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PARIS - A court in the French city of Rennes, at the request of the prosecutor, acquitted two police officers who had been charged in the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Troaré ten years ago in Clichy-sous-Bois.
"If they enter the site, there's not much hope they'll make it alive." These are the laconic words coldly uttered by a white policeman who was aware of the perilous route taken by the two minority youths, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, shorty before their deaths. This comment was pronounced without sufficient action to assist the teenagers in danger.
Ten years later and still a dismissal
No warning was given to the children to make them understand the pressing danger. It was 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois: three frightened adolescents were chased by the police even though they had done nothing wrong and took refuge in a power plant. Two of them left their lives there while a third, Muhittin Altun, survived both the power station and the next day's brutal hospital-bed police interrogation. These deaths were at the root of a wave of uprisings without precedent in the poorest neighborhoods of France. The Republic had never witnessed such a movement of popular protest.
It took ten long years for the trial of the policemen charged in the chase of the teenagers from Clichy to take place. Ten long years during which countless judges examined the files without reaching a verdict. Ten long years during which, following a blind political strategy influenced by Nicolas Sarkozy who was Interior Minister in 2005, the prosecution demanded dismissal time after time. Throughout this decade, while the families mourned the unexplained deaths of their children, the careers of these still serving officers continued.
Today, the trial of these two, appearing on charges of failure to assist a person in danger, and released on May 18, 2015, revealed a hodgepodge of indifference, lies, injustice and fear.
Lies and revolt
First of all, the violence of the police indifference in the face of the certain deaths of the teenagers trapped in the power station is cruelly obvious. Recorded police conversations prove that they knew where Zyed, Bouna and Muhittin were. It's as if the lives of young Arabs and blacks from the inner city were worthless. It's as if their deaths were a mere consequence of yet another police chase of boys from the hood.
The parade of lies around this incident was in large part responsible for the 2005 uprising's spreading. How does one contain the urge to break things when Nicolas Sarkozy is unjustly accusing these youngsters of being criminals, trashing their memories and adding pain to their families, already confronted with the cruelty of a two-faced Republic?
And what about this gut-wrenching fear felt by residents in these neighborhoods, driven by the acute awareness of their status as second-class citizens? "Why run from the police if they have done nothing?" This question, full of heavy understatements and doubts about the three teenagers' blamelessness, shows just how far removed from reality of life in poor French neighborhoods are those who only see the police as a force in charge of their protection.
Police as a threat
In some poor neighborhoods where the inhabitants are most non-white, the police are seen as a fear-causing threat. Let's not forget that when perceived as being black or Arab in France, a person is six to eight times more likely to have his/her identity checked by a police officer than if perceived as being white. How can we trust an institution when we know that it systematically discriminates against us?
In our country, where 320 police-provoked deaths have been recorded since the beginning of the seventies, some parents warn their kids as they leave home, "Be careful of the police!" There are some places where the police are frightening. This fear led Zyed and Bouna to their deaths that October evening of 2005 -- the fear of being arbitrarily arrested during the month of Ramadan, when the time to break the fast with one's family was quickly approaching.
We are quick to denounce violence and racism in police practices in the U.S., a country we gladly consider racist. But it was in France that two innocent children died because policemen saw them as delinquents. And it's in France that ten years after their deaths, the court in Rennes dismissed charges against the officers whose inaction led to their tragic end.
First published in Regards Magazine, Spring 2015
Translated by Alberta Wilson