On 2 February, Théo Luhaka, a 22-year-old black youth worker, was stopped by police in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where he lives. Most of the media reported that the four officers were carrying out an identity check on him, but Théo says he confronted them first, when he saw one of them slap a young person whose ID they were checking. In either case, Luhaka was doing nothing wrong. And however the encounter began, there’s no doubt how it ended: twelve days later, Luhaka is still in hospital.
The police officers inflicted such severe injuries on him that he required major emergency surgery. His doctor has declared him unfit to work for the next sixty days. He is suffering from head trauma, his arm is bandaged, and one of the officers penetrated his anus with an expandable baton, tearing a four-inch gash in his rectum.
‘I saw him take his baton,’ Luhaka told the TV channel BFM on 6 February. ‘He rammed it between my buttocks on purpose. I fell onto my stomach, I had no strength left. It was as if my body had given up on me.’ The police officers took him behind a wall, he says, sprayed him with teargas, spat on him, kicked him, sodomised him and called him a ‘bamboula’ (a racially offensive term). Then they handcuffed him.
Huge demonstrations erupted across Paris, in solidarity with Luhaka and against police brutality and racism in general. The official response has only fuelled the protests. Last Thursday, the head of communications for Unité SGP (the police union) appeared on TV to say that the police were ‘not racist’: the word ‘bamboula’, he said, was ‘à peu près convenable’ (‘basically acceptable’). All four officers have been charged with aggravated assault and one has been charged with rape – but all four of them deny the charges, even though there is mobile phone footage of the attack. President Hollande visited Luhaka in hospital, but a preliminary police investigation concluded that the incident was ‘not a rape’ because it was ‘unintentional’. Luhaka’s trousers, it was claimed, ‘slipped down on their own’. The only concrete action the police took was to send in more riot police to Aulnay-sous-Bois.
It’s no surprise that the simmering anger in the banlieues boiled over into violence and vandalism at the weekend. On Saturday afternoon, in the north-eastern suburb of Bobigny, a large protest that began with peaceful crowds and speeches outside the law court where the police officers will go on trial next week ended with shop windows being smashed, cars set on fire and clashes with police. Dozens were arrested.
What happened to Luhaka isn’t an isolated incident. Seven months ago, Adama Traore, another young black man, was killed in police custody. The violent scenes in Bobigny on Saturday will have brought back memories of 2005, when the deaths of two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, electrocuted while hiding from police in an electricity substation, sparked three weeks of riots: around 10,000 cars and 300 buildings were burned; some 6000 people were arrested; a state of emergency was declared. Benna and Traore had committed no crime, but the police officers didn’t stand trial until 2015 – when they were acquitted of any wrongdoing. As one of the biggest banners at Saturday’s demonstration said, ‘Théo and Adama remind us of why Zyed and Bouna were running.’
A report published last month found that a person with a black or Arabic complexion is twenty times more likely to be stopped by police than a white person. This is the first study to investigate the link between identity checks and racial profiling at a national level; it is a policy that has been in place for decades.
The state’s reluctance to collect race-related data is illustrative of a political culture that believes it can rise above race by refusing to recognise it. In 2013, politicians tried to remove the word ‘race’ from its laws. The plan failed but remains popular. Even the term by which politicians and the media refer to racial discrimination – ‘délit de faciès’ – is telling: an ‘offence against facial features’. There is no reference to racism.