Justice Pour Adama: Covering the Protests in Paris

In the wake of protests against police brutality in the United States brought on by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, anti-racists protests emerged around the world during the summer of 2020, including in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. In this photo essay, SOAS postgraduate Canela Laude offers a window into the “Justice pour Adama” protests against police brutality in France during June and July of 2020.

In June, anti-racists protests in France sparked in response to the death of George Floyd in the US and the protests that ensued across America. In France, the response was led by Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré, a young black man killed by the police by suffocation in 2016, and whose death circumstances are still under investigation.

Assa Traoré has been pushing for a new autopsy in order to unveil the true circumstances of her brother’s death, while connecting with other families who lost family members due to police violence, in order to lead unprecedented anti-racist and anti-police violence protests in Paris and all over the country. Soon after the French lockdown ended, 20,000 people were out in front of a Paris courthouse protesting alongside the family of Adama Traoré and chanting “Justice pour Adama.”

A protest sign reading “From Minneapolis to Beaumont sur Oise”, respectively the cities where George Floyd and Adama Traoré were killed, summarized the general feeling of international interconnection in the struggle against police violence. A second protest, 11 days later, saw the same renewed energy, with 15,000 people out in the streets on Paris’ Place de la République.

As summer in France rolls on, the movement has continued with a third protest on July 18th in Beaumont sur Oise, where part of the Traoré family lives and where Adama was killed.

“We are Black Lives Matter,” said Assa Traoré in an interview for the New Yorker. “The two fights echo each other, so that we’re pulling back the curtain on France, in saying, ‘People of the whole word, look what’s happening here.’ ”

Prove Me Wrong… I’ll Wait

You present your argument with such confidence and stand by it with such arrogance. Yet you miss the factual evidence standing in front of you. 

You claim to try to be an ally, which for one, isn’t a title you can bestow on yourself, yet the closest title I would give you is racist. But for kicks, I’ll play along. 

Let’s see if you can prove me wrong. Because there’s no doubt in my mind how this conversation will end.

Tell me how it’s a figure of my imagination.  That I tend to make problems out of nothing. 

Tell me that I’m overreacting or too critical. That like my fellow sisters, my aggressive tone drowns out any sense I make and I just need to take it down a notch. 

Tell me that that perception does not demonstrate a larger issue of societal disproportion as when you speak, it’s considered enlightened and an example of feminist exceptionalism. 

Tell me that it takes the partnership of educated and outspoken black and white women to accomplish anything. But let’s not forget Sojourner, Rosa, Angela, Assata or Michelle and the lack of space for any of us at your Women’s March. 

Prove me wrong…. I’ll wait.

Tell me that rights are universal, equitable, and fair. That no matter who you are, people are born with the same indiscriminate privileges to survive in the world. Yet poverty, ailment, and lack of education wreak havoc on post colonized lands across continents. 

Tell me we haven’t been trapped in a Eurocentric system of supremacy for a millennium and the ownership of black bodies doesn’t keep getting passed from one white hand to another. 

Prove me wrong… I’ll wait.

Tell me that the land of opportunity is not only for the pale majority, but for all who worship the United Racists Under Trump. That good things happen to those who abide by the system, the same one engulfed in the flames still burning from KKK crosses. 

Tell me racism is over and the noose I struggle through daily was psychologically woven, not made by hands of former slave owners. But then how do me and my black brethren wear matching ones, I wonder? 

Prove me wrong… I’ll wait.

Tell me that the justice system is built on fairness. That law sees no color. 

Tell me that a black homeless mother seeking a better education for her child calls for a five year sentence but that same action by a rich white Hollywood actress violating several other laws only calls for ten months, for which she only served 14 days. 

Tell me that mass murderers deserve bullet proof vests but an aid worker sleeping deserves 8 bullets. That justice shouldn’t be Just Us and law doesn’t stand for “Lethal Amongst Whites”. 

Prove me wrong…. I’ll wait.

Tell me that these cases are just one in a million….oh no wait, a thousand….okay, more like a hundred. Out of the BILLIONS of people in the world! Because the saying  “once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action” is just philosophical mumbo jumbo. 

Tell me it happens to all people and our coffee toned wrapping doesn’t also serve as target practice for the country’s most lethal assassins. 

Prove me wrong… I’ll wait.

But while I’m waiting you know what I can bet? That you have continued to go on about your day, strutting the same walk, spewing the same talk and doing nothing to actually challenge what we BOTH know. 

