Heart of Darkness in the City of Light

COLUMN

Our daughter’s school was closed for one day last week and the students had the day off. So did hundreds of other high school kids in Paris. But this was not an official holiday, and neither was it the first such radical closure. All these schools were closed due to the makeshift barricades thrown up to block the main gates, and not least, for fear of violence.

The barricades were mostly erected from the green rubbish bins that are common to all municipalities in the City of Light. These bins are large, and formed of heavy plastic, with attached wheels that make them conveniently mobile and easy to shift about.

Banners created from scrap cardboard were perched on some of these barricades. They declared the reason for this militant protest: “Justice for Theo” and “Revenge for Theo”.

Theo is well-known in Paris, even if only by his first name : he is a young man, 22 years of age and of African descent, who in early February was allegedly raped by police while in police custody.

The term “rape” leaves much unsaid about the full degree of this assault and why his violation has generated so much protest against police brutality. This is because the young man was allegedly sodomised with a police baton causing rectal ruptures that required his emergency hospitalisation.

French media report that four police officers have been suspended from duty, one of them charged with rape, the three others charged with assault. The four police officers deny the charges.

The anti-police protest was organised by a French group called the Mouvement Inter Luttes Independant or MILI (Independent Inter-Struggles Movement) which advertises through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. In addition to calling for justice for all victims of police violence the MILI also accuses the French police of discrimination and violence against minority ethnic groups who live in the poor neighbourhoods of Paris.

The Theo incident happened in a northern Paris suburb when the four police officers stopped local black youths and demanded to see their national identity cards. For unexplained reasons Theo was forced to the ground and beaten before being arrested and escorted to a police station where the sexual abuse allegedly took place.

As protest riots erupted in the suburban housing estates and cars were torched, Theo was visited in hospital by French President Francois Hollande, whose presence was seen as an attempt to show personal sympathy and official concern, as well as to calm tensions on the streets.

The MILI is not the first or only group to accuse the police of using excessive force —and Theo is not the first victim.

In July last year a black man died in police custody in a small town not far outside Paris. Just shy of 24 years old, this young man had been arrested after running from police because he was not carrying his national identity card. Police state he died of a heart attack; the victim’s brother claims he was beaten to death and accused the police of a cover-up.

However there is another aspect to the ugly violence in Paris, and that is the violence of protestors themselves, whose excesses can contradict their own self-righteousness and indignation at police brutality.

In our neighbourhood we were spared arson, but shop windows were broken by thugs “protesting” the assault on Theo. Ironically, we depend on the police for protection against such viciousness and anarchy.

So it wasn’t unusual for us, like other parents, to get an evening email from the school authorities to warn that school might not be open on the morning of the Twitter-call for protest. Our daughter went anyway, and found to her surprise that fellow students had themselves barricaded their own school entrance!

Our daughter’s classes were suspended; in any case none of her teachers had showed up. There were people inside the school though, because two bottles were tossed over the main gate, and they smashed on the pavement outside.

This may have been retaliation for the fires started by the students: they had found a discarded Christmas tree on the street which they propped on top of the garbage bins and set alight. As the tree was incinerated our daughter mentioned the heat began to melt one of the plastic garbage bins.

For some of her fellow students the school closure was an invitation to an impromptu street-party. Perhaps in solidarity with student arrests elsewhere in Paris, one group of school girls chorussed a vulgar chant, “F**k the police!”

Classes resumed in all Paris schools the next day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And there’s the rub — for the French, school barricades manned by students are regarded as normal. It remains to be seen whether the same lenient attitude holds for the widely-held public perception of police brutality.

Our daughter’s school was closed for one day last week and the students had the day off. So did hundreds of other high school kids in Paris. But this was not an official holiday, and neither was it the first such radical closure. All these schools were closed due to the makeshift barricades thrown up to block the main gates, and not least, for fear of violence.

The barricades were mostly erected from the green rubbish bins that are common to all municipalities in the City of Light. These bins are large, and formed of heavy plastic, with attached wheels that make them conveniently mobile and easy to shift about.

Banners created from scrap cardboard were perched on some of these barricades. They declared the reason for this militant protest: “Justice for Theo” and “Revenge for Theo”.

Theo is well-known in Paris, even if only by his first name : he is a young man, 22 years of age and of African descent, who in early February was allegedly raped by police while in police custody.

The term “rape” leaves much unsaid about the full degree of this assault and why his violation has generated so much protest against police brutality. This is because the young man was allegedly sodomised with a police baton causing rectal ruptures that required his emergency hospitalisation.

French media report that four police officers have been suspended from duty, one of them charged with rape, the three others charged with assault. The four police officers deny the charges.

The anti-police protest was organised by a French group called the Mouvement Inter Luttes Independant or MILI (Independent Inter-Struggles Movement) which advertises through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. In addition to calling for justice for all victims of police violence the MILI also accuses the French police of discrimination and violence against minority ethnic groups who live in the poor neighbourhoods of Paris.

The Theo incident happened in a northern Paris suburb when the four police officers stopped local black youths and demanded to see their national identity cards. For unexplained reasons Theo was forced to the ground and beaten before being arrested and escorted to a police station where the sexual abuse allegedly took place.

As protest riots erupted in the suburban housing estates and cars were torched, Theo was visited in hospital by French President Francois Hollande, whose presence was seen as an attempt to show personal sympathy and official concern, as well as to calm tensions on the streets.

The MILI is not the first or only group to accuse the police of using excessive force —and Theo is not the first victim.

In July last year a black man died in police custody in a small town not far outside Paris. Just shy of 24 years old, this young man had been arrested after running from police because he was not carrying his national identity card. Police state he died of a heart attack; the victim’s brother claims he was beaten to death and accused the police of a cover-up.

However there is another aspect to the ugly violence in Paris, and that is the violence of protestors themselves, whose excesses can contradict their own self-righteousness and indignation at police brutality.

In our neighbourhood we were spared arson, but shop windows were broken by thugs “protesting” the assault on Theo. Ironically, we depend on the police for protection against such viciousness and anarchy.

So it wasn’t unusual for us, like other parents, to get an evening email from the school authorities to warn that school might not be open on the morning of the Twitter-call for protest. Our daughter went anyway, and found to her surprise that fellow students had themselves barricaded their own school entrance!

Our daughter’s classes were suspended; in any case none of her teachers had showed up. There were people inside the school though, because two bottles were tossed over the main gate, and they smashed on the pavement outside.

This may have been retaliation for the fires started by the students: they had found a discarded Christmas tree on the street which they propped on top of the garbage bins and set alight. As the tree was incinerated our daughter mentioned the heat began to melt one of the plastic garbage bins.

For some of her fellow students the school closure was an invitation to an impromptu street-party. Perhaps in solidarity with student arrests elsewhere in Paris, one group of school girls chorussed a vulgar chant, “F**k the police!”

Classes resumed in all Paris schools the next day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And there’s the rub — for the French, school barricades manned by students are regarded as normal. It remains to be seen whether the same lenient attitude holds for the widely-held public perception of police brutality.

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