From The Daily: On documenting police officers

Monday, December 7, 2020 - 12:20pm

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Tens of thousands marched this past week in Paris to protest a proposed security bill containing the controversial Article 24, which would prohibit the public from publishing identifying images and videos of French police with the intent to harm their “physical or psychological integrity.” Protests against the bill have gained renewed energy after recent footage surfaced showing four white policemen beating music producer Michel Zecler, a Black man, outside of his Paris studio. The French government has since decided to rewrite the bill in response to the backlash and plans to submit a new version. 

Worldwide efforts to curb the freedom of the press and freedom of information are not new, but they are shameful. This limit on freedoms is harmful to everyone, but demonstrates a continuation of disproportionate harmful legislation towards marginalized communities. The ability to share videos of police brutality have aided in bringing attention to violence against Black individuals in the United States, especially this past summer

Widespread protests and movements have gained support from the sharing of these images and videos. Limiting the abilities to publish images of instances of police brutality can cause a major setback for those harmed by the police and seeking justice. The freedom of the press and freedom to share this information is critical.

Police officers have immense power as agents of the state and a plethora of tools at their disposal to enforce the law in the ways they see fit. Governments provide them with weapons, vehicles and cutting-edge surveillance technology to monitor public — and some private — spaces, all funded by taxpayers. They already have specific laws to protect them from violence and many others to protect their use of force. And, often, they use this power against the innocent. They have beat unarmed citizens, launched tear gas at peaceful protestors and ignored laws they know won’t be enforced against them. The only defense people have against police brutality is to record the situation and spread word of these injustices. The French government, specifically, has strengthened and defended their police forces’ brutality. While President Emmanuel Macron has apologized for police brutality in the past, that is as far as his administration has gone to protect Black citizens. 

This law represents another instance of governments favoring police forces over people. Macron has, on three occasions this year, urged the government to pass a bill that would improve the public’s support for police. Whenever the police have concerns, governments are quick to address it, but there is never any concrete bill to protect victims of police brutality or journalists threatened by aggressive cops or bystanders trying to hold police accountable the only way they are allowed.

Though this bill can be seen as a protection of police against public damage to their image, we see how this in turn harms other communities. The French government has been criticized multiple times this year for its response to instances of police brutality. No legislation, however, has been passed in order to help repair systemic racism and injustices in the legal system in France. After Article 24 received immense scrutiny, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that he will form an independent commission in order to redraft this specific bill. No specifics have been provided as to what will be rewritten in the bill. 

The recent Black Lives Matter movement has become a global issue after the widespread sharing of videos of police brutality and injustices towards Black people. In France, this effort has been spearheaded by activists like Assa Traoré, who believes that acknowledging race is the first step to acknowledging racial discrimination. The French government is notorious for its “color-blind” attitude, not compiling any official statistics based on race, ethnicity or faith and operating under a commitment to universalism that avoids acknowledging France’s colonialist history. 

This attitude has proved problematic for effectively responding to instances of police brutality as well as racial inequities illuminated by COVID-19. As Traoré puts it, “contrary to the U.S., where the racial cause is very clear, in France people say that ‘no, no, there’s no racism’ — in France, it’s all the ‘social cause.’” 

The Michigan Daily Editorial Board has previously highlighted the power of protesting both in the U.S. and in France. We learn the same lesson here — the decision to rewrite Article 24 is only because of protests — but there’s another key takeaway: Freedom of information is crucial to acknowledging and addressing injustice. 

Effective solutions cannot happen without knowing the full extent of the problem. People cannot hold each other accountable without being able to document each other’s actions, which is something we, as members of a news organization, know well. So the next time you are made aware of wrongdoing, don’t look away.


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