The Forgotten History of Violence Behind Globalized Unrest
Houssem Ben Lazreg, Amira Hassnaoui 29 June 2020

The Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements, Women’s March, and protests in Hong Kong, Chile, France, Beirut, Baghdad, and Barcelona constitute the zeitgeist of the previous decade. In recent years, the depth and variety of global social movements that are committed to issues of social justice and new democratic politics have exploded and transcended national borders, races, ethnicities, and genders. Some are familiar with the butterfly effect: the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil may cause a tornado in Texas. The butterfly effect is a metaphor to show that the seemingly disconnected are connected, and that the small can create the large. “Butterfly politics” is defined by Catharine Mackinon, activist, author, and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, who states that “the right small human intervention in an unstable political system can sooner or later have large complex reverberations”.

One should just reflect upon the remarkable influence that the protests in Tahrir Square had on the Occupy Wall Street Movement in terms of rhetoric and mobilization tactics. “Bread, freedom and social justice,” (Aīsh, huriyya, ‘adāla igtimā‘iyya in Arabic) rang throughout Cairo and echoed months later in New York. Also, consider the thousands of people who protested and are still protesting in London, Berlin, several cities in New Zealand, Paris, Tunis, Rio de Janeiro, and around the world in solidarity with the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. This tragic incident constitutes an incontrovertible evidence of not only deliberate disregard for black life, but also of the ongoing failure of political institutions to solve the problem of racist police violence. As a result, clashes broke out in several American cities and police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the angry crowds.

On the performative level, Lebanese activists compiled a guide to share with American protestors. Information includes advice and tips on what to do in the event of a media blackout, filming police abuse, how to stay safe online while sharing material, and notably what to do if one is hit with tear gas or pepper spray. In a similar vein, some Hong Kongese cyber dissidents shared protest tips amid the U.S. protests. For instance, information included techniques on how to move during protests, what anti-tear gas fluids to bring, and what to do in case one is arrested.

The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and globally has reminded the world that communities are suffering constant anti-black racism. Structural racism and white privilege are rooted in white supremacy and imperialism. In her book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Y. Davis explains that “if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.” Therefore, it is important to revisit the political history behind slavery across the Americas and Europe in order to understand how the legacy of systematic racism has been perpetuated and has persisted throughout centuries.


Protests in France

Questions over the death of a delivery driver named Cedric Chouviat have recently come to the fore and re-ignited debates about police brutality and accountability. Cedric was pinned to the ground and reportedly cried several times “I’m suffocating”. This case bears some resemblance to the case of George Floyd. As he was dying, the latter repeated the words, “I can’t breathe.” Since Floyd’s killing, France has witnessed demonstrations and clashes with police. Protesters have been also chanting another name: Adama Traore. Adama Traore was celebrating his 24th birthday on July 19, 2016, when three police officers restrained him using the weight of their bodies. By the time he was delivered to a police station, he was unconscious and dead. Like Floyd, Traore was black, and his murder sparked off huge protests in France, where the police’s record of brutality and racism remains unaddressed.

The list of violent and sometimes fatal interactions between police forces and youth in France is long. “L’Affaire Theo” comes after the death of Adama Traore in July 2016. Theo was arrested and beaten and then violated by a police baton. Several waves of riots — signs of France’s malaise and the plight of marginalized communities — unfolded in the wake of these tragic incidents, thus highlighting the long simmering anger at systemic police violence and racism in France. Reports by the Open Society Institute, Human Rights Watch, and France’s Commissioner for Human Rights all condemn the racial profiling conducted upon black and Arab males.

Moreover, sociologist Sébastian Roché adds that police officers are three times more aggressive during checks on non-white individuals. Legal action against police officers remains unusual in France, with the legal system either biased towards them, or complicit in hiding their crimes. According to Christian Mouhanna, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, there is a tendency to forgive almost all police misconduct almost systematically and a priori, on the grounds that their profession is difficult.

All these recent disturbances in France cannot be understood without recalling the nation’s history. It is impossible to discuss systemic police violence and racism in French society without discussing France’s colonial history, especially in Africa, and how it influences how descendants of that colonial history are treated within France. At its height in the 1930s, French colonial possessions encompassed some 60 million subjects, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. In North Africa, the French army resorted to systematic use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Memoirs published by Algerian nationalist Henri Alleg, confessions by the retired French General Paul Aussaresses, and studies by French historian Raphaëlle Branche unleashed harsh condemnation of abuses committed in Algeria. But after their departure in the 1950s and 1960s, the French, according to Professor of European History Robert Aldrich, relegated colonial history and the heritage of colonialism to the backstage of public life. For a generation, the French did not want to reopen the debate on colonialism. However, by the mid-1990s. France was forced to re-examine its colonial past and the legacy it left, notably after the passing of a law in February 2005 mandating the teaching of the “positive role” of colonialism. What unfolded as an episode of “history wars” renewed concerns with colonial history and with collective memories of colonialism. In his book Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire wrote “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization”.


Toppling Statues of Bygone Racists in the United Kingdom and Belgium

A number of monuments with links to colonialism and slavery have either been defaced in Belgium or pulled down in the United Kingdom as protests continue against today’s entrenched racial injustices. In the U.K., while Edward Colston’s statue was dumped into Bristol’s harbor, the statue of Robert Milligan was removed by Tower Hamlet’s city council. Edward Colston helped oversee the transportation of an estimated 84,000 enslaved Africans. Of them, it is believed, around 19,000 died in the stagnant bellies of the company’s slave ships during the infamous Middle Passage from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the New World. This is the man who, for 125 years, had been honored by Bristol. Robert Milligan was born into a slave-owning family on a plantation in Jamaica. He owned two sugar plantations, 526 slaves, and numerous slave shops, accruing vast sums of money off the slave trade before it was abolished in 1807 and 1833. Their statues are salient reminders that the British Empire did not amass its vast wealth through hard work and fair trade, but this was achieved largely through the mass subjugation and enslavement of black people.

