Two days ago, my client told me he was thinking of committing suicide because his profession has been attacked for two to three weeks now even though he is convinced he acted right – he is convinced he acts right everyday. He says to me: “How do I get out of this? So I told him to switch to another job, leave the police, there are other professions. And he replies: “Yes, but this is who I am, I live for my work, I want to be a police officer, I want to go arrest people, I want to be able to strangle them when they struggle”. Statement by the lawyer who is defending the police officer who killed Nahel on June 27, 2023.
Richard Wright voluntarily expatriated himself with his family (Ellen, my mother, and myself) in 1947 and was welcomed there by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – who later both became “suitcase carriers” in the Francis Jeanson network, which was supplying weapons to the National Front for Liberation [FLN], Algeria’s national liberation movement.
My father wholeheartedly condemned the colonial war conducted by the French in Algeria. When Simone de Beauvoir used to ring at our door to give my parents the latest news about the war, I noticed her suitcase-carrying hands were covered with nervous eczema. She later co-authored a book about the torture of an FLN activist, Djamila Boupacha, who was raped by the French army with a broken beer bottle.
During the Cold War, Black American expatriates in Paris – caught between the rock of McCarthyism and the hard place of nonintervention into French policy at the price of being sent back to the USA – had to be publicly silent even though they were personally increasingly concerned about France’s drift towards fascism.
But Richard would often go to cafés with FLN revolutionaries and let his most trusted friends know the depth of his concerns. On August 28, 1957, he wrote to his Dutch translator: “France is sinking each day, each hour. We may have a dictatorship here before the year is over. A fascist one! It is strange. And it will now have to happen. Poor mankind.”
That same year the Richard Gibson affair broke out, shaking the whole of the Black American community in Paris. A letter attacking French policy in Algeria was printed in Life magazine under the forged signature of a Black American, Ollie Harrington, who was my father’s best friend and confidant as well being close to the Communist Party USA. My father threw caution aside and testified on Ollie’s behalf in front of the French Homeland Security Department. The forged signature was later found to have been penned by another Black American, Richard Gibson.
From then onward, my father’s foreign service documents forwarded to Washington were “stamped ominously ‘Subversive Control.’” (FBI files, July 7, 1958). My father died in a shabby Paris clinic, alone in 1960. Richard Wright, scholars like Ishmael Reed, the late Addison Gayle and others discuss the possibility of his having been neutralized. A few years ago, when a part of the John F. Kennedy files were declassified, my father’s suspicions about Richard Gibson turned out to be correct: He had been a CIA agent.
This pre-COINTELPRO and Cold War context versus the groundbreaking Bandung Conference – where non-alignment was born in 1955 – dominated the international context of the Algerian war as far as many radical Pan-Africanists were concerned. And this is strangely similar to the tension today between the global rise of the ultra right on both sides of the Atlantic – and the nonalignment of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).
Historically and geopolitically, the Franco-Algerian war and the eight grueling years it took to unwind between 1954 and 1962 sinks deep into the the French collective unconscious – not least because the French army started fighting for their colony on the heels of their national disgrace at Dien Bien Phu when they were defeated by the North Vietnamese and the U.S. took over. In Algeria, they dug in partly because they could not afford to be seen to be losing again, partly because Algeria was oil-and-gas-rich.
Stolen Lives Collective fights for justice
Ramata Dieng, who is Senegalese and who lost her brother at the hands of the French police “thanks” to a chokehold similar to George Floyd’s, had this to say when I asked her to react to Nahel’s murder: “Fifteen days before Nahel, there was Alhoussein Camara, a young Guinean aged 19 who was shot down on his way to work. And before that there was Monzomba.”
Ramata has founded a Stolen Lives Collective in her brother Lamine’s memory to help victims’ families get justice. I can sense her enough-is-enoughness. In order to get the French courts to hear her case for Lamine, she had to take it to the European Court of Justice; it took 11 long years of litigation. Her tireless efforts are an indictment of the politicization of justice in France.
Ramata writes to me: “These tragedies happen because the courts follow orders from the state and therefore refuse to impose sanctions on the police. My Collective calls for the abolition of the use of military weapons and of the use of chokeholds in policing; the setting up of a public body independent of the police and the gendarmes (military police) to investigate claims and complaints against law enforcement officers; a set of rules enabling families to be fully present and represented as soon as a death has been declared (an autopsy is allowed only after the family has conferred with the forensic medical authorities); the yearly publication by the Ministry of the Interior of the number of persons wounded or killed by law enforcement, the number of charges pressed for police violence and the resulting number of convictions.”
