ‘Justice!’” 

Nonetheless, in the later hours of the evening, police clashed with remaining protesters, with reports of tear gas and rubber bullets being used and of barricades erected and set on fire. According to Agence France-Presse, 18 people were arrested in connection with reported violence and destruction of property. 

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner issued a statement regarding the clashes that placed blame on protesters. “Violence has no place in a democracy,” Castaner tweeted. “Nothing justifies the excesses that occurred in Paris this evening, while public gatherings are prohibited to protect the health of everyone. I salute security and rescue forces for their control and composure.” 

On June 3, French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye, speaking after a cabinet meeting, also defended the police response. “There is no institutional state violence in our country,” Ndiaye said. “When there are incidents, when there are mistakes committed by members of the law enforcement, there are investigations, and if necessary, sanctions when wrongdoing is proven.” 

Claesson witnessed no provocation on the part of the protesters, but she remarked on the heavily outfitted riot police who circled the perimeter of the rally early on and began approaching crowds around 9 p.m. after many started dispersing. “More shockingly, [the police] went down into metro stations, definitely the one at Porte de Clichy, and fired tear gas into metro stations where people couldn’t escape,” she said.

During the protest, Assa Traoré promised that it would mark the first of many actions against police brutality and racism in France. Efforts aimed at expressing solidarity with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement are proliferating in France and across Europe. For example, a French advocacy group, Ligue de Défense Noire Africaine (LDNA), held a protest action to condemn the death of George Floyd and decry police violence in front of the U.S. Embassy in Paris on June 6, with over 1,000 people in attendance according to the event’s Facebook page.

To learn more about advocacy efforts to shed light on the death of Adama Traoré, you can consult the movement’s official Facebook page, La verité pour Adama.