Show Me Your Papers (Or Die Trying): A French Perspective on Racial Profiling

Written by NYPress on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive, Uncategorized.


As debates surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision to amend ’s law rage on, immigrant communities around the country have expressed concern that the “show me your paper” provision will lead to racial profiling. Meanwhile, defenders of the law, including Arizona Gov. , have argued that policemen are trained not to profile people based on race.

This strange claim raises an important question: How can a law, that is in essence made to target immigrants only, avoid racial profiling?

The answer is quite simple: It can’t. It only takes a little common sense to see that the only ones who will be targeted by those ‘random’ ID checks will be people of color. A white man wearing jeans and who speaks without an accent is much, much less likely to have his legal status randomly checked by the than, say, his Latino-looking counterpart.

I honestly doubt that people who are in favor of this law will ever seriously argue that this is not the case. However, there are other ways to justify this seemingly discriminative provision. And indeed, this is where we must dive into the real question: Is racial profiling really that bad?

Defenders of the law will say that there is nothing outrageous about it: is just a normal procedure to verify the legal status of suspicious people. If your papers are in order, you have nothing to worry about! And if they aren’t, well, you shouldn’t have been here in the first place.

This justification seems a little borderline to me. Remember that the good ol’ “If you’ve done nothing wrong then what’s the problem?” was once the cornerstone on which fascism was built. You know, having the Stasi secretly listening in on your phone conversations is fine, they are just laying down the law. That kind of stuff. But there needs to be a limit to the state’s ability to intrude in our personal lives. Otherwise, we may just be headed towards an Orwellian disaster.

Predictions of apocalypse aside, let us consider the argument. The law is just because even if it discriminates, the people who are affected are criminals in the first place. Well that’s not entirely true. Even assuming that illegal immigrants deserve to be found out, jailed and exported back to their country of origin, can we really say that this law won’t affect those other immigrants, those who are here legally?

The answer is: not really (yeah I know, spoiler.) Setting people apart because of their color is basic discrimination, even if you don’t arrest them. Racial profiling is a real issue, one that poses a direct threat to one of the most basic fabrics of well-functioning societies: .

I think I owe it to all those skeptics out there to explain my reasoning. Since my reasoning is based on experience, I think it relevant to share those experiences with you. And what better place to experience racial profiling than in our favorite European country? I am referring of course to the cradle of multiculturalism and diversity, our beloved République Française.

You see, is one of the rare developed countries in the world that upholds a law similar to the ‘Show Me Your Papers’ provision. A police officer is authorized to verify the identity of any person, at any time, without any justification. If said person doesn’t carry their papers, the policeman / woman can take him into custody to verify identity and legal status, and to hold that person for up to 4 hours.

I have personally witnessed several of those so-called controles d’identité. Several conditions are required for such a procedure to take place, conditions which I will now attempt to recreate in the midst of my narrative delirium. Here we go.

First, there needs to be a group of young people. Second, one or more of them has to be Arab, or Black, or some kind of minority. Third, you get a bonus if the group is doing something “suspicious”, like sitting on a bench, for example (damn kids!) But, don’t worry, if being suspicious isn’t your thing, you can also just walk down the street. Remember, you just need to make sure that you are with someone who remotely looks like an immigrant, or (even better!), be one yourself, and you’ll be fine. Moving on.

So you’re sitting on your bench, waiting for a friend, or checking out girls, or feeding the birds, or… (Seriously, what do people do on benches?) Then, as you look around, you realize that you are completely surrounded by three to eight (yes, eight) police officers, usually on bikes (sneaky bastards.) Now the fun can begin.

So the cops form a circle around you and menacingly ask for your ID. I feel that I should emphasize the “menacing” part here. In my own experience at least, I have very rarely met polite and amiable cops, especially when I was with friends of color. Well, maybe in Germany. But ok, so they want to see your papers, up until now nothing too shabby.

In an awesome effort to offer the most complete experience possible, I have devised three (you may clap in awe) different scenarios, that each take into account two variables: Availability of identification documents, and skin color.

First possibility. You don’t have your papers, but you’re white. That usually means you can leave. Unless you seem to associate with potential immigrants. Ok, I was just testing you there, as you will remember that the police would have never approached you in the first place if it wasn’t for your slightly over-tan friends.

Second possibility. You don’t have your papers, and you’re not white either. Free trip to the police station! They take you there, search you from head to toes, sit you down in a cell for 4 hours (always at least 4 hours, sometimes more), don’t give you any food or water, and occasionally insult you or hit you, depending on your reaction to all this. Once they find out that you are a French citizen who just happened not to carry his passport around, they reluctantly let you go. Unless you’re a minor, in which case they will have the pleasure of calling your parents at 3AM so that they can come pick you up.