I have Ramata to thank for raising a very important question: Why Nahel? Why did the murder of this young, disarming 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent become the spark of such unprecedented national unrest when the other killings – one a month over the last 18 months – didn’t?
Nahel: ‘A butterfly effect in reverse’
A commentator on the Algerian channel “Le Destin” gave an interesting answer to Ramata’s question when he stated on July 1: “This is a butterfly effect in reverse. We define a butterfly effect as the vibration of a butterfly’s wings that creates a storm thousands of miles away. In Nahel’s case there was such a storm brewing that this young man was killed in cold blood.”
So what are the elements of this storm? We find that the very name of “Nanterre” where Nahel was killed is historically loaded going back to May 1968, when the students on the campus of the new University of Nanterre came up against the poverty of its North African slums and were sensitized. A storm is also certainly brewing because the extreme right is on the rise in France; that right was born through its identification with colonial-settler demands and the hatred of the Arabs in Algeria. They have a nostalgia for the OAS (Secret Army Organization) that waged counterinsurgency against the freedom fighters, and therefore support Marine Le Pen’s party the National Rally (RN).
Some 74% of police officers on active duty intend to vote for Le Pen at the next elections. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, upheld the use of torture during the Algerian war. Another element of the storm is [President Emannuel] Macron’s heavy dependence on Algerian gas now that the U.S. has imposed a boycott of Russian gas – that same Russia where President [Abdelmadjid] Tebboune of Algeria was recently received with great ceremony, whereas he has postponed an official invitation to Paris three times, and issued a communique severely criticizing Nahel’s murder and calling for the protection of all Algerians on French soil.
Le Destin’s commentary points to an axis of common ultraright interests between Le Pen’s RN, the French Republicans, the Moroccans (“the eyes and ears of France in North Africa”), Israel and the former “harkis” and their descendants (Algerians who fought with the French against their own people). [Gérard] Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, walks a tightrope between that axis and his more appeasing boss, Macron – a bad cop, good cop dance typical of neoliberalism.
Interestingly, Valérie Pécresse of the French Republicans – in a move which takes me back to the Cold War Paris my father lived in – has now decided that, in her capacity of president of the Région Île-de-France, she can demand that the Angela Davis High School located in another suburb called Saint-Denis right around the corner from Mumia Abu-Jamal Street, be de-baptized and renamed for the more consensual Rosa Parks. This, in spite of the majority vote of students and parents in favor of Angela Davis. A storm within a storm.
Finally this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 brutal racist aggressions against Algerians in Marseille: Over 50 of them were assassinated.
Nahel lived in a slum in the dirt poor suburb of Nanterre. These slums are called in France: “bidonvilles,” a term literally meaning “towns made of cans.” In fact, the first slums where the North African immigrants were imported and warehoused to rebuild France at starvation wages after World War II were made of empty gasoline cans slit open and used as building materials.
France owes reparations
The irony being that petrol had been the reason why the French had been so hard put to relinquish Algeria as a colony in the first place and why the Algerian national liberation struggle lasted so long. France still refuses to recognize its war crimes and owes information and reparations to the Algerian government for their secret nuclear tests conducted in the southern part of the country.
The French mainstream corporate-owned media has gagged two generations suffering from the absence of closure of French colonization. [The] Dassault [family which] controls the French armaments industry and Vincent Bolloré, the corrupt multibillionaire who once owned most of the West African ports, thus controlling the logistics of the circulation of minerals and raw material, both still control much of the moderate-and-right-wing press.
Nahel’s generation is still excluded from access to schools and there is over 40% unemployment in the suburbs. In terms of social services, the suburbs are a desert.
And if these voices are heard at all they are criminalized. The ultra-rightist Éric Zemmour stated in reaction to Nahel’s death: “We are shocked and saddened as we should be about the death of any young man anywhere but he was not an angel, his wings were not snow white, there were black stains on them.” Except that, as his lawyer explains, Nahel had no criminal record.
