Sunday, late July: the small suburban towns of Persan and Beaumont-sur-Oise are almost empty. Persan, the last stop on the H line, is half an hour from the Gare du Nord, through a landscape of woodland and fields. It was a beautiful day. A man was fishing by the banks of the Oise; two others were chatting in front of a hairdresser’s salon. The day before, thousands of people from Paris and the banlieues had filled the streets; some had arrived by bus from further afield, among them party leaders from the left-wing NPA and La France Insoumise, anti-racist activists, relatives of people who had been killed by the police, girls wearing T-shirts saying ‘Justice for Adama’ or ‘Justice for Gaye’, and a man with a placard: ‘The State protects Benallas, we want to save Adamas.’
Adama Traoré died two years ago in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise. His family and friends had organised the march to demand justice – yet again – after his death. A few days before the protest, Le Monde revealed that a man in a police helmet who had been filmed assaulting May Day protesters in Paris was not a police officer but a close aide of Emmanuel Macron. Informed of Alexandre Benalla's actions within days of the incident, the Elysée had suspended him for two weeks. After Le Monde’s revelations in mid-July, the Assemblée Nationale adjourned its debates on constitutional reforms and demanded answers on the Benalla case. The following week they summoned government officials, including the interior minister.
‘It’s been two years since my brother died in a police station at the hands of three police officers who still haven’t been placed under investigation,’ Assa Traouré said as people gathered at the town hall in Persan. The family were still waiting for a fourth medical report commissioned by the courts, which had been postponed ‘without any explanation’. ‘We have three reports confirming my brother died of asphyxiation, and the testimony of firefighters confirming that police officers lied.’
The march later crossed the bridge over the Oise from Persan to Beaumont, and climbed the street past the police station where firefighters said they found Adama in handcuffs, face down and not breathing.
Assa told the crowd that Adama had been cycling with another of her brothers, whom the police intended to take in for questioning. Adama didn't have his ID on him, so he ran away, and they gave chase. They found him in a flat on rue de la République. ‘Prone restraint was used on my brother,’ Assa said. ‘It was estimated he must have carried a weight of more than 250 kilos.’
In Boyenval, a small estate where some of Adama’s relatives still live, young men were standing on the tops of buildings, holding banners. Victims of police violence and their relatives told their stories from a stage set up on the local football pitch: the sister of Babacar Guèye, a Senegalese man shot by the police in 2014; the brother of Gay Camara, shot by the police in January 2018; Laurent Théron, a trade union activist who lost an eye when the police threw a stinger grenade at him during a protest against labour law reforms last year. ‘These are not police blunders,’ Théron said. ‘This is how the police works.’
Taha Bouhafs, who made the video that allowed Le Monde to identify Benalla, took to the stage. ‘I posted this video on 1 May and no one talked about it because police violence has become normalised,’ he said. ‘But now the whole country is seeing the sham.’ As he spoke, the Elysée's defence of Benalla was becoming clear: according to Le Monde, Benalla had continued to accompany Macron on official visits after his suspension and was living in a flat reserved for Elysée workers near the Seine.
The next day, I went to talk to Adama’s friends on the estate in Champagne-sur-Oise where he’d lived with his mother and siblings. ‘We knew Adama had died at 7 p.m., long before the police told us,’ Malik said. ‘We know a guy who works as a firefighter in Persan, he told us about it.’
‘His younger brother Yacouba and his mother brought him a kebab and the officers took it while Adama was already dead,’ I was told. ‘Four hours later, the two hadn’t moved and they started noticing unusual movement, lots of cars, high ranking officers coming in. An officer took Yacouba to the side and told him: “I’m going to tell you something but don’t take it badly. Adama is dead.”’ Adama’s five younger brothers are currently in jail, including Yacouba, who was charged with setting fire to a bus, and assaulting a police officer on the night he was told his brother had died. The police officers who detained Adama are still working, but elsewhere.
The day before he died, they had played football for five hours. ‘Adama was the only one who was still going,’ Djibril said. None of them believed the Pontoise prosecutor – who has since been tranferred – when he claimed that Adama had suffered a ‘very serious infection’ before his death.
The campaign demanding justice for Adama has distanced itself from the nights of rioting that followed his death. But ‘if Adama hadn’t died no one would have broken anything,’ one of his friends told me. ‘It was an appeal for help. This is how we got heard in the first place.’ Malik remembered the first confrontation with police officers. There’s a photo of a group of unarmed men facing the police, hands raised, refusing to move, until the police used tear gas on them. ‘They were armed like RoboCop and I remember I was wearing flip-flops. I felt like telling them, do you really think I’m here to get you? Look at my feet!’ Malik laughed.
The week after Adama’s death, in the evenings, once journalists had left, the police would ask his friends ‘if we had found the body yet. They’d make obscene gestures at us, insult us.’ They are now refusing to co-operate with police identity checks. ‘We’re all called Adama Traoré. We’re all born on 19 July 1992,’ Djibril said. ‘Now when they hear that name they generally leave us alone.’
The men started to talk about Benalla, who had reportedly been released from custody. ‘Haha, his custody doesn’t sound like anything we’ve experienced in custody.’ They told me about a police officer confiscating their hash, rolling himself a joint and saying: ‘I hate your stuff, get out.’
‘You know what made me happy yesterday?’ Lofti said. ‘Seeing lots of white people.’
‘The Benalla case, the violence against protesters, it’s all shown we’re not crazy,’ Djibril said. ‘Before, people would maybe have thought it’s just young people from the banlieues, complaining. The fact the police are hitting protesters who are not doing anything shows that our police are bad police. In 15 years’ time we’ll realise how important what we have achieved is. Most of us have children. What happened to Adama is beyond belief and we don’t want it to happen to our kids.'
Lofti and Djibril took me back to the train station, driving through le Village, a large estate in Persan, where traces of burnt-out cars can still be seen on the tarmac, and the doors of a few buildings are still missing. Children were playing football on a concrete pitch. ‘The council won’t even pay for a synthetic pitch,’ Lofti and Djibril said. ‘When kids fall it really hurts. Well, I guess that’s how they become so good.’ France wouldn’t have won the World Cup without the banlieues, they said, and it was time the country realised the inhabitants of the banlieues were French, and had rights.