France-Amérique: How would you analyze the demonstrations that followed the death of George Floyd?
Simon Grivet: They are surprising, astonishing even. When everything started, I thought it would be much like other Black Lives Matter protests from previous years – demonstrations mainly comprised of African-Americans, a few cases of violence, with everything subsiding after a few days. I was surprised by the scale of the protests, and especially by their diversity. We have seen that this goes beyond the Black Lives Matter movement; it is deeper and more powerful. The protestors are young, but not exclusively. They are white, Black, and Hispanic. Demonstrations have been held in major cities, but also in small- and medium-sized cities such as Boise in Idaho, and even in Texas. This isn’t going away.
Why are these protests happening now?
The general shock after seeing the images is a major factor. No other interpretation is possible; George Floyd’s death was a police killing filmed from several angles and witnessed by the public. The power of these images is enhanced by the long series of police violence captured on camera since the death of Michael Brown, and young, unarmed Black man killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, in summer 2014. A new case of police misconduct is discovered every two or three days in the United States, which drives the protests. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people are killed every year by the police in the U.S., and American society is extremely violent with more than 30,000 firearm deaths annually. What’s more, 2020 is an election year. Three-and-a-half years of Trump have sparked a profound political awakening on both the left and the right. There is a powerful energy of protest and reform. This movement is coming to the fore at a time of other major crises in the form of the pandemic and a social and economic crisis. I don’t think these demonstrations are going to disappear.
The uprising has particularly resonated in France – especially in Paris – with demonstrations for Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man who died after being arrested in 2016. Can you explain this parallel?
Until this year, the Black Lives Matter was location-specific. The internationalization of protests against police violence is an important new development that has not been seen since the 1960s and 1970s. There is an expression of solidarity in France, Germany, and the U.K., and we are discovering that similar cases have occurred elsewhere. Such events were often seen by Europeans as essentially “American” problems. But today, these countries are being forced to face their own contradictions. Some 20,000 people gathered to protest the death of Adama Traoré and demand change in front of the Paris courthouse in early June. In an opinion piece published in Le Monde, historian Pap Ndiaye spoke of the “possibility of a new coalition between Black and white liberals.”
Can we expect a simultaneous change in French legislation to prevent police violence?
That depends on the political power struggle. The French right wing is ignoring the issue, and Emmanuel Macron seems embarrassed and unsure of how to proceed. Yet he promoted ambitious reforms during his presidential campaign. The presidential majority is also overshadowed by the precedent of the violently repressed Gilets Jaunes movement. Everything will depend on how the activist groups campaigning in memory of Adama Traoré can join forces with the Gilets Jaunes. These two distinct movements are condemning the same thing: police repression and acts of violence that never lead to fair and necessary sanctions. It is also worth highlighting the controversial role of the IGPN, the French police disciplinary body. So long as there is no authentically independent agency to enforce the law within the police, nothing will change.
Is there such a thing as institutional racism in the United States and in France?
In the United States, the movement to leave the racist system of the South was much slower up until 1965. This paradoxically corresponds to the final moments of decolonization in France following the end of the Algerian War in 1962. But the French situation was restricted to the other side of the Mediterranean. After Algeria won its independence, France made it seem as though colonialism was over. The French struggle to recognize what social science researchers have called “mainland colonial practices,” referring to how populations originally from the former colonial empire have been treated. There is a typically French denial of racism, which widens the gap between progressive and conservative camps.
What has inspired Donald Trump’s rhetoric and image as the guardian of “law and order?”
Through his education and political culture, Trump is someone who overplays the paternalist, authoritarian aspects of the 1950s-1960s. He has rehashed the rhetoric of the New Right, a conservative branch of the Republican party that appeared with Nixon, then Regan, in a society shaken by student and African-American protests. That was how Nixon came to be president in 1968 after a year of incredible unrest and political assassinations. In his speeches, Nixon defends the “honest people” who are unable to protest and who want others to respect the law. Trump knows his voters are among the white working and middle classes who are against minority uprisings. Trump also has no desire to change anything within the police. He has always pandered to the unions and the officers themselves. “I’ve got your back,” he tells them. They are part of his clientele, just like firearm owners and the armed forces. Even though he is obliged to say that the footage of George Floyd’s death is unbearable, he has nothing to offer. We saw the same thing after the 2018 Parkland massacre in Florida [a high school shooting in which 17 people died]. He spoke out, but had nothing to say. He cannot go against his base, nor question firearm legislation. His strategy is to protect the same political agenda and discourage others from voting.
What is your analysis of the symbolic acts of protestors?
The act of taking a knee is a revival of ancient penance practices. This has already been observed in abolitionist literature. It comes from the penance inherent to the Baptist faith, that of Martin Luther King, who kneeled in Selma, Alabama, to pray in 1965. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel in 2016 to protest against police violence in a respectful, dignified way during the national anthem. The flag and the national anthem are sacred in the United States and his actions sparked a widespread scandal that put an end to his professional sports career. It is ironic that Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck; I don’t know whether this act would have been chosen as a form of protest had he not done it. George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” are reminiscent of those of Eric Garner, who was filmed being arrested for selling unlicensed cigarettes in Staten Island in 2014. Several police officers were involved, and one of them strangled him to death. The officers were dismissed but not prosecuted. This cry for help has become a slogan against suffocating injustice.
As a French academic and a white man, how do you view your own position of authority?
With great modesty. I try to use my marginal, peripheral position in the academic field to offer a different perspective, just like our American colleagues when they observe France. With regards to racial issues, historian and colonization specialist Pascal Blanchard once said: “There are some things we will never understand.” We have to listen and take the emotional aspect into account. We struggle to understand the extreme violence of the footage of George Floyd’s death as seen by a person of color who has been the victim of racism. As researchers, we have to report on the full dimension and complexity of what is happening.
Interview published in the July 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.