I can bet you scrolled past every post, ignored every tweet, and drove straight past that protest you saw on your way home without a second look. And why? Because your desire to prove me wrong extends further than the tunnel vision that is your outlook on societal structures. It prohibits you from seeing an even deeper superiority complex you hold over a fellow woman with the major difference being that of skin. 

So while you are able to take the time to construct a cleverly crafted rebuttal to this assessment, I must continue my fight against the system you say fights for me. I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to your white fragility. 

At the end of this, you’ll go into your cozy condo up Northwest where they never ask you if you live there, kickback with your favorite Kendrick playlist, and let the trivial, privileged worries of your day fade away. While others pray they make it home, you pray nothing changes because your life is just perfect. You’re a complacent bystander in a world of murder. Bet that’ll look great on your resume. 

So keep talking, prove me right…. I’ll wait.

Silence = Inaction = Betrayal

Image: CC – 0  Free Stock Photo

A Second Spring? The Fragile Hope for Democratic Transition in Sudan and Algeria

The recent toppling of authoritarians in Algeria and Sudan have the potential to breathe new life into the hope of democracy for North Africa, years after the “Arab Spring.” Yet even as the Sudanese and Algerian people have appeared to have learned important lessons from the events of 2011, fundamental obstacles still stand in the way of democratic transition that echo the failures of the Arab Spring.  

By 2019, the eighth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, the hopes of the Arab Spring appeared all by extinguished. Within the span of a few years, popular movements that carried the potential to bring about dignity, accountability, and democracy for the people of the Middle East and North Africa were overwhelmed by renewed government repression and the new conflicts of the “Arab Winter.” Then on 2 April, Algeria’s Algeria’s 20-year president, Bouteflika, stepped down after mass protests over his planned 5th consecutive term in office. Nine days later, Sudan’s 30-year dictator, al-Bashir, was removed by the Sudanese military following months of citizen mobilization. Within weeks, journalists and pundits were already describing these twin revolutions as a “second Arab Spring.”

It’s not a coincidence that two nations, which largely avoided demonstrations in 2011, are now witnessing the toppling of some of the region’s most powerful strongmen. On the surface, the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings appear almost as a delayed second act to the 2011 uprisings, and even have followed a pattern similar to the cases of Tunisia and Egypt: the formation of peaceful and sustained popular mobilization, whose aims were made reality once popular pressure caused military and government structures to eventually turn on the regime. On closer inspection, however, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have learned important lessons from the Arab Spring—namely, that democratic transition does not stop with the removal of a single figure and the need for commitment to continue to put pressure on the state even through the transition period.

In Algeria, protesters have already set their sights beyond the immediate fall of Bouteflika, with peaceful protesters calling for the removal of the prime minister and interim president, figures which remain representative of the power structures of the Bouteflika regime. By turning out every Friday to insist on transparency and the inclusion of civil society in the transition period, including free and fair elections under reformed rules, Algerians have signaled that challenging  le pouvoir—or “the power”—goes beyond the removal of Bouteflika and instead requires a radical restructuring of state institutions and the electoral process.

Sudan faces perhaps more difficult hurdles—with the difference being the military’s forcible removal of al-Bashir and its significant control over the post-Bashir transition. In a situation that resembles the post-Mubarak military transition of Egypt in 2011, the Sudanese military and security forces have recently inflicted violence against protesters that have mobilized against the military junta, in the process jeopardizing the breakdown of military-protester negotiations. Despite this, protesters have maintained peaceful methods, and, like in Algeria, have continued to protest and call for a civilian-led transition, with a message that democratic aims would not be settled by the merely the election of another authoritarian figure with military support.

Neither outcome is guaranteed to end in democracy. If anything, the events of the Arab Spring show just how ingrained military and government power structures are in the region—and just how delicate democratic transition can be even after a given leader has fallen. In Egypt, a military coup in 2013 has resulted in a government just as repressive and violent as the Mubarak era; in Bahrain, a violent Saudi-led intervention resulted in the crackdown of political dissidents; and in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, conflicts whose origins are derived from 2011 continue to be waged with varying levels of intensity. The shadows of the Arab Spring’s failures loom large over Algeria and Sudan, both of which experienced their own horrific civil wars not too long ago, and whose current power brokers will be loathe to give up control to civilian administration. In this environment, the use of violence to maintain power is all too possible a reality under the transitional, military-led regimes.

