By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
France appears to be calming down after nearly a week of violent protests in response to a police officer fatally shooting a 17-year-old known only as Nahel M., of north African descent, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, during a botched traffic stop.
This tragic incident and the riots that followed have all the hallmarks of the broken relations between minority groups and not only the police, but to a large extent the rest of French society and its other sources of authority. And this is far from being a phenomenon confined to France. Nothing better represents what members of minority groups, mainly young men, resent about the police, than being stopped and often searched in numbers disproportionate to their presence in society.
We may never know the full details of what happened in the fateful moments between Nahel’s car being stopped by two police officers, the exchange of words, the decision by Nahel to drive off — maybe because he did not have a valid driving license — and the subsequent shooting that led to his death. One can only hope that a thorough investigation will be conducted which will allow us to understand what exactly took place, and that justice will be done. But nothing so far suggests that there was any good reason for a police officer to open fire on Nahel, let alone shoot to kill.
However, the slaying of a 17-year-old and the looting and vandalism that followed should not distract France, and other countries with large ethnic minorities, from the fact that at the heart of what took place is the absence of any genuine integration of minority groups into the wider society, and that these communities remain marginalized and discriminated against. The practice of stop and search symbolizes more than almost anything else the suspicion in which ethnic minorities are held. This is because stop and search is more than a mere crime prevention exercise; it is also a form of harassment and sometimes of police brutality against minority communities.
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, expressed her hope that “(t)his is a moment for (France) to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.” This is a statement that strongly resonates with similar feelings expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, and the Macpherson report in the UK which, following the racist murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, by a group of white thugs in London in 1993, called the police response to the teenager’s killing “institutionally racist.”
Both remarks, almost a quarter century apart, encapsulate something way deeper than the presence of a few rotten apples within the police force; as Macpherson concluded, it was a collective failure of the police “to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin.” Such things happen because different aspects of policing, whether they be processes, attitudes or behavior, are tainted by deliberate or unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness or racial stereotyping.
Denial also exacerbates the situation, as it does not create the necessary space for the police force to change. Thus, in response to Shamdasani’s criticism the French Foreign Ministry released a statement rejecting the UN’s accusation of racism among the ranks of its police, and claimed: “Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded.” However, there is mounting evidence that minorities are stopped by police disproportionately more than white people, and they are also treated as being a priori guilty of involvement in lawbreaking merely because of the color of their skin.
The findings of a recent EU Agency for Fundamental Rights paper clearly demonstrate this prejudice. It found that in some countries police stopped as much as 50 percent of people from certain minorities, and searched or asked 34 percent of ethnic minorities for their identity papers, compared to 14 percent of people generally. Government statistics in the UK suggest that black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Those are staggering figures, which leave minority groups, especially the young, feeling that the police are not there to ensure their safety and security, but instead to surveille them and protect those with the “right” color from those with the “wrong” color.
The UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who ticks all the wrong boxes when it comes to making minorities feel at home, recently called on all police forces in England and Wales to increase the use of stop and search, despite knowing full well that this is bound to create tension and make members of minority groups less likely to cooperate with the police. But as with most of her actions, she is hoping to appeal to the far right in her constituency and her party in her ambition to become leader of the Conservative Party.
It is not simply a matter of using or avoiding these methods in curbing crime, but as much about educating police officers in how to put them into practice with the necessary sensitivity and awareness of how it affects those who are stopped. There can be no justification for the riots that followed the death of Nahel, but they have sent a clear message about the challenges that multicultural societies face. After all, being part of a minority involves being constantly reminded by the majority that you are different, you are not necessarily welcome, and you should feel fortunate to be here. This is even if you were born here, or your ancestors were forced to come to the country. And to suffer disparaging comments about yourself, your culture, and your family’s country of origin, while on average you are poorer, might live in a slum, and struggle to find opportunities for social mobility.
The eruption of violence we witnessed in France last week might be the actions of a small minority, but the resentment is widespread, derived from a very real feeling that they are condemned to suffer throughout their lives because they belong to an ethnic minority. For this to improve it is not only for the police to change, but it is also for all of society to look itself in the mirror, and question the embedded nature of its racism.
The legacy of the sad, unnecessary killing of Nahel should be a complete reassessment of the treatment of people from minority groups, one that aims to give everyone a sense of equal belonging in their societies, which is currently far from being the case.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg