Sarra Tekola is a 23-year-old climate activist and University of Washington graduate who lives in Seattle. If you've ever attended a protest against oil trains or a Black Lives Matter march, you've probably seen her near the microphone. That's because Tekola's personal history links issues of climate, immigration, and racial justice intimately: Her father immigrated from Ethiopia to Seattle to escape drought.
Tekola is now at the Paris climate talks to represent climate justice organization Got Green (part of the It Takes Roots delegation), and was invited to speak on a panel on Tuesday with some of the highest profile figures at the conference, including China's lead climate negotiator and the president of Iceland. Later that day, Tekola was watching two breakdancers near some of the conference activities. She ended up talking to them about her delegation and their own stories. Both were immigrants from North Africa.
Here's how Tekola described what happened next:
We were sitting by the Seine and talking. And [then] three white guys surrounded us who looked like they were about to jump us, and a guy opened up his jacket and he had an undercover police badge, and he started searching them. I wasn't really sure what was going on and then they came over to me to search me, and [the breakdancers] started telling them I was American. They asked if I spoke French, and I said no, and then they left. I asked [the breakdancers] what happened and they said when there's a lot of Africans together it attracts attention from police. They also said this time they were nice because other times they were stopped and hauled off to jail.
Tekola says a similar incident of profiling occurred with police the following morning, when she and other members of the It Takes Roots delegation, which is made up of climate activists of color, protested an immigration detention center. “When we got to the migration detention center, police blocked us off,” she said. However, Tekola said police behavior changed when they discovered the nationalities of the protesters. "They were nicer to us when they found out we were American. They brought out riot cops, but when they found out we were American, they let us have our protest, but we were surrounded by them.”
She added: "It's hard to know how the police are going to act in any one moment, especially because we are a delegation of people of color. But when they find out we're American and not African, their behavior changes, and that's disgusting.”
In 2009, a major study conducted by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the French National Center for Scientific Research found that Parisians perceived to be of Arab origin were 7.5 times more likely to be stopped by Parisian police than whites, and black Parisians were six times more likely to be stopped. And just this past summer, 13 French citizens won a landmark racial profiling case in France's highest appeals court: The plaintiffs, all of whom were black or of Arab origin, won damages from the state because of the number of times they had been stopped and frisked by police. None had criminal records.
What's going on in France right now mirrors much of the racial and social tensions in the United States. In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, the country is also witnessing a renewed wave of open racism and xenophobia against French Muslims. The National Front, France's far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, recently cleaned up in regional elections with talking points not too dissimilar from Donald Trump's. Le Pen may be even more extreme. In August, Le Pen called for a total shutdown of immigration to France—legal immigration included. Then, in November, Le Pen exploited more fears against Muslims. Claiming that the French people were not safe, Le Pen advocated ejecting "foreigners" who "preach hate" in France, shutting down "radical" mosques, and banning "Islamist" organizations.
November's terrorist attacks have also made a large impact on the climate talks themselves. Major protests planned around the climate talks were canceled because of the state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the attacks. Nevertheless, thousands showed up at the Place de la Republique to form a human chain along the march route, and some clashed with police. Police in riot gear released tear gas into the crowd and arrested 200. Just yesterday, 10 more activists were arrested inside the Louvre for protesting an exhibit sponsored by the oil industry.
Activists are still planning to defy a ban on demonstrations at the end of the conference. Draft negotiations have not yet worked out whether to attempt to limit global warming to a rise of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius this century, a level of warming that several countries already consider catastrophic.
Smaller demonstrations are also planned for the days ahead as well. Earlier today, Tekola, environmental justice leader Robert Bullard, and delegations from the NAACP and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), hosted a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the conference's "green" zone. ("Green zone" is the name given to the all-access civil society space within Le Bourget, the airport-turned-meeting spaces where the climate talks are taking place.) Protesters wore masks and chanted, "We can't breathe."