Suppressed youth narratives
It is important to listen to these suppressed youths’ narratives, all the more suppressed that Darmanin felt that the riots justified social media censorship: “Let the internet accounts of those kids burn.”
So here are the words of a young man called Virgil. He is Black, soft-spoken and does not disclose his origins on the video. He is 24, and explains that he was formerly in the French army: “I went to the Nanterre March in tribute to Nahel to pay my respects to the family and to put down my little stone for justice. After the march I was walking alone in a small alley to join some friends when I came upon four policemen who just said: ‘Get out of here’ and shot me with a flash ball at a distance of about ten meters.
“I raised my hands. They did not ask for my papers, I was not hostile, just going to meet my friends. It was gratuitous. I felt myself falling backwards but I felt that if I let myself fall I would die, so I braced myself and ran because anyway they were the ones who had said: ‘Get out of here.’ I did what they asked. For five or 10 minutes I blacked out because I was losing too much blood. I was lucky to meet two very young boys who carried me on their scooter and took me to the hospital.
“The police had roadblocks all over Nanterre and did not want to let us through even though I was bleeding out, so when we arrived at the ER, the emergency diagnosis was too advanced and I had to be transported to Paris to save my eye. I could feel I had already lost my eye, so I said to them: ‘but now my eye is gone, right?’ And I could see the shock on their faces and that they did not want to reply. No words were needed.
“I also have loss of hearing, tinnitus, terrible headaches and can hardly read. My remaining eye will suffer because it will have to compensate. I am facing surgery on my jaw. My life has been changed forever. I was in the army. At that distance it could not have been an accident. They were targeting my face. I want to thank the two young boys who picked me up. If you have the means to contact me please do because you may not know it but you saved my life.”
Keziah Nuissier, his mother’s story
Listening to Virgil, I cannot help thinking of Keziah Nuissier, a student, also in his early twenties about whom I have written in connection with his attempt to protect his mother, Madly, during a 2020 eco-protest against the use of the forever carcinogenic pesticide chlordecone in the French colony of Martinique. He was brutally beaten by the gendarmes in Fort-de-France and then he was pulled behind a van to be tortured with – as his mother explains – a torture technique that was used by the French army in Algeria: the severing of the optic nerve. Miltary torture techniques are passed on to a militarized police force to be used from one warfront to another and one generation to another.
Madly wrote to me from Martinique about the situation in France after Nahel’s death: “There were hardly any protests here (fires in trash cans were reported in the city of Schœlcher) because those who could protest are daily solicited by our colonial experience. It is an unending struggle to preserve our island (the pesticide chlordecone has contaminated 97% of Martinique’s soil and waterways). So there was not much unrest for Nahel.
“But in France the riots were spontaneous and the direct result of government policies in the suburbs: dabs of ineffectual assistance at best and a policy of deliberate isolation at worst. In order to solve what it calls security issues, the state does nothing to impose sanctions on police violence. Repression and dribbles of token welfare are the solutions offered.
“The recent serious increase in the cost of living in France has sharpened these social tensions. All the French heads of state have had scandals hushed by the French courts. Many ministers have been charged here and there. The youth no longer believe in social mobility. Moreover, France never deconstructed the real meaning of its colonial role.
“Racism hides surreptitiously in the pages of textbooks creating pockets of amnesia – or in society under the guise of hypocritical exclusion, whereas France still derives advantageous financial benefits from its privileged posture in the African countries under its influence through the CFA Franc and at the expense of the African populations forced into immigration. We are in a real masquerade.”
Another anonymous source from Martinique, the native island of Frantz Fanon, says: “They are hiding the number of deaths. There were two deaths in France as an outcome of the police repression of the protests after Nahel’s death. Maybe more. They go unreported. France is in a dictatorship.”
In fact, in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, there was another “collateral” death resulting from a “stray” bullet on June 29 in the section of Mont Lucas. Carl T., an anti-mosquito sanitation worker, was watching the protests from his balcony when he was hit. Protests occurred in other sections of Cayenne – the Chinese village, Macouria and Kourou.
On the island of Réunion, another colony of France, a car was set on fire and the police prefect of the island outlawed the sale and transport of fireworks.