Ok, now for the third possibility, which is really the one that is of interest to us. You’re not white, but you do have your papers! How lucky is that? Surely they’ll let you go now. Well, not really. In fact, checking your ID is often only the beginning. Then follows the search. Empty your pockets, take off your shoes, let my slightly overweight colleague grab your testicles with his scruffy hands (this actually happened to me.) If you’re lucky, you may even get a private tour of our van for a good’ ole strip search.

All the while, you are of course submitted to intense psychological pressure, with the “good cop” telling you that you’d better give them everything you have and they’ll let you go, while the other grumbles that if he finds anything you’ll spend the rest of your life locked up with a bunch of rats in some kind of medieval torture dungeon. Scary stuff, especially for a 13 year old (my first controle d’identité!)

Now, searches are extremely common during those “routine ID checks”, especially when the conditions are fulfilled (you know, young, foreign-looking, sitting on a bench…) There seems to be this implicit assumption that anyone under 30 carries at least a few grams of pot with them at all times, or maybe a deadly weapon, or an extinct breed of slow loris perhaps.

Well, ok, let’s say they don’t find any of these things, either because you are Houdini’s nephew, or that you actually are innocent (yeah, right.) In theory, that’s when they let you go. In theory. However, if it so happens that they don’t like your face, or think that you gave them too much attitude while the fat one had his hand down your pants, there is always a way to bring you in.

A friend of mine once got arrested (and spent 12 hours at the station) because he was “drunk.” He had had one beer, was neither driving nor aggressive (although understandably slightly pissed off,) and when they later made him blow in the balloon, it turned out he had a little under 0.2g in his blood (the legal limit is 0.5.) Oh, and he was also Lebanese. Of course, in this situation, there is nothing you can do. The more you protest, the more they’ll want to bring you in. And good luck trying to get their name and badge number and filing an official complain. Seriously, you’ll need it.

Ok, enough of the traumatizing French experience. I think you get it. But in case you don’t, or you didn’t bother to read, here are a few conclusions to be drawn:

1. “Random” ID checks and searches always target the same demographic, i.e. people of color.

2. The consequences of these repeated humiliations on new generations of immigrants are multiple and not very positive. Most importantly, the trust between the community and the police, if there ever was any, has suffered a severe blow. In fact, a large majority of French youngsters literally hate the cops. Like, really despise them. This of course leads to a vicious cycle, whereby cops feel hated and insulted everywhere they go, and in turn start hating right back, which only makes things worse, etc. I personally tend to feel less safe when I see a police patrol, even if I have done nothing wrong.

3. Perhaps even more distressing is the consequence of this policy on the general immigrant community, and on their relationship with the rest of the French population. Growing feelings of segregation and discrimination have laid the groundwork for the emergence of an “us versus them” mentality between immigrants and the rest. Being constantly hunted down by the police, and seeing that same police indulging the white kid, you may not feel very welcome. Quite the opposite in fact.

For me, the bottom line is this: Most people don’t really seem to know how absolutely degrading and annoying it is to get searched by the police on a regular basis. Not only does it make you miss out on, you know, your life and plans (“oh, so you have the concert of your life tonight? In that case we’ll let you go… lol”) It also puts you in a mental state where you constantly feel like you have to justify yourself. Like you are constantly being hunted down, and on the run. Even if your only crime is to have been born in another country.

The bottom line is that nobody really wants to go through a police , wether guilty or innocent. It is a humiliating and degrading process during which you are completely powerless and at the mercy of the uniforms. Besides, there is very little control on the individual actions of police officers on duty.

Here’s an experiment for you: Do you best to get stopped by the cops, and when they ask for your ID, ask them to see a badge, or anything that proves that they actually are police officers (a defying and insolent tone works best.) Then close your eyes and count how many second it takes for that stick to hit you on the head.

Now of course I am not saying that all cops are racist redneck bastards who should have no authority but to give parking tickets. Far from it. Police officers are providing an essential service to society and deserve to be valued as such. What I am saying is that policies such as the ‘Show me your Papers’ provision, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, are bound to completely destroy any kind of progress made in the fields of “integration” and ‘tolerance,” and eventually dismantle any kind of trust that could have been fostered between police officers and immigrant communities. Laws such as this are an open invitation to discrimination, simply because they essentially demand from the police that they profile people based on their race. Racial profiling is real. And such laws are tailor-made to encourage it.

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