So too do Algeria and Sudan face a different international community than existed in 2011, with the foreign policy emphasis on security over democracy and human rights—which already largely guided Western policy in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt during the Arab Spring—even more pronounced than it was eight years ago. Without external pressure to respect a civilian transition, military leaders in Sudan and Algeria might feel emboldened to violently crack down on protesters, knowing well how little pushback they will receive from the likes of President Trump or Italian strongman, Salvini.  

That is not to say that the Algerian and Sudanese revolutions are doomed to fail; in fact, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have already made great strides beyond what was accomplished by many countries during the Arab Spring, and have remained peaceful despite instances of military violence. These steps don’t guarantee a peaceful transition, but they send an important message that democratic, civilian government is the end goal of the revolution, and that citizens will not easily settle for the mere replacement of another autocratic figure.

No matter their outcome, the April revolutions reveal that the desire for rights, dignity, and freedom is still very much alive across the Middle East and North Africa—and always has been. Sudan and Algeria show that even under the most long-standing and repressive regimes, change is in fact possible, through the actions of the Sudanese and Algerian people themselves who dare to struggle for a better future. While the events of April may not yet point to a “Second Spring,” they do suggest that the Arab Winter, regardless of how long it lasts, will one day thaw.

Photo Credit: M.Saleh, CC BY-SA .40

Slow Violence and Disaster Capitalism: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, the category five Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a small Caribbean island just east of the Dominican Republic and a territoryor, as many recognize, a colony of the United States. The colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has left the island in an incredibly vulnerable position, which has been compounded by forced privatization and general government corruption.

When Hurricane Maria left the island in a complete state of shock, it opened the doors for further attacks on Puerto Rican sovereignty. It also served as a wake-up call for the island’s residents, many of whom were no longer able to turn a blind eye to either the impending and catastrophic privatization efforts or the total and devastating effects of climate change. The case of Puerto Rico—both its relationship to the U.S, as well as in the aftermath of Maria—serves as an important example of the ways that slow violence can render a population vulnerable to more overt forms of violence after a natural disaster.

Puerto Rico has already been subjected to imposed debt, as well as tax breaks for the hyper-rich, and after Hurricane Maria it is clear that the U.S. is capitalizing on the shock of the devastation.

In his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Rob Nixon posits that slow violence is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Not only does climate change disproportionately impact “the poor”—most often brown and black poor communities, and very frequently in places far away from white Western societies—in a visceral way now, it also impacts their ability to thrive in the future. Therefore, slow violence should be understood as exacerbating existing hardships and limiting opportunities that have not yet occurred. For people who have had no say in policies that accelerated natural disasters, exposing the role of slow violence also exposes the ways that their vulnerability is made in the not so distant politics of U.S. capitalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, this can be seen in the compounding effects of debt and austerity measures pre-Maria, and the complete lack of urgency devoted post-Maria—the combined effects of which caused more deaths than the hurricane itself and caused many Puerto Ricans to flee the island entirely. Puerto Rico has already been subjected to imposed debt, as well as tax breaks for the hyper-rich, and after Hurricane Maria it is clear that the U.S. is capitalizing on the shock of the devastation.

Naomi Klein calls this the “shock doctrine,” describing the phenomenon of disasters, natural or man-made, being exploited for profit. In the aftermath of disasters, the public is often immobilized in a state of “shock” and the private sector exploits this moment of paralysis to monopolize discussions around rebuilding. This quickly turns into a pretext for implementing harsh neoliberal policies in favor of steep profits—or “disaster capitalism.” In the case of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria provided exactly the shock disaster capitalists needed to finally push through the privatization and austerity measures they had been working on for years.

That, as Klein argues, is the deadly combination: “not just a storm, but a storm supercharged by climate change slamming headlong into a society deliberately weakened by a decade of unrelenting austerity layered on top of centuries of colonial extraction, with a relief effort overseen by a government that makes no effort to disguise its white supremacy.”

Thus, it is important to recognize what is happening in Puerto Rico today for what it is: disaster capitalism at its finest.

