Documenting police violence is a form of resistance

Article by Fair Trials

The following article first appeared on Aljazeera.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Paris in recent days demanding the state scrap part of a proposed security bill that would criminalise the filming of police officers on duty. The outrage in the streets forced the government to announce that they would rewrite the relevant article of the draft legislation. What they really need to do, however, is to completely drop it.

Such videos not only expose individual acts of wrongdoing, which is important enough, but also reveal and initiate a debate about systemic racism in French society and state institutions. And this is an issue that needs more attention more stories, videos, accountability not less.

Just a few weeks ago, that type of footage exposed the brutal beating of a Black music producer, Michel Zecler, by police officers in Paris. The footage, released by Loopsider News, shows Zecler being kicked and punched for several minutes by three officers at his music studio. A fourth is later seen throwing a tear gas canister into the building.

The videos, captured by Zecler’s neighbours and taken from the CCTV cameras in the studio, end with him being forced out of the building at gunpoint. The incident reportedly began with a dispute over whether the 41-year-old producer was wearing a face mask, as required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michel says, without these videos, his friends and family would have likely heard and perhaps believed the police version of the story: that Michel had been the one to attack, the one to start the violence. He would also probably be in prison. Thanks to these videos, however, Michel is a free man.

The new security bill, however, raises concerns that people publishing videos such as those that saved Michel Zecler may face criminal sanctions in the future.

Article 24 of the proposed legislation makes it a criminal offence, punishable by a year in prison and a fine of about 45,000 euros ($54,500), to publish images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their physical or psychological integrity.

Journalists and civil liberty groups have spoken out against the legislation, saying that its broad nature and the lack of clarity in its language would likely have a chilling effect on French people’s rights and freedoms.

On paper, the law appears to apply only to those who film officers with malicious intent. On the front lines of protests and during confrontations between members of the public and the police, however, police officers themselves will be the ones who determine the intentions of those filming, and whether they should be arrested and charged. This means the law would make it possible for officers to prevent any filming of their unlawful actions, and criminalise citizens who want to expose their violence and malpractice.

We do not yet know how the courts would interpret such a law, or what kind of a revision the government would make to its wording to calm the tensions. However, it is hard to imagine an amendment that would meaningfully address current criticisms.

This legislation poses a serious threat to communities of colour in a country where institutional racism is rife, and the problem of racialised police brutality is still denied and ignored by elected officials. The videos documenting police brutality is one of the only tools Black and brown people have to expose the violent reality of policing in France.

Just this June, Human Rights Watch released a report exposing the long-standing problem of abusive and discriminatory identity checks targeting Black and brown communities in France. An earlier report by the Open Society Justice Initiative had already revealed that Black people in France were between 3.3 and 11.5 times more likely than whites to be stopped; while Arabs were stopped between 1.8 and 14.8 more times than whites.

It is clear that the problem is not about a few bad actors in the police force, but systemic. Despite there is overwhelming evidence that there is a structural problem one that has its roots in France’s colonial legacy Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin claimed in July that the French police only exercise legitimate violence.

Beyond denying the existence of a problem, the French authorities are actively working to silence those trying to expose the excesses and the racism of the French security forces.

The French government has long been targeting journalists who film police violence in the banlieues, suburbs where many people of colour live, and the new security law is clearly designed to give them more ammunition to hinder these journalistic efforts to expose the disturbing truth.

In June 2019, for example, the French police violently arrested Taha Bouhafs, a reporter at news website Là-bas Si J’y Suis, and confiscated his mobile phone for the crime of filming police violence during a protest by undocumented workers in a Paris suburb. He was charged with contempt of police and rebellion before being released a day later. And this was not even the first time Bouhafs faced the wrath of French security forces for trying to expose their violence.

His persecution by the French police started back in 2018 when a photo he took of a police officer attacking a protester sparked an investigation that revealed the officer was Alexander Benalla deputy chief of staff to French President Emmanuel Macron.

Bouhafs and many other journalists like him working to expose racialised police brutality in France have been targeted, detained, and abused by the French police in recent years. And all with the support of the French government.

While responding to criticisms that Article 24 of the new security bill would prevent journalists from doing their jobs freely and safely, for example, Aurore Berge, an MP from the ruling The Republic on the Move (LREM) party, claimed not every French person can call themselves a journalist.

The Macron administration has also been particularly defensive of footage posted by members of the public of police suppression of protests. This new law in fact is likely retaliation against Gilet Jaunes protesters who caused much headache for the government by posting videos of police brutality at protests on social media. That the government is legislating to limit public awareness of and dialogue about their suppression of protests is revealing, and troubling, for the growing movements for racial justice in the country.

Today, France is in the middle of a long-overdue struggle for racial justice. The country’s citizens are fighting to make France a country where everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, can feel safe. The French anti-racism movement is gaining strength every passing day, and people are demanding the state finally address structural racism.

In June of this year, some 40,000 people took to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Paris, and similar protests continued for weeks across the country. Yet, despite this growing demand for racial justice, French politicians continue to ignore the problem and come up with laws that criminalise not the police officers that abuse communities of colour, but the people themselves and those who are trying to support them.

Documenting police violence is a form of resistance. Videos of police brutality expose structural racism in the country, carry it to national and international headlines, and force the government’s hand to address the problem. The new security bill simply shows that the state is still determined to suppress the growing debate on racism and demands for racial justice in the country.

This is why French people should continue their efforts to convince the government to not revise but abandon Article 24, and instead focus on coming up with laws and policies that would help end systemic racism and heal the wounds of the communities of colour in France.