Thursday, 16 January 2014

Tangiers 'Africanos': Racism and violence in Morocco

Tangier's racist realities

For L'Association Marocaine des Droits Humains.

By Miriyam Aouragh (December 2013)

Toussaint Alex, Moussa, Cedric, these are the names of some of the migrants who travelled across Africa to reach the port, the last transit before Europe.Some have been taken back home,after their embassies intervened or the local churches helped raise money in order to fly the bodies homes. 

Who are these generally nameless people from Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Togo, Guinee, Djibouti, Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and even Somalia making it all the way to Morocco?These three names are known about bymore people in Tangier because they are no more, the last thing they saw was the Moroccan police.

They came to Tangier, full of dreams and plans, and like most of their brothers and sisters still here they lived spread across four places in Tanger: Boukhalef, Mesnana, Plasatoro and a smaller number in the old city [medinaqdima] down-town.

As their communities are growing in Morocco, the discourse is changing; and as the political barometer of Morocco is changing, the‘African people’s’ relevance to a language relying on political populism is increasing too.They are mostly and simply referred to as '3wazza' [blacks], the old term used to demarcate black Moroccans. Itself a legacy of a longer history of black-white relations in the Maghreb, as for instance debated and illustrated in a unique issue of the critical history journal Zamanelast year. 

But, bizarrely enough, they are recently referred to as 'Africanos' (as if Moroccans are not Africans) so as to mark the subtle shift from the longer-existing complacent racialization of residents to the recent more complicit racialization. This latter trend has different connotations for the racism it, so effectively, breeds. We have also seen examples in other cities, where for examples ‘Africans’ are bared from renting apartments, this happened in Casablanca as noted by SamiaErrazzoukiin the e-journal Jadaliyya. To fully comprehend this we must not only take a step back into history but also a step deeper into our current transformations, i.e. understand what we see in the context of the bigger need for scapegoats ever since Morocco was shaken in response to the earthquake caused by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The most recent death of Cedric is one of few cases we know of in Tangier, we don't know the full story yet, there are many untold, unreported cases. But the last events in Boukhalef, Tangier, suggests a climax has been reached. When I visited Boukhalef with a friend our inquiries and offers of solidarity openeda can of worms. The situation is boiling,as this is happening in a post 2011 context, where unrest is steaming anyway, its also a recipe for social unrest, in turn perhaps potentially a spark to ignite wider protest. Paradoxically, the approach to these cases of police brutality and cover-ups confirms that 'the movement is dead' mantra is a false one, the fact the regime is afraid of the masses seem to suggest otherwise.And perhaps this perilouscontext is why 'The consul came and told us we should stay calm till the “investigation” is over.' As Salif from Cameroon continued to explain, the many people in Tangier who are living in hardship are not a priority for their own governments, and where their leaders are on good terms with the Moroccan ruling elite they are even discouraging their subjects to take measures. It thus becomes clear why the majority of migrants are cramped into Boukhalef, all the way at the outskirtsnear the airport: it is remote enough to keep their lives and experiences out of sight to the majority of Tanjawa and where police raids that lead to such tragic deaths cause less tremor.Until now. 

We went to see ‘the family’, a reference to the 'sisters and brothers' making up a unit of people organised around (neighboring) country of origin who share a two-bedroom apartment.So there is the Congolese/Senegalese house of Toussaint Alex and the Cameroonian house of Cedric, who we visited later.The Congolese women, men and children were clearly bored, that is because they are not allowed or able to work, go to school nor enjoy much leisure in the city. They mostly sit and watch TV and wait for another opportunity to ‘cross’ to Europe.

Whereas the discussions with Alex’s friends were calm and warm, the discussion in Cedric’s house was restless and was much less restrained. Cedric’s (biological) sister and close friend Michael could barely speak, many others were staring in a far distance. My trivial jokes were answered by half smiles. During the silent moments the pain would cut through our physical boundaries and one could feel a huge emptiness. But Aicha, another flat-mate who would come in and out of the room, was feisty and fearless and in fact full of vengeance for justice. She explained again how demeaning life is, she is extra humiliated because she is one of those who are actually in Morocco with a visa and came in through Casablanca airport and her family sends her money to pay the rent. She asked, pointing at her door ‘What is this crazy behavior of the police, to come here and kick in our door with their feet?’ I asked why they don’t just ring the doorbell, and someone muttered ‘they are animals’. 

