In May, the videotaped death of George Floyd, who was held on the ground by police and gasped for breath, “I can’t breathe” was watched with horror and disgust by millions of people around the world. Assa Traoré, one of TIME’s 2020 Guardians, couldn’t bring herself to join them. Her younger brother Adama also died in police custody in 2016 and is said to have uttered the same dying words. “When you imagine the same thing happened,” says Traoré, “it was impossible to watch the final seconds of George Floyd’s life.”
Floyd’s words became Traoré’s rally. On May 29, when the video of Floyd’s murder went viral, French authorities released a report clarifying the three officers involved in Adama’s misconduct death. Traoré’s group, Truth for Adama Committee, announced a mass protest despite France just emerging from a two-month coronavirus lockdown. The next day, tens of thousands of people flocked to the streets and banners showed the faces of Floyd and Adama side by side.
After years of campaigning for justice in her brother’s death, Traoré believes that there is now a far broader movement regarding police violence. “All the French were there on the street,” says the 35-year-old, sitting in her living room on the eastern edge of Paris. “The Adama generation is on the street speaking out against police brutality and racial discrimination.”
Adama was arrested in July 2016 after trying to escape the police while they were looking for one of his brothers. Unlike Floyd’s case, his death was not documented on film. The official autopsy revealed that he had died of heart failure, but two medical reports commissioned by the Traoré family indicated rough treatment and found he had suffocated by the police who subjected him. The French police rejected this conclusion, but the truth-finding campaign continues. On December 1, a Paris court knocked down one of the official reports backing the police version after Traores’ attorney pointed out procedural deficiencies. A new report from Belgian medical experts is expected in January.
Traoré says Adama’s death destroyed her Malian-French family, particularly the 16 surviving siblings. “We didn’t even have time to cry. I swore then and there that my brother’s death would not be a trivial matter, ”says Traoré, who gave up her job as a special needs teacher to become a full-time activist. “We wanted to fight.”
Photo by Kenny Germé – Total Management
Just like this year has brought a record of race in the US, including France, where young Arab and black men are 20 times more likely than white men to be stopped by the police. As the protests gained momentum, Traoré has become the most visible leader of the Movement Against Racial Injustice, a constant presence at marches, with a fist in protest. “She plays with the images of the United States in the 1960s,” says Paris civil rights attorney Slim Ben Achour. “She’s an icon, no doubt about it, the focus of attention from people who can’t speak.”
Traoré says that for many blacks in France, the reality is drastically at odds with the public image of the country, a nation that values the concepts behind its motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité”. These words “freedom, equality, fraternity” seem hollow to many, she says. “If we pull back the curtains, terrible things will happen.” Tightening this up is an official equality policy that bans the collection of racial-based data, which many believe systemic racism has gone unreported and unexplored.
The same day TIME visited Traoré, a surveillance camera video posted on social media showed police officers beating a black music producer in Paris in his studio. The outrage was instantaneous, compounded by anger over legislative proposals designed to limit the ability to post pictures of police officers in action. On November 26, the French Minister of the Interior ordered the officials to be suspended. Two days later, around 40,000 people protested in Paris, with Traoré on the front line.
Traoré forged a broad movement out of an intimate tragedy and is now faced with a choice of how to try to harness the mass anger. For some allies, one path seems clear: a political career and perhaps a run for the French parliament. “I always try to convince her,” says Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, a left-wing academic who co-authored a book with her about Adama and police tactics last year. “She would be a great politician. She has a kind of ability to submit the institution to her will. “
Assa Traoré continues to hesitate. Your campaign has “a power that [politicians] I don’t have it, ”she says. “This is the power to take to the streets.” She still mourns her young brother and says grassroots activism will remain her role for the time being. Since Adama’s death, she has met with activists across France and assembled a protest movement centered around the loss of her family. “We have to survive this fight,” she says. “Then we’ll see what will happen.” – With coverage by Ciara Nugent / London
This article is part of the TIME edition “Person of the Year 2020”. Read more and subscribe to the Inside TIME newsletter to be one of the first to see our cover every week.
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