Centuries of colonialism and environmental degradation, coupled with the island’s forced economic dependence by the U.S., created perfect conditions for a slow violence that kept Puerto Ricans disadvantaged enough to remain vulnerable to any sort of natural disaster

The emphasis on disaster capitalism and its agents is crucial because it allows us to identify perpetrators of the violence to which Puerto Rico has been subjected—namely, the U.S. government and its private sector. Centuries of colonialism and environmental degradation, coupled with the island’s forced economic dependence by the U.S., created perfect conditions for a slow violence that kept Puerto Ricans disadvantaged enough to remain vulnerable to any sort of natural disaster that might come its way—a reality that has become more threatening as time goes on. Therefore, seen as a climax of Nixon’s slow violence, Hurricane Maria was a convenient opportunity for the U.S. government to force through a program of privatization measures at a time when Puerto Rico was more vulnerable than usual, opening the door for fossil fuel companies, and many others, to take advantage of the newly minted tax haven.

Nixon argues that because of the intersection of different forms of power and oppression within structural and slow violence—especially for those who fall into his category of “the poor”—communities “can seldom afford to be single-issue activists” (Nixon 2011). This is exactly the spirit of Puerto Ricans organizing in the wake of hurricane Maria. The groups that were resisting privatization and austerity before the hurricane are now using the this as an opportunity to tackle the root causes that allowed Maria to go from a devastating weather problem to a disastrous systemic problem—from the poor-quality electric system, to the colonial nature of governance, to the potentially illegal debt imposed by the U.S.

Puerto Ricans have begun to organize and ask hard questions about what they want Puerto Rico to look like in the future, relying on community ties and organizations to help sustain relief efforts as well as build a plan for the future. The various organizations that existed before the hurricane have come together to create JunteGente (People Together), and have begun drafting a people’s platform in order to represent their cause.

Before Hurricane Maria, it seemed as though the shock doctrine was nearly impossible to resist effectively, but it seems as though Puerto Rico may be able to break this cycle.

How can we ensure that slow violence captures public attention in the same way that other types of violence do? Perhaps we should start by looking to Puerto Rico. The island’s inhabitants have treated Hurricane Maria as an opportunity to fundamentally transform society into a Puerto Rico that works for Puerto Ricans. As promising as this may seem, it does not answer the question of how to turn people’s attention to slow violence before an event such as Hurricane Maria happens.

One starting place would be to pay attention to grassroots organizing such as what is happening on the ground in Puerto Rico, and use this work to exploit the shock on these activists’ own terms. Rather than allow disaster capitalists to win, activists are desperately fighting to manipulate this unique moment of shock and transformation in order to create something we have never seen before. Theirs is a unique situation, currently suspended outside of the parameters of slow violence because the detrimental effects have been so glaringly exposed. However, as they continue fighting for sovereignty over their land and to tackle the root causes of the current crisis, this endeavor must be amplified and supported much more widely.

A lack of attention to the issue, or worse, the U.S. winning this tug of war for control of the island, would allow Puerto Rico to slide back into the haze of slow violence until the next disaster strikes.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos, U.S Department of Defense

Feigned Inclusion: On Egypt’s 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform

On November 4, 2017, Gamal Sorour died in an Egyptian prison after falling into a diabetic coma. He and eight other Nubian detainees had declared a hunger strike to protest their holding conditions only five days prior. The nine men had been arrested in September of that year for staging a peaceful singing protest in Aswan. To this day, the fate of these Nubian activists remains unknown as they face a slew of charges, including organizing a political protest and disrupting public peace, in an ongoing trial.

It should come as no surprise that these peaceful protestors were arrested in September 2017 for demanding their their constitutionally guaranteed right of return to their ancestral lands, from which they were displaced at four separate junctures throughout the 20th century in order to facilitate either the construction or expansion of the Aswan Low and High Dams. Neither should their treatment, nor their 18-months-long detention shock anyone familiar with the current political climate in Egypt. As has been widely documented by international human rights organizations, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has waged a notoriously brutal security crackdown since the summer of 2013, when the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces seized power from sitting President Mohamed Morsi.  

However, despite this overarching climate of political and social repression, the Nubian activists’ case stands out as another episode in a long history of marginalization and exclusion of Nubian communities from mainstream political, social, economic, and cultural life in modern Egypt—a process that has been dubbed by Nubian activists as “de-Nubianization.” A distinct ethnic community indigenous to the region between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, Egyptian Nubians have long borne the brunt of a state that excludes them from processes of policymaking and political representation.

