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“Inflection Point”: Uprising over French Teen’s Killing in Traffic Stop & Pattern of Racist Policing

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In France, more than 3,000 people have been arrested after a week of nationwide protests following the police killing of Nahel Merzouk, a teenager of North African descent, captured on video. Nahel’s family and friends held his funeral Saturday at a mosque in Nanterre. We speak with Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist in Paris, who explains this killing is part of a long pattern of racist policing that has divided the country. “I wish there was a real and profound discussion about police brutality, about racialized policing,” says Diallo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to France, which has seen a week of nationwide protests following the police killing last week of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of North African descent. He was killed during a traffic stop in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. His death was captured on video. More than 3,000 people have been arrested. Tens of thousands of police descended on the demonstrations. Many protesters are now appearing in court, and the justice minister has called for prosecutors to seek prison sentences in some cases.

We’re going to go right now to Rokhaya Diallo. Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, a writer, a filmmaker, contributing writer for The Washington Post. She’s a researcher-in-residence at Georgetown University. Her latest opinion piece in The Guardian is headlined “France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial.”

Rokhaya, can you start off by just describing what’s taken place? And talk about the simmering tension that was ignited with the killing of this young man.

ROKHAYA DIALLO: Yes. Thank you so much for telling about what’s going on today in France.

So, what first initiated the uprisings was the death of a teenager, Nahel, who was killed in a traffic stop by the police. And what really outraged the people who are now in the streets was the fact that it was captured, and the fact that we could hear the sound, and the sound could really — really showed something very threatening to Nahel. And he was killed so quickly. And Nahel is also — it’s important to underline that he’s also from the North African origin, so he belongs to a category of the population that is overpoliced, overtargeted by police brutality and police abuses. So that’s why people were so angry. Many of the people who went to the streets right after his killing were people who looked like him and who, some of them, think that they could have been targeted in the same way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do we know about Nahel Merzouk, in terms of the victim himself? Why do so many young people whose families came originally from North Africa or other former French colonies identify with what he went through?

ROKHAYA DIALLO: Yes. Like, there are figures who were issued by an entity, a body, like it’s an institutional body, that aims to tackle discrimination. And according that body, which name is the Defender of Rights, if you are a young man perceived as North African Arab or perceived as Black, you are 20 times more likely to be checked by the police than if you belong to any other category. So that means that we do have figures. We know that certain groups in the population are explicitly targeted, and they are more likely to be checked and also to be killed.

There has been a law that was voted in 2017 that actually enables more easy — an easier use of firearms by the police officers. It has made it easier for the police to use their firearms. And most of the people who have been killed are from an immigrant background. If you read their names, most of their names sound North African, African. And it sounds like there are — they’re really part of the largest group of victims as a consequence of that law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the response of President Emmanuel Macron to the uprisings and the disturbances around the country?

ROKHAYA DIALLO: So, the response before the uprisings, his response was very quick and very uncommon, actually, because he said that the death of Nahel was inexcusable. He also said that it was inexplicable, which I don’t agree with, since we had figures for a long time, and we know that those things, unfortunately, happen.

And what happened first also — I forgot to mention that — is that before the video was spread on social media, the police issued a report saying that Nahel was dangerous, and he was driving in car towards them. The video showed this wasn’t the case. So, it also means that we can think that other people have been facing the same kind of situation, and as it wasn’t captured, we don’t know what really happened. The police, at the end of the day, issue reports that fit to their version of the story, but it’s not always the truth.

So, Macron said at first that it was inexcusable, but then he really had a hard stance against the uprising, and he blamed it on the parents, saying that he was considering sanctions towards the parents who had their children taking part to the uprisings.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Nahel’s mother, Mounia, who has led protests through Nanterre, in the Parisian suburb, calling for justice for her son. In a video published online, she said Nahel was her best friend, and his last words to her before he was killed were “I love you.”

MOUNIA MERZOUK: [translated] I have lost a child of 17 years old. I was all alone with him. They took a baby away from me. He was still a child. He needed his mother. This morning, he gave me a big kiss and said, “Mom, I love you.” I said, “Look after yourself.” I told him, “I love you. Look after yourself.” There you go. We left at the same time. He went to get a McDonald’s. I went to work like everyone. One hour later, what do they tell me? “We have shot your son.” What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I lived for him. I bought him everything. I gave him everything. I only have one. I don’t have 10. I only have one. He was my life. He was my best friend. He was my son. He was everything for me. We were accomplices like you can’t imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Nadia, the grandmother of Nahel Merzouk. She has asked to only be identified by her first name.

NADIA: [translated] I blame the police officer who killed my grandson. That’s all I’m angry with. We have the police. And lucky for us that we have the police. And the people who are breaking things, I tell them, “Stop it. Stop it.” They’re doing this with Nahel as a pretext. No, people should stop. They should stop. They should not break store windows. They should not ransack schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Rokhaya Diallo, your final comment? I know mayors, 200 of them, have just met with the president. They’re very unhappy with what’s happening all over the country. What you expect to see next?

ROKHAYA DIALLO: It’s very difficult to know what’s expected to be seen next. I wish there was a real and profound discussion about police brutality, about racialized policing that occurs in those neighborhoods which are banlieues surrounding the big cities, because it has not been part of the conversation, and that’s a problem. The problem is that the U.N. issued a statement to say that France has to deal with its very deep problem of racism, but it has been dismissed by the French authorities, by the government. It hasn’t been really — it hasn’t been taken into account as something that should be dealt with.

And I have the feeling we reached an inflection point with the death of Nahel, but, unfortunately, it’s backfiring. A fund has been created to support the police officer who was — you know, who authored the killing, and it has gathered over 1.5 million euros. So, that means that the country is really divided. And many people don’t get that the victim is Nahel, and the reason why he was killed has much to do with the structural inequalities in France.

AMY GOODMAN: Rokhaya Diallo, we want to thank you so much for being with us, French journalist. We’ll link to your piece in The Guardian headlined “France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial.”

Next up, as the Supreme Court blocks Biden’s student debt relief plan, we’ll speak with the Debt Collective’s Astra Taylor. Stay with us.

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