Intergenerational trauma’s impact
The intergenerational trauma revealed by a mother whose son was tortured for trying to protect her while she was playing an ancestral drum at an eco protest sends me to the words of another mother who organizes in the French suburbs:
Fatima Ouassak, who co-founded “Front de Meres” (“mere” means sea and mother in French) said: “We don’t have the time to wait to see if the [French] left will succeed in returning to power or if once in power it will launch a big police reform because our children are dying today.” This is very close to the words of released U.S. political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim: “We must be our own liberators.”
I am also reminded of Belkis Terán, the mother of Tortuguita (Manuel Esteban Paez Terán), who was leading an Atlanta forest march in memory of her son (killed by police) just one day before the Nanterre march in honor of Nahel on June 29.
Intergenerational trauma and temporality awareness are carried by all the targeted youth who are bearing witness today: “Nahel did not die alone, a bit of me died with him because each day I too am exposed to death,” said Belkis Terán.
So since we are listening to muted voices, what about little Nahel’s voice? Once he got over his state of shock, the 14-year-old passenger sitting next to him in the car related that Nahel’s last words, like George Floyd’s, were calls for his mother: “Say good-bye to Mama and Grandma. He shot me, he’s crazy.”
A source from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote to me that Nahel was in high spirits shortly before he died because he had the luck of the draw: He had been randomly picked to be included in a rap by the grassroot rap singer JuL. These are the last images we have of a young boy overjoyed, almost in awe because he was breaking his invisibility and was becoming the videographed actor of his own social and racial experience. As we watch the clip, we see the hope of a little ghost. (tinyurl.com/bdfpfn7c)
Macron protects police impunity
Meanwhile, caught in the gathering storm, Macron’s government with Darmanin, responsible for “law and order” is engaging in a weathercock policy –going where the wind blows most favorably, dodging the dangerous currents, curtseying to the extreme right one day, giving guarantees to the neoliberals the next – but always protecting police impunity.
In an indignant address challenging Darmanin on July 4 in the French National Assembly, a member of Rebellious France Party, Antoine Leaumont said:
“The police unions ‘Alliance’ and ‘UNSA’ (National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions) extreme Right have threatened your executive power in their press release. When will you remind Alliance that the police are not there to give orders but to serve and obey? The truth is you are paralyzed by fear, the fear of ending up like Mr. Castaner [Macron’s former Minister of the Interior)], who was sacked within 48 hours for having spoken up against chokeholds!
“You are afraid to stop the shameful fundraising in favor of the policeman who murdered Nahel, you are afraid the police will turn against you after you used them to force through your pension reform. This fear paralyzes all action on your part. This fear prevents you from acting when the U.N. criticizes racism in our police. And you deny this racism.”
Rebellious France is at the extreme of a French left that, though not as divided as during the upheavals that took place after the deaths of Zined and Bouna in 2005, is still not homogeneous. The Socialist Party and Fabien Roussel of the French Communist Party are reluctant to recognize structural racism in the police and disapprove of the destruction of property whatever the circumstances. If anything, many of the radicalized youth are in favor of coordination between leftwing grassroot liberation fronts, not leftwing parties.
Meanwhile in mid-May, Darmanin made a much publicized trip to the United States where he was received by the Department of Homeland Security to discuss drug trafficking, cyber criminality and terrorism. His tweet admits to cooperation with the U.S. police to prepare for the Olympic Games of 2024. He was received at Quantico and tweeted that he had very interesting exchanges on police intervention techniques and the very latest technology as far as forensics are concerned, according to an article in Europe 1.
During the heightened tension manifested by the protesters against the pension reforms and the reemergence of extremism on the right and the left, Darmanin also visited the HQ of the New York Police Department. There he watched simulations by the police of public order maintenance techniques and of situations where the police can or cannot shoot.”
New York Mayor Eric Adams is known for his connection to Israeli police training programs, so are we to find a connection here with a little noticed news item reported by the French CP paper L’Humanite on July 4 that soon after Nahel’s murder, Darmanin reached out to the Israelis for “advice on crowd control and protest containment.” The news would have been suppressed had it not been for disclosures requested by opposition members of the Knesset Parliament.
At the height of the upheavals following Nahel’s death, another hidden move was taken by Macron. He introduced in his Military Programming Law a new clause stating that in case of threats targeting the key activities of the nation or in order to be ready either for a civil war or a war at an international level, all civilians and all their property could be requisitioned by the state.
