Updated 1116 GMT (1916 HKT) June 5, 2020
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Paris (CNN) — The case of Adama Traoré has striking parallels with that of George Floyd. Both were black men whose interactions with police led to their deaths. Both struggled to breathe in their final moments.
Their deaths have become rallying points in their countries for protests against police brutality.
Traoré died on his 24th birthday nearly four years ago in the suburbs of Paris, after he was taken into police custody for fleeing an identity check.
His sister, Assa Traoré, says police told her his final words were “I can’t breathe.”
“They died in the exact same way. They carried the weight of … three cops on them. They had the same words,” she told CNN.
“And that was the end for George Floyd. That was also the end for Adama Traoré.”
As demonstrations over police violence and systemic racism rage across the United States, solidarity protests around the world have become a springboard for activists and families to address racial injustices in their own countries. From London to Sydney, anger has been boiling over, with protesters decrying Floyd’s death and demanding equality.
This week, thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to mourn Floyd and demand justice for Traoré, in defiance of a French ban on large public gatherings put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“My brother died because he was black. My brother died because he was from a disadvantaged area,” Assa Traoré told CNN ahead of Tuesday’s march, which she organized.
“Would the body of a white man have received the weight of three policemen? Would the body of a white man have passed a hospital without stopping?” she asked. “I answer, no.”
French police did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. But a new judge-mandated medical report has exonerated the officers who pinned Traoré to the ground, instead attributing his death to pre-existing health conditions that his family says he didn’t have.
The report conflicts with a 2018 medical assessment, requested by the family and carried out by four doctors, which found that Traoré likely died of positional asphyxia induced by the gendarmes’ restraint method.
A lawyer for the officers said they should now be cleared. “There is no link between the death of Adama Traoré and the apprehension techniques used by the policemen,” Rodolphe Bosselut, told CNN. “The Floyd case has absolutely nothing to do with the case of Adama Traoré.”
He disputed the findings of the 2018 assessment and denied that racism played a part in Traoré’s detention.
French law forbids statistics to be collected by race, ethnicity or religion in a bid to treat all citizens the same, according to Marie-France Malonga, a French sociologist who specializes in the representation of ethnic minorities. The resulting data deficit means inequities are difficult to uncover.
Malonga said the lack of official data only helped to “slow down the fight against racial discrimination.” She said statistics were needed, to help close the gaps.
Instead, organizations such as Amnesty International rely on other evidence, often anecdotal, which they then have to cross reference with other sources, to track identity checks and police violence, said Cécile Coudriou, who is the President of the French branch of the human rights group.
“The outrage, the anger and sometimes violence,” of protesters “is then fueled by systematic rejection of any allegation,” by French authorities, Coudriou said. The more they refuse to talk about police violence, “the worse it gets,” because people lose confidence in the people meant to protect them, she said.
The death of George Floyd has also resonated in the UK, where thousands protested in central London on Sunday and again on Wednesday, holding Black Lives Matter signs and denouncing the dehumanization of black people in the US and the UK.
“One thing people often miss when we see George Floyd being killed is we [black people] don’t see it as something distant,” Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at the UK’s Birmingham City University, told CNN.
For the black community and minorities living in Europe’s major cities, Floyd is not just an arbitrary figure, Andrews said. Instead, he could “be my dad or my brother … so for us it ain’t something that happened in America — that’s something that could happen to us here.”
Britain is no stranger to allegations of systemic racism in policing — a 1999 government-mandated inquiry into the botched investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a racist attack by white youths in 1993, found that London’s Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist.”
Decades later — and despite changes sparked by the Lawrence case — Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people (BAME) are still disproportionately represented when it comes to police checks (known as stop and search), imprisonment, and deaths in custody.
According to UK government figures, between April 2018 and March 2019, white people were subjected to stop and search at a rate of 4 per 1,000, compared to black people who were stopped and searched at a rate of 38 per 1,000.
Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest, a charity which looks at state-related deaths in the UK, says there were 1,741 deaths in police custody between 2010 and 2019 in England and Wales. Of that figure, BAME deaths in custody were more than two times greater than all other deaths in custody when restraint or the use of force was a feature.
“If you’re from a BAME background, but in particular young black men, are disproportionately impacted by deaths following the use of force by restraint or restraint equipment, like tasers, firearms, and batons,” Coles told CNN.
She added that the dehumanizing treatment of black people in distress raises questions of profiling, where racial stereotypes “of the big, black, dangerous and violent” is coloring the way a person treats another human being. “We have seen patterns of cases synonymous with state violence, racism, and impunity,” Coles added. “Issues very much at the forefront of protests in the US and that has struck a real outpouring of collective grief and anger.”
The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated these structural inequalities. A long-awaited investigation into how the pandemic has affected BAME communities, published on Tuesday, found that people from the UK’s ethnic minority communities were up to 50% more likely to die with Covid-19 than their white counterparts. It added that the increased risk of infection among people of color could be due to the fact that they were more likely to “live in urban areas, in overcrowded households, in deprived areas, and have jobs that expose them to higher risk.”