In Belgium, the killing of Floyd has rekindled criticisms of Belgium’s own brutal history. The statue of King Leopold II, whose exploitative colonial regime of the Congo left millions of Congolese dead by the end of the 19th century, was defaced in Brussels. Another statue was removed from a public square in Antwerp. It was a striking moment for a country that has struggled, at times, to reckon with one of the most sordid eras in the history of European colonialism. Exhibitions by The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium upheld a delusion that the country had brought “civilization” to the African region. Some have defended Leopold as a foundational figure while streets and parks are named after him. Practically, protesters on both sides of the Ocean are compelling entire national governments to confront their present through a new understanding of their past. In a famous passage in his now classic book, Wretched of the Earth (1961) Frantz Fanon wrote one of his most iconic phrases: “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” It was minerals and resources (diamonds gold, copper, wood, etc.) from several continents, including Africa, that allowed Europe to erect her tower of opulence. Slavery and colonialisms led to the dehumanisation of the populations who suffered its consequences, and its legacy is the entrenchment of racism in institutions and in state apparatuses. As more statues are falling, a new history is being lived and written. As a matter of fact, destroying memorials and statues of slavers and murderous white supremacists does not “erase history”. Instead, dedicating memorials that narrate stories of their tyranny, and the resilience of those who survived it, presents the same history but in a different way by revealing the hidden or invisibilised accounts of oppression.


Protests in Tunisia

On June 6, around 100 people gathered outside the Municipal Theatre in the Tunisian capital Tunis in a show of solidarity with U.S. protests over the tragic murder of George Floyd. This protest was not only a protest in solidarity, but also a reminder of Tunisia’s own context of racism. It is imperative to allude to the distinction between the racial discourses in Tunisia and in the U.S. Although Tunisia, along with other North African countries, have had a long history of the trans-Saharan slave trade, it has not been as frequently discussed as it has been since the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Since the post-independence period, the fundamentalist assimilative project of the Tunisian state headed by Presidents Habib Bourguiba and later Zine Abedine Ben Ali relegated racial, ethnic, and cultural issues to the margins. According to Afifa Ltifi, researcher at Cornell University, their color-blind policies intended “to ingest heterogeneous entities and homogenize the nation.” In her research on stambeli music, Amira Hassnaoui states that Tunisia’s postcolonial era has been characterized by a “modernity” narrative that eventually required a “reorientation of Tunisia towards the West” as pointed out by Waleed Hazbun in his article “Images of Openness, Spaces of Control: The Politics of Tourism Development in Tunisia.”

This ideology of a modern Tunisia continued under ousted President Ben Ali and included the concept of infitah (openness) toward international, mainly Western, global audiences and markets. Ben Ali’s regime aimed to reinvigorate Tunisia’s cultural heritage through tourism development by precisely trying to sell one image of the country that foreign tourists were already familiar with based on preconceived notions and stereotypes of Tunisia, which excluded ethnic minorities, especially black Tunisians.

The protest was originally organized by the two major anti-racism associations in Tunisia: Mnemty, whose president is Tunisian black activist Saadia Mosbah, and The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities. Since their establishment after the Revolution, both associations have organized several workshops, events, and led protests to shed light upon racism in the Tunisian context. The protest was joined by other activists, journalists, and Sub-Saharan Africans who reside in Tunisia. The latter included refugees who encountered racism after escaping the ongoing Libyan conflict and whose statuses have not yet been resolved to this day. Protesters held banners with messages written in three different languages: Arabic, French, and English. These messages included Floyd’s last words before his murder, “I Can’t Breathe” (also written on protestors’ face masks), “No Justice, No Peace” (repeatedly chanted in the U.S protests), “Black Lives Matter” (including the raised fist gesture), and even references to the intersectionality of blackness and queerness, “Queer and Black”. Several degrading terms used to describe black Tunisians, dating prior to the French colonial period, have been reinforced and normalized throughout Tunisian history but are now being contested. In fact, the question of race and the Tunisian identity has become one of the most prominent themes in the country since the Revolution as it is contributing to a greater debate about social class, politics, and education in Tunisia and in the North African region as a whole. It goes without saying that Tunisia is only the second African country, after South Africa, to issue a law criminalizing racial discrimination; it was ratified by the Cabinet on Oct. 9, 2018.

Once the dust of George Floyd’s death had settled, another fatal shooting of another black man called Rayshard Brooks took place in Atlanta. This triggered more unrest and new waves of protests in the city. By reflecting on Gramsci’s statement that “crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”, the realization of racial justice and the undoing of systemic racism shall be a long and painful process for black people.


Houssem Ben Lazreg is a blogger, researcher, and a PhD candidate in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta. His doctoral dissertation examines the role of translation within the social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. He is also a freelance translator/interpreter and an instructor of Arabic and French.

Amira Hassnaoui is a researcher and a PhD candidate in Cultural and Performance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines the commodification of trance-induced ethnic music practices in Tunisia in the post-Revolution context. She also teaches courses on Popular Culture, Arts and Activism, and Colonialism and Resistance.


Photo: Phil Moore / AFP

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