Aicha is a proud woman and was absolutely not planning to be diplomatic, unlike several others she doesn’t care to be named in the press either. When we asked whether there are any examples of local solidarity by the Moroccan neighbors she didn’t beat around the bush but gave a sarcastic chuckle that seemed to say ‘don’t make me laugh’ and said ‘they are all the same.’ One cannot blame her for generalizing and the question on our mind should be whether this could this have happened, again and again, if there had been a stronger and more visible network of Moroccan activists concerned with racism and (hence) better local relations with the so-called native Tanjawa. 

Images of Cedric, lying flat on his stomach on the pavement, his head in a pool of blood began to appear on social networking sites earlier last week. Like many we felt this was going to be something else because the incident was followed by a spontaneous protest;as if something had snapped. When we saw the videos taken by those with mobile phone cameras and pads in their small living room yesterday, we understood why. These amateur videos, with its unedited screams and panicking cries and immense grief, convey a visual story of loss and tragedy. It was so closely and instantly filmed you can still see the blood seeping from his ears, probablyfrom internal bleeding after his body crashed from the 4-store flat rooftop. The death of Cedric was the last drop according to Salif.

Hundreds of people came out,instantaneously, the area was about to explode, when everyone gathered around Cedric they decided to march in protest at the killing.Then they did something extraordinary: they chased out the ambulance who wanted to take the body, not only because it was too little too late, but also because they wanted Tangier and the world to see what happened before there would be another cover-up. Aime showed us many of his on-the-spot recordings and those moments were also captured by Tanja 24, although none of the mainstream media showed them. 

The police was nowhere to be found, most probably because they are careless of that they did. But in my view this was also the case because they were afraid of the protests and possible riots. From the people we spoke to who had lost a loved one merely 9 days ago, and from the rough footage we watched again in their cold yet heavily exploited rent-room, it was clear that they were not afraid of the police anymore. 

The police were hated anyway. And so, 'we took the body and marched from his house through Boukhalef, we were awaited by police lines at the roundabout of Mesnana'.Clashes with police lasted for a few hours and they decided to retreat, they were not stupid, they knew their strength was disproportionate to the riot-geared police and that they could not rely on others to come down and join their battle. In other words, they could not continue after that but even until there, it was a huge march, it must have been at least 2 hours (from A to B on map) that they had walked chanted, paused, continued and chanted more until their voices were sore. 

Why were they stopped? Like the universal logic of oppression, it is important to break any potential solidarity, even if people know little about the faith of their black non-Moroccan brothers and sisters, the fact and view of a 19 year old body killed are too reminiscent of the brutality afflicted on other (non-privileged, activist or unlucky) Moroccans. Above anything else, the forces of the makhzan had to prevent this fromcrystalizing with the existing deeper frustration all around Tanger. According to long-time activists much more cuts and privatizations are in the pipe-line. The last thing the regime wants is another wave of protests, especially not in the already agitated north - and as a matter of fact in the country as a whole: which since the emergence of ‘20Feb’ early 2011 hasseen mass protests occurring occasionally.The police prevented them to continue to the medina, downtown Tangier, where they intended to go with Cedric on their shoulders.Several police lines obstructed their rally at a number of points on route but they broke through. Nevertheless, whilst taking turns carrying the body of Cedric –they had ripped out a door from the building and put him on it wrapped in a blanket—they cried ‘‘la police,assassin!’

