Emma Clare Maxwell
Snow swirled around the crowd of around two thousand gathered in the street between the Place D’Europe and the Lausanne-Flon Metro stations. Our focus was turned to a truck in the centre of the crowd that was draped in banners reading “Justice for Nzoy.” On the back of the truck, a woman was explaining to us once again why we were gathered here, on one of the coldest days of the year, blocking a street in one of Lausanne’s most affluent neighborhoods.
The reason was for Roger Wilhelm, or as he preferred to be called, Nzoy. Nzoy was a black man killed by police in Morges, VD, on August 30th, 2021, while he was in a state of confusion and apparent psychological distress. The original reporting, and the version of the story from the Morges police is simple: a tip was called in about a potentially dangerous individual, when they arrived Nzoy threatened them, and they reacted defensively. However eyewitnesses and video footage showed another story. A man who was clearly upset, but not violent, was praying in the station. He became much more agitated after four police officers arrived, and this situation escalated. The police claimed he was armed with a knife, while other eyewitnesses said he had a rock. Instead of incapacitating him, instead of using non-lethal force, the police drew their guns and shot three times. As Nzoy lied motionless on the pavement, they handcuffed him. It was not until four minutes later, when a passerby with medical training saw what was happening, that anyone attempted to give him medical attention or call an ambulance. But it was too late, Nzoy bled to death on the side of the tracks. As details of the shooting came out, his family told reporters “S’il était blanc, il serait encore en vie.” Considering that Nzoy is the fourth black man to be killed by police or die in suspicious circumstances under police custody in Vaud in the past five years, his family has a point.
The young woman on the back of the truck continued by reading a letter from Nzoy’s older sister, Evelyn. She recounted memories of Nzoy’s birth in Zurich in 1984, and his love for his community there, especially as a member of the Reformed Streetchurch and an active participant in the local music scene. But intertwined with the happier memories of a Zurcher childhood, was the understanding that Nzoy, as a black man with a Swiss father and a South African Mother, had always been made to feel he didn’t truly belong in Switzerland. As the letter explained, Nzoy always kept his Swiss passport in his pocket, easier to access, as he was frequently stopped and asked for ID by police or security guards. The passport should have signified that he belonged in Switzerland, and that he enjoyed the protections of any Swiss citizen. It was not protection enough.
For seven months, Nzoy’s sister and the rest of their family have been looking for some kind of justice. However they found frustration at every turn, at obscure court processes that have excluded the family from participation, to a media that was all too happy to publish the official police version of events, even as other evidence came forward, to the fact that the officer who fired the fatal shots is still active on the streets. The protest in Lausanne was the largest of a wave of actions across Switzerland last week to demand justice, and to offer a few visions of what that justice could look like.
One vision of what justice could look like is straightforward. A theme on many signs and in many speeches throughout the protest was the need for transparency from the officials in Vaud and in Morges. A fair trial, independent investigations, the need to reform public safety organisations. It’s an optimistic view about the capacity of public institutions to realise and correct themselves when they have fallen short of offering the safety, and the equality that they promise. Even so, it’s clear that protest plays an essential role in this process, of telling the powers what they got wrong and demanding that they make reparation. Nzoy was a Swiss citizen, and his fellow citizens came to the streets on his behalf.
However the hope that either the police or the courts system would live up to the calling to ensure justice was not the majority position during that march. As we carried on through the streets of Lausanne, other speakers voiced a vote of no confidence in the police. One man, an African immigrant himself, expressed how afraid he felt whenever he saw the police, saying “I’m afraid that I could be the next one… they [the police] are not here to protect me.” Another speaker recounted the experience of black Vaudoises who were beaten and threatened with violence by local police. She told the story of black Swiss citizens who had been detained, the police had invoked the name of Mike Ben Peter, a Nigerian immigrant who was killed by police during a routine check near Lausanne Gare in 2018, as a form of intimidation. Later, the march stopped in front of the Hotel de Police, and chanted “A bas l’État, les flics et les fachos” and “tout le monde déteste la police.” One sign voiced the question that most of us had asked at one point or another: who do we call when the police murder? When the question is asked this way, it’s impossible to imagine justice coming from the government, as their own agents are the ones who pulled the trigger. Nzoy’s Swiss passport never mattered, because the police never saw him as someone under their protection. Thus justice must come from somewhere else, and abolishing the police and all other agents of state violence is a necessary step for that justice to flourish.
It can be hard, for me, for all of us, to know where to look for justice. On the one hand, there are many people of conscience who work within the courts, within government agencies, within the bureaucracy. Governments and institutions are capable of addressing internal racism, especially when they are pressed to by voters. And, even if there’s precious little hope of getting the answer one wants or deserves from courts or police, there is value in reminding them that they have failed in their mandate of upholding justice.
I’m also tired of this process. I’m from the U.S., and I’ve seen two major uprisings of the Black Live Matters against racism and police brutality in my adult life. Just two years ago, we lived through some of the largest protests in U.S. history as Americans from all backgrounds united in outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet after months of protest, there was precious little to show in terms of transformational policy change. Depending on politicians and officials to engage with the demands of social movements in meaningful ways is, at best, an exercise in frustration. For black people, for immigrants, for those who are looked at as less-than because they do not fit into someone else’s idea of a good Swiss citizen, simply asking for change is not enough.
There are then some small things that movements can offer to the friends and family of Nzoy, a place where the injustice of losing a loved one is acknowledged. A place where his murder is translated into evidence that police hold deep-seated racism. A commitment to practise community safety, and to not invite harm on each other by calling the police. A refusal to be compliant towards a system that has proven itself to be harmful. A refusal to let Nzoy, or others like him, be remembered as a casualty rather than a person, and to acknowledge that racism as much as bullets caused his death.
The speaker finished the last few lines of the letter written to Nzoy by his grieving sister. “Je n’ai jamais pensé dans ma vie que tu mourrais comme ça, en Suisse, ton pays d’origine […] Je sais que nous avons un long chemin devant nous pour que justice soit faite. Nous le parcourrons avec les têtes hautes et le cœur brisé. Et nous espérons que la justice pourra nous guérir un peu. Pas seulement pour nous mais pour ceux qui viendront après nous.” The march continued, the chanting went on. We finished the protest, and headed back to our respective homes, hoping there wouldn’t be a next time, that no one would have to die in the same way again. Unfortunately, there probably will be. I hope when that day comes we will continue to demand justice, or failing that, we can make some small space where the depth of these injustices are felt, and the burden of carrying them is shared.
For students interested in learning more about getting involved with social movements, and taking action for social justice and international justice, there is a Direct Action Workshop on Saturday April 9th. The Workshop is being organised by the Decolonial Action Network in collaboration with the Queer International Student Assembly (QISA), and will take place at Picciotto Common Room from 15:00 to 18:00.