The UK government denied claims, reported by British broadcaster Sky News, that the publication of the report was held back because of the protests in the US. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock vowed “to get to the bottom of this and find ways of closing that gap,” adding that: “Black lives matter.”
“We are between a rock and a hard place,” said Alexandra, a member of Black Lives Matter UK. CNN agreed to use only her first name because of her fear of online harassment. “We know we are disproportionately affected by police violence, we also know we are dying disproportionately from coronavirus.”
On Wednesday, UK police chiefs issued a statement condemning the death of Floyd. “We are also appalled to see the violence and damage that has happened in so many US cities since then,” they wrote. “In the UK we have a long established tradition of policing by consent, working in communities to prevent crime and solve problems. Officers are trained to use force proportionately, lawfully and only when absolutely necessary.”
“We strive to continuously learn and improve,” they added. ”We will tackle bias, racism or discrimination wherever we find it,” they added. “Policing is complex and challenging and sometimes we fall short. When we do, we are not afraid to shine a light on injustices or to be held to account.”
The Aboriginal community has been left behind
On the other side of the world, in Australia — a former British colony –indigenous communities have been historically underserved and oppressed by European settlers. They have also seen little come of the promises made by successive governments to improve their quality of life.
The indigenous population — composed of mainland Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders — makes up 2.4% of the country’s 25 million people, yet accounts for more than a quarter of the total prisoner population.
Analysis from Change the Record, an Aboriginal-led justice coalition, found that there have been 449 indigenous deaths in custody between 1980 and 2011 — 24% of all deaths in custody over that period.
Australia’s indigenous population is being left far behind when it comes to basic living standards, from health, to education, to employment. The infant mortality rate in indigenous communities between 2011 and 2015 was nearly twice as high as that in the general population, 36% of indigenous households were in the lowest income quintile between 2014 and 2015, and suicide rates are high.
“There’s so many modern parallels with what’s going on in Australia and the United States,” Sudanese-Australian activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied told CNN. ”It’s the same institutionalized racism, it’s the same black deaths in custody and police getting away with it with impunity.” Australian police did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Abdel-Magied says politicians have long failed to prioritize these issues.
On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Floyd’s killing was “upsetting and terrible” but added that the looting in the US “just made me cringe.” Morrison said it made him “think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia,” in an interview with Sydney radio station 2GB.
That same day, video footage emerged of the violent arrest of an indigenous teen in Sydney. A police officer is shown tripping and throwing the 17-year-old to the ground. The boy is heard whimpering.
“It’s alleged a 17-year-old boy from the group threatened an officer, before being arrested and taken to Surry Hills Police Station,” NSW police wrote in a statement to CNN on Tuesday. The police officer in question was put on restricted duties while an internal inquiry is carried out. The teen was later released without charge.
Speaking from a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on Tuesday, Nathan Moran of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council told CNN that the video was “an absolutely appalling example of over-policing that is not uncommon.”
He was “thankful for the investigation” but “did not have much faith” when it came to internal police investigations of incidents involving Aboriginal people.
Roxanne Moore, executive officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), says one such investigation that stands out is the death of David Dungay Jr.
Dungay, who was schizophrenic and diabetic, died in Long Bay Prison Hospital in 2015 after he was overpowered and restrained by at least four prison officers, according to a press release sent to CNN by his family’s lawyer, George Newhouse, of the National Justice Project.
According to a government inquest into his death, the 26-year-old Aboriginal man refused to return a pack of biscuits after staff expressed concern about his blood sugar levels. “This resulted in David being forcibly moved by correctional officers from his cell to a different cell so that his condition could be observed” with a camera so that he could be monitored, the report said. While there, he was injected with a sedative.
“Less than 10 minutes after the cell move began, David suddenly became unresponsive whilst being restrained in a prone position. Resuscitation efforts were commenced but were unsuccessful. David was pronounced deceased a short time later,” according to the inquest. The inquest lists his cause of death as cardiac arrhythmia.
The Deputy State Coroner of New South Wales, Derek Lee, found that it was unnecessary to move Dungay. But he noted that despite “systemic deficiencies in training,” there was no suggestion that the action of the officers “were motivated by malicious intent, but rather a product of their misunderstanding of information that was conveyed at the time,” according to the report.
In a statement to CNN, New South Wales Corrective Services said Dungay’s case had nothing to do with racism or police brutality. But Moore disagrees.
“Racism and police violence is killing our people, and it’s really unclear what it’s going to take before there is national leadership to take action on this issue,” Moore said. Further protests are planned across the country on Saturday about these very issues.
Meanwhile, Dungay’s family is calling for criminal charges to be brought against the correctional officers involved in his case. They say his last words were “I can’t breathe.”
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