Content warning: detailed description of rape
On Thursday 2nd February, police officers were in Aulnay-sous-Bois, on the outskirts of Paris, conducting identification checks, the sort that poor black and brown youths are all too familiar with. In the process one of the kids was brutally slapped by an officer. At that point, Theo, a 22-year-old youth worker intervened, only to find himself surrounded by four officers. Theo was struck repeatedly on the legs until he fell to the ground. There, one of the officers forced a baton into his anus. In the car to the station, they teargassed him because he couldn’t sit, spat on him, calling him a n***** and a slut. Theo suffered severe anal injuries which required surgery. He also suffered injuries to the head and face. The severity of his physical injuries was such that doctors have now declared him unfit to work for 60 days.
Yet on Thursday, for as long as they could avoid it the French media failed to disclose his ethnicity. Why? Because police brutality, the kind that lands with great cruelty on black bodies, can only exist far away. The idiom tells us that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. When it comes to racism and violence against black people, it seems that to many, the grass is always bloodier on the other side of the Atlantic.
Time and time again, as black Europeans, we are told things are worse elsewhere. When a group of us set out to organise under the banner of Black Lives Matter in the UK (BLMUK) the same question assailed us “but why here?”.
By now, thanks to the incredible work of black activists, those of us outside the US can’t but acknowledge the fact that black folks in the US are under assault, every day, at the hands of a racist state that has always chosen the side of white supremacy. This knowledge and long overdue acknowledgement is all too often used against us here. What have we got to complain about? Things could be so much worse.
This of course is no consolation to those killed, maimed or brutalised and humiliated at the hands of the state, or to their loved ones. Sarah Reed, Mzee Mohammed. Instead, it posits that Black people who survive should be grateful. Grateful that things are worse elsewhere.
A few months ago I had the privilege of meeting Robert King and Albert Woodfox, two of the Angola three, who between them served 72 years in solitary confinement in the US prison system. When they asked about the challenges we face organising as BLMUK Black Lives Matter here in the UK, we explained that the media and much of the general public systematically refers to the known atrocities and levels of inequality in the US, as a means to undermine any claims made about racism in Britain.
That afternoon, Robert King told us about James Baldwin who, when talking about the condition of black folks in the US in his time, would similarly be met with comparison from ‘far worse’ countries. King paraphrased the writer and said, ‘There’s no consolation in someone else’s misery. I don’t get any consolation in theirs, and I don’t find any in mine’. James Baldwin himself once wrote, ‘It’s no credit to this enormously rich country that there are more oppressive, less decent governments elsewhere. We claim superiority of our institutions. We ought to live up to our own standards, not use misery elsewhere as an endless source of self-gratification and justification’.
Solidarity and indeed the type of work required to bring down the structures that oppress us daily cannot be reserved for violence in the US. While it is always easier to see the mess in someone else’s backyard, silence on brutality here is violence. When our family in Britain, France and other European countries faces the brunt of state and racist or Islamophobic street violence, we must lift up their names.
In Aulnay-sous-Bois as in London, people are standing up and demanding justice for Theo, for Adama Traoré, for Jimmy Mubenga. It is time that those who silence us using the perils of our US family take notice and start to sit back, listen and learn.
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Alex Kelbert, activist and black feminist. Sociology lecturer and researcher in the politics of food, gender, social change and race. Deep appreciation for radical earrings. Follow her on Twitter: @WanjiKelbert