With the rise of Egyptian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, mainstream nationalist narratives designated Nubian languages and culture as unrefined and incompatible with the modern era. This facilitated the marginalization of Nubians from key political and economic processes, as well as their negative and racist portrayal in national cultural products, as observed by scholar Viola Shafik: “Egyptian cinema has with few exceptions shown Nubians as ever-smiling, simple servants who speak only broken Arabic” (85).

These trends were all but exacerbated by the fact that Nubian languages are not, and never have been, taught in Egyptian schools—yet another demobilizing strategy aimed at distancing Nubians from any effective participation in political, cultural, and economic life in Egypt.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from watching the latest promotional video for the 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform, which launched Saturday, 16 March 2019, and vaguely promised to “incubate youth discussions and ideas through a series of events discussing various topics.” This conference falls under the umbrella of Egypt’s annual World Youth Forum (WYF), the first of which was held in 2017, “under the auspices of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

The video begins with a catchy drum beat, played with the hands of a black man whose face we do not see. Following a series of scenic shots of Pharaonic temples in Aswan, we cut to shots of two women, each of whom hands colorful balls of string to several Nubian children who joyfully run across idyllic Nubian landscapes. The rest of the video follows the journey of these balls of string as they move from hand to hand, eventually received by a number of Nubian women weavers, whom we see preparing ceremonial boat sails, woven with the logo for the conference. “Aswan is getting ready,” the English voiceover announces.

The organizers behind WYF have faced heavy backlash in the past for their manipulation of millenial-aimed buzzwords—“engage!” “act!” “change!”—in the service of a state sponsored project that clearly aims to present a less-than-accurate portrayal of the state of youth engagement in Egypt. A brief glance at WYF’s marketing materials makes it immediately apparent that this is an event geared primarily towards representing Egypt to the West as a progressive country that truly invests in its youth and seeks their inclusion in policymaking processes. In 2017, the promotional hashtag for the conference’s inaugural edition, #WeNeedToTalk, prompted a powerful social media counter-campaign that sought to shed light on the array of social and political issues curtailing Egyptian youth’s capacity to participate effectively in the public sphere, from vast wealth inequality to severely limited media freedoms, staggering levels of political prisoners, and widespread sexual harassment—to name but a few.

However, in addition to promulgating this hyper sugar-coated portrayal of Egyptian youth and society, WYF’s marketers also traffic in a narrative that manipulates cultural symbols in the service of their promotional aims. On first glance, the 80-second video promoting the Arab African Youth Platform appears to be a dazzling celebration of Nubian culture. There are striking, colorful shots of famed Nubian spices, beautiful panoramas of the Nile River and Nubian islands, and a marked focus on the music, craftsmaking, and bodies of Aswan’s inhabitants – women, men, and children alike. Although this is a welcome shift in the hegemonic visual narrative typically associated with representation of Nubians in Egyptian cultural products, it also betrays a troubling hypocrisy at the heart of the Egyptian state’s relationship with its Nubian community—a community whose political representation, access to social services, and basic human rights have been consistently denied at the hands of state authorities from the early 20th century to the present day.

To exploit the symbolic significance of Nubian culture in order to market a conference, organized by the very same state that has worked for decades to disempower Nubian communities, is characteristic of the current political regime in Egypt, defined as it is by striking contradictions.

On the one hand, President Sisi declared 2016 “the year of the youth” and called for the launch of WYF; on the other hand, he has imprisoned more youth than any of his predecessors (a monumental feat in and of itself). Moreover, although the Egyptian Parliament legalized the creation of the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt in June of last year, it deliberately excluded Nubian MPs from discussions regarding the details of this legislation and continues to ignore activists’ calls for the implementation of Article 236 into the 2014 Constitution, which guarantees Nubians the right to return to their ancestral lands. In fact, as in Sorour’s case—and others’ cases—these calls are met with imprisonment, as well as state sponsored allegations of separatism and terrorism, tinged with racist anti-black sentiments.

Much like how WYF’s promotional materials portrayed a fabricated image of an Egypt that is welcoming of youth involvement; this new Arab and African Youth Platform has added an altogether new layer of promotional dishonesty. By manipulating Nubian cultural symbols to promote a state sponsored youth conference supposedly aimed at encouraging African-Arab youth engagement (whatever that means), conference organizers have attempted to represent a feigned appreciation for Nubian cultural symbols, one that finds no resonance either with state policies or with the actual lived reality of contemporary Egyptian Nubians.

Photo Credit: Divya Thakur