Macron was obviously not only thinking of a possible escalation of the war in Ukraine, but also ominously of internal civil unrest. Alongside Biden’s cluster bombs, he has just sent Zelensky long-range “Scalp” missiles able to reach Moscow. And who defines what is a “threat?”
France has its own ‘Cop City’
In any event, the U.S. and NATO connection is real as revealed by France’s own Cop City located in the Dordogne region. It is called the National Training Center for Gendarme Forces. There, 146 acres welcome various structures for trainees; training facilities, such as a tower to teach intervention techniques, firing ranges, mock buildings, a series of bravery obstacle courses and a mock city for exercises to train tactical groups of gendarmes to restore or maintain order.
In the framework of bilateral or multilateral agreements, this French Cop City organizes training courses for a number of European countries –as well as under NATO leadership. One media source shows four illustrations of Franc’’s Cop City. Interestingly, half of them represent American Marines participating in crowd control and crisis response in the French National Training Center for Gendarme Forces.
However, in classic neocolonialist posture, Macron’s government wants to have its cake and eat it, too. The French socio-economic crisis due to the pandemic, the fact that France is the leader of the Eurozone recession, the sharp increase in the cost of living, the boycott the U.S. has imposed on France concerning Russian gas, the concentration of wealth in the hands of aloof elites, the multiplication of leftwing protest fronts like the “yellow vests,” the anti-retirement movement and the recently violently repressed and dissolved ecomovement “Les Soulèvements de La Terre” – are all factors which have destabilized those now holding power.
As a last resort, Macron has tried to apply for membership in BRICS, after realizing that these countries represent more than 40% of the world’s population, produce one-quarter of the world’s gross domestic product and are stronger than the G7. Pan-Africanists are warning that French membership in BRICS would offer Macron a Trojan horse opportunity to consolidate neoliberal trade relations with vast Global South markets even as they are showing an increasing will toward economic independence.
Meanwhile Macron invited world leaders, including all the BRICS heads of state to Paris to attend “A New Financial Global Pact Conference.” At the conference, President William Ruto of Kenya confronted Macron with an outspoken challenge of his neo-colonialist mindset stating: “You are not hearing us.” The conference ended with a rejection of Macron’s courtship of BRICS on June 23.
Four days later Nahel was shot by the police. And the words that the youth of Nahel’s age have kept repeating for decades are the same as President Ruto’s: “We are not being heard.” (tinyurl.com/rhrnbxs4)
France between bricks destroyed and BRICS’ brush-off
The situation in France and in all NATO countries today makes me think back to Kwame Nkrumah’s funeral which I attended, like many Pan-Africanists did, in Conakry, Guinea, in 1972. After Amílcar Cabral gave his iconic speech “The Cancer of Betrayal,” we all went back to the Villa Sylli to offer our condolences to Fathia, Nkrumah’s widow.
Cabral was there, and since I was working on a series of interviews of African leaders about what they thought of Black Power, I asked him the question. He responded that he would reply not as a political leader or a freedom fighter. but as an agronomist: “African Americans are like sleeping seeds under the snow of capitalism and we the liberation movements on the periphery will create through our own victories the ‘Revolutionary Spring’ that will melt that snow and favor the conditions of your own definitive victories linked to ours.”
Amílcar Cabral was assassinated one year later in 1973.
Besides the ecological wisdom Cabral’s words contain. I read in them a brilliant prescience and a question: What would it take for BRICS to offer the conditions of such a global revolutionary spring? BRICS already adheres to Nkrumah’s injunction that national independence is nothing without economic independence and BRICS was founded around the principle of nonalignment hailed in 1955 as the then Third World’s way of winning the Cold War.
On August 22, at the BRICS’ Summit in Johannesburg, France’s candidacy will be either dealt with by consensus or by a new method of membership acceptance (South African Foreign Minister) Naledi Pandor is working on. This will be the pivotal moment when we will find out whether a powerful regrouping like BRICS will –alongside its New Development Bank – operate along core anti-imperialist, human rights principles respectful of the lives of future Nahels, George Floyds and Tortuguitas –and in recognition of the structural militarist and neofascist causes of their deaths.
Only then would Amílcar Cabral’s vision come into its own – 50 years after his assassination.
(c) Julia Wright. July 14, 2023. All Rights.
Thanks to Ramata Dieng, Patrick Bobulesco and Madly Etilie for contributing to this article.