Jail time

My first real encounter with injustice was when my drug dealer went to jail. Up until that point I’d led a pretty sheltered life. I grew up in a well-educated, middle-class family in the Midwest in a small town with little diversity. I went to college in the not far from home where I was surrounded mainly by more of the same.  This was the 90s, before the Internet enabled the viral spread of social justice movements or even the simple ability to have a window into other people’s lives.

I met Lamir the year I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, a post card-worthy French city where the layers of time are displayed like a museum exhibit. Roman ruins leap out from hidden corners of the city as you navigate the maze of streets that date from the Middle Ages. Architectural students flock to the Renaissance-era churches, and the entire town turns out on Sundays to promenade along the Cours Mirabeau, the wide boulevard lined with elaborate mansions from the 19th century.

Lamir lived down the street from the drafty apartment I rented with three other American students.  Before us it has inhabited by another group of American students, and another group before them.  This meant steady business for Lamir, who was smart enough to know that young Americans are generally flush with cash and recklessness. When he rang our doorbell the day after we moved in, he was drumming up business. Over time, though, I like to think that he grew to genuinely enjoy our company.

Lamir sold hash, which was easier to buy in France than marijuana. He was a fellow student at the university, loved American music, and was endlessly patient with our terrible French.  Looking back I realize that for him the early days of hanging out at our apartment must have been like conversing with a bunch of philosophical toddlers.  He kept coming, though, and became a regular at our dinner table where there was a steady supply of cheap wine and a rotating cast of international students.

He was generous with invitations to go out with him and his friends and I was adventurous enough to accept them; over time we became friends. A lot of the French I learned that year was thanks to spending time with him and his friends, and to studying the lyrics of the hard-core French rap CDs he lent me (though most of that vocabulary was useful only for getting into bar fights).

Lamir was Algerian, part of a large group of North African immigrants and children of immigrants who live in France. “Maghrébins” are what the French call those from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Many use words that are far less polite.  In France, the North Africans generally enjoy second-class citizenship. They live in largely segregated communities and are seen as either a threat to French jobs or a drain on the country’s welfare programs (sound familiar?).

As I learned more about the racial tensions that exist in France, I slowly began to understand why Lamir never came for dinner if we were having other “true” French people, and why some of those people bristled if they saw me greet him with “les bises”, the alternating cheek kisses used as greeting.

Still, I was naïve enough to think that none of this truly impacted Lamir, whom I saw as a smart, funny, upwardly mobile guy who sold a little hash on the side to pay for his books at university. 

Then one day he disappeared.

I didn’t notice at first. After a week passed without him stopping by for dinner, though, I began to wonder. His cell phone went straight to a pleasant recorded French voice telling me the number was disconnected.  I went by his apartment and rang the buzzer and his roommate Thomas answered through the intercom. When I told him I was looking for Lamir there was a long silence. Finally the door buzzed open.

I was out of breath by the time I climbed the four flights to their apartment. Thomas started talking rapidly as soon as he opened the door.  The only words I caught were some particularly nasty ones I knew from French rap songs, followed by “les flics”, slang for police.  Then I saw Lamir. His skin was the same sallow grey color as the couch from which he tried to rise to greet me before clutching his ribs and sinking back down.  His normally bulky frame had shrunk and his clothes fit him like a kid playing dress up in his dad’s clothes.  A bruise on the side of his face was starting to fade to green.

“What’s up, beautiful?” he said in French, smiling. “Long time no see.”

He was nursing a cracked rib so Thomas told the story.  A week before Lamir had been hanging around one of the town squares with three other guys, all with hash they were hoping to unload that night. The police showed up and hauled them all off to the station.  After an hour or so they let the other three guys go with a warning, but locked up Lamir. The other three were white. 

He’d been released the night before, which meant they’d kept him nearly a week. He paid a hefty fine and agreed to be on probation for a period of time. The upside was that he didn’t go straight to prison.

I asked him about the bruises and the cracked rib but he lit a cigarette and waved me off. 

“C’est fait,” he said.  It’s done.

They both watched me with tired faces while I strung together some sentences about getting a lawyer and filing a complaint.

“Chérie,” Lamir finally said, “Ça ne va pas comme ça pour moi.”  It doesn’t work that way for me.

Lamir’s run-in with the police happened at the tail end of my time in France. We never discussed it again, though we still met regularly at the neighborhood bar or at his apartment to listen to music.  I regret this. I missed the opportunity to learn more about his experience growing up as an outsider in his own country.

I thought of him during the 2005 Paris riots, when tensions between the police and the residents of a mainly North African suburb erupted into a three-week state of emergency. And in 2015 after the attack on the Bataclan nightclub, when we learned that many of the terrorists were French and Belgian citizens of North African descent who lived in similar, disenfranchised suburbs. And again in 2017 when police brutality against a legal immigrant again led to riots in Paris. 

I wonder how he feels about these happenings, and I wonder what happened to him. Our friendship existed in the days before email and social media made it easy to keep in touch.  Maybe he graduated and went on to a middle class job and a comfortable life. Or maybe he, too, lives in a “banlieue” outside Paris or Marseille, filled with concrete apartment buildings and people who feel cut off from the opportunities of the country they or their parents fought to be part of.

What I do know is that Lamir’s story was a harbinger of things to come, in France and in my own country.  It was an indication of the low boil that race and immigration relations were reaching, and of how fear can drive those in power to seek to maintain that power at all costs.  My eyes are open to this now. I am able to see the teachers who appear in my life, like Lamir did all those years ago. I get it now; my job is not to impose my privilege and indignation on the situation by attempting to solve it. Rather, I need to listen, learn, repeatedly for a long time. Only then can I offer help.

France rejected nationalism in its last election, though it was the first time that the anti-immigrant National Front party made it to the runoff.  This gives me hope for the nation that holds a special place in my heart. I only hope it’s not too late for my own country.