Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News
“Ten years for nothing.” “Dead for nothing.” These statements were the most common hashtags used on social media Monday, May 18 in reaction to the French Court of Rennes’ decision to acquit two police officers who had been accused of causing the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, two teenagers from the commune of Clichy-Sous-Bois in 2005.
The teens were electrocuted as they sought refuge in a power substation after being chased by the police. After the deaths, weeks of rioting occurred in Clichy Sous Bois and spread across the country, to protest police violence and the social and economic conditions in many suburbs. While much attention has been focused on police brutality in the United States in the past months, this case highlights the reality of the issue in France.
Clichy-Sous-Bois is a commune housing 30,000 inhabitants and is located in a suburb of Paris in the district of Seine-Saint-Denis. This commune is isolated because of a deficiency of public transportation to the capital and neighboring cities. According to national statistics, Clichy-sous-Bois has the most precarious population of the district, with an unemployment rate of approximately 23.5 percent, a prevalence of housing projects and more than 22 percent of its population reliant on the RSA, a French social benefits grant.
Benna, 17, and Traore, 15, grew up in this environment. During the court hearing, the family and neighbors remembered these boys as “kind” and “helpful.” The results of the official investigation, released on a French news website, revealed that in the late afternoon of Oct. 27, 2005, Benna and Traore finished a football game with friends and, along with a third teenager, Muhittin Altun, started walking home to break the Ramadan fast with their families.
On the way home, the boys stopped to rest for a few minutes at a construction site. A local resident, not knowing them, called the police and reported some “suspicious silhouettes.”
Although no infraction occurred, the police arrived a few minutes later and the boys ran when they heard the siren. The chase that ensued ended with the three boys hiding in a power substation. Benna and Traore were electrocuted. Altun survived the shock but was severely injured. When asked in a TV interview why the boys ran if they did nothing wrong, the older brother of Traore answered, “It’s the reflex of fear.”
The two police officers, Sebastien Gaillemin and Stephanie Klein, were prosecuted by the families of the two victims for “non-assistance to persons in danger,” claiming that they left the site knowing that the boys were in danger. But the defense claimed that the police officers were not aware of the boys’ location and thus were not responsible for their deaths. However, in a conversation recorded between the two officers on the day of the incident, one of the officers declared while leaving, “If they entered the site, I wouldn’t pay much for their skins.”
The French Court of Rennes decided in favor of the police officers and cleared them of any charges. For the family lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, this decision reflects a “legal apartheid” because “the words of two white police officers have prevailed over all considerations.” After the verdict was announced, hundreds of people gathered in 10 cities and displayed placards that read, “No Justice. No Peace.”