A very depressing moment was the instant a group of (Moroccan) by-standers started throwing stones at the protesters. Although what has not been mentioned but what I know from anecdotal evidence through discussions with local activists (and confirmed by a Senegalese friend who was there) is that several Moroccan activists had joined the in throwing back stones in defense and to push back the police. Clashes occurred with the police, although some Moroccans joined them, the sentiment most prevalent seemed to be that of Moroccans being whipped-up against these ‘Africanos’. And unsurprisingly,as they were being fed all kinds of rumors and entertained with racist suggestions, some organized their own ‘counter-demo’ a few days later carrying quite schizophrenic message carrying placards claiming they are not racist, yet chanting against Africans. And in a strange addition, they carried photos of the King and chanted jubilations; whether unintended or just a consequence of a PR approach ricocheting, they actually draggeda taboo - the monarchy - into a very negative issue. Using the King as their cover (literally, huge portraits) whilst chanting against African migrants they made a link the makhzan surely rather had not want to make.By kicking to those below them,they are temporarily forgetting their own poverty and humiliation, but being used as pawn that will be chucked as soon as it ceases to be useful is perhaps just as humiliating. 

At least 3 (but possible four) people from Congo, Cameroon and Senegal had been killed by the police in the last few years. These are frightening developments. In fact, Alex had only been in Tangier for 1 week, a 'special welcome' from the police, some said cynically.Perhaps more symbolic is the fact that some are preparing to return to their home-countries now: preferring to return to war, poverty or misery over staying in Morocco. 

A while after our heated discussions some said that there have been some expressions of solidarity, including a (small) group of local Moroccans who joined their protest. They also said that often those who are not from Tangier (Fes, Taza, etc.) understood and supported them. This ties back again to how the domestic racism, or rather the regional chauvinism, is at the base of the sentiments. But it also ties to a much larger political-economic shifts on a transnational level, for what morocco is doing more and more is only completely understood when we bring in the EU. Through complex multi-lateral agreements Morocco receives millions of Euros to do the first world-continents dirty job by preventing or kick back the to-be ‘sans papiers’ about to make the crossing. These dodgy government policies and project also involve practices that suggest corrupt dealings between police officers on the border territories.Some even told us that Algerians and Moroccans work together by sharing the names or numbers of deportations (practically speaking, they get a bonus per head), but for sure the rumors are more than as different voices confirm. 

These symptoms can also be read as potential cracks in the paralyzing organismbased on cultural and racial differentiation, and this is very important because it encourages us to built a stronger anti-racism campaign and raise awareness among Moroccan citizens about the classic divide and rule tactics, it will make a difference. And it is not difficult to built bridges because the police is hated across the board. The African migrants are also getting better organized (African Diaspora started as a new association now and some of the smaller (mostly leftist) groups are making new links with them. It was moving to see them at the annual 10 December protest gathering in defense of human rights in Sahat al Ummam on Boulvard Mohamed V.

To be able to glue these networks to each other making each stronger in connection to the other we must connect police violence against Moroccan 20Feb protesters and unemployed activists and speak out against anti-migrant violence; and when we protest the extreme poverty that migrants live under we must point at Moroccan unemployment and deepening economic crisis. Above all, among the many migrants attempting to fight refuge or economic improvement are Moroccans, and among many nameless bodies on the bottom of the sea are also Moroccans, and among many of those suffering from Islamophobia and the impact of growing right-wingparties are Moroccans. We do not tolerate this against our migrants in Europe and so we will not tolerate this in Morocco against others. I found it easier to create empathy and sow doubt about the state defamations when I remind them of our situation as European migrants from morocco. Many people, especially here in the North of Morocco, have families in Holland, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. 

We thought the situation in the apartments in Boukhalef was bad, but were deeply shocked by the situation of those we met later in the afternoon a mile further, on the back of the University campus. People are living in the open air, hidden under trees and against old side-way buildings.They aresquatting under plastic tents and living on thrown-away food which they prepare and cook on firewood and leaves.

Many people have commented on the recent events online, there is an unsurprising difference in tone and reference among Moroccan who are themselves migrants elsewhere; yes we are understandably angry or shocked or disappointed. But it is important to remember that ‘we’ are not all responsible for we are not all the makhzan, therefore we must not explain all this away with a simple ‘Moroccans are all racist’. Neither should we allow European press people to wash away their own institutional and colonial racism by writing about these recent events making it easier to suggest North Africans in Europe have no legitimate critique anymore. But if we are not taking side than we are complacent and in time complicit, therefore we must all engage on a minimum base, this means arguing with our extended families, the taxi drivers and the occasional liberal commentator, this is how we can play a role to stop the racism and misery.
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