I just want the beach

On the island of Fanon’s birth, French colonial violence persists.

Photo by Fabien Lebre on Unsplash

I was startled awake by shattering glass. Fear and apprehension reached a peak, especially with the sounds of explosions near my rental car, the only vehicle parked on Rue Victor Sévère in Fort-de-France. Most residents—those who could anyway—had already fled the Ville to other places in Martinique. The limited ferry services to nearby Saint Lucia and weekly flights to the US left me feeling stranded in a place I’d called home for the last month. 

It was right after midnight in late November 2021. My apartment, nestled on the third floor of an old building in Fort-de-France, gave me a vantage point to the protests that had been happening down the street at the formal home of the prefect, France’s government administrator or governor, for the last two weeks. I cautiously made my way down from my bedroom loft to the main windows where a scene of unrest started to unfold.

The acrid scent of smoke from burning petrol stations and pharmacies wafted through my windows, and I could hear young men’s angry shouts in Creole and French from blocks away. The prefect had called for militarized law-enforcement support from France—the gendarmes. Because they were white and from rural areas, I assumed they were unfamiliar with the island, the language, or even why the people were protesting.

I opened the windows slightly and witnessed a man by the Mwaka Pizza hurling glass bottles at buildings. His action seemed symbolic of the discontent gripping Martinique since the trade unions had called for an island-wide strike the week before. The smashed glass punctuated the flash grenades I’d been hearing nightly. Before long, a truckload of gendarmes arrived from the prefecture, where barricades were a nightly fixture following the reinstatement of an island-wide curfew. Seeing them kitted in riot gear and weapons made me think of the unrest that had erupted in American cities a few months before. There the police response had been brutal and far from peaceful—I witnessed police officers beating protestors on my television, and fully expected any confrontations of these sorts to lead to arrests or fatalities. 

The gendarmes disembarked from the vehicle and approached the man, who continued his bottle-throwing, now aiming at their feet. In America or my home country of Jamaica, this could only result in murder—so I willed myself to watch and take notes in case a cover-up ensued, making a point to not bring out my camera lest they see my phone’s light above them. 

One gendarme extended his hand, signaling the man to stop, while the man continued yelling in Martinican Creole. The gendarme responded in French, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether they truly comprehended each other, akin to how American tourists struggle to grasp Jamaican Patois, despite its injection of proper English words. None of the other gendarmes made a move for weapons or handcuffs. Instead, they simply stood by, allowing the man to express his frustrations. He voiced concerns about the untrustworthiness of Paris regarding the safety of the rushed COVID-19 vaccine, citing past instances of deception, such as the contamination of water and soil with pesticides for banana plants, which led to widespread health issues among Martinicans. 

“Paris,” said the man, “is filled with bloodsuckers who don’t care about anyone outside of the mainland.”

The situation was defused without threats of violence or arrest: the gendarmes advised him to return home, acknowledging his violation of the curfew. Remarkably, he complied without resistance. The unexpectedly peaceful response took me by surprise, but when I discussed the incident with my local friends the following day, they assured me that such incidents were commonplace. Protesting was understood as the main way to force the békés—the wealthy descendants of the island’s slaveholders—to notice the economic disparities.

My friends explained that the gendarmes’ reluctance to resort to face-to-face violence stemmed from a deep-seated fear of repercussions, recognizing that any harm inflicted on civilians could jeopardize their careers. In 1967, tensions between the French state and the people of nearby Guadeloupe exploded in riots. The gendarmes would fire at civilians using dumdums—bullets designed to expand and flatten on impact, thereby leaving a larger wound, which had been banned by the Hague since 1899. The local police viewed firearms as a last resort, unwilling to risk their lives attacking civilians who might fight back. My friends’ sentiment seemed to underscore the balance of power between the state and its citizens, emphasizing the importance of accountability and restraint in governance. I was skeptical—I’d seen Paris police attack the exposed heads of “yellow vest” protestors only a year before as they rebelled against a fuel tax increase. Perhaps my thoughts were marred by experiencing a summer of violence against Black Lives Matter protestors, but I didn’t know whether what my friends were saying was true or if something was lost in translation.

My journey to Martinique stemmed from an academic research project: a translation into Jamaican Patois of the Martinican political philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s anticolonial work The Wretched of the Earth. Having recently laid my mother to rest in Jamaica, I arrived on a brisk October afternoon to a contrasting atmosphere in Martinique. As with other islands in the region, there was a shared history of slavery and colonialism, but different in that my island’s societal response to movement restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic was to complain on social media of not being able to “go party.”

That summer, as the heat scorched our roofs in what was one of the hottest seasons on record, my family and I watched American cities burn, hitting newfound fervor after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. My preteen son called me a coward—he felt that I, as a Black woman, should be out there marching and lending my voice to the cause. Civic activism and protest were not part of my usual repertoire—I preferred to express my grievances through conventional channels like voting, donations, or boycotts—and I considered myself a pacifist when it came to advocating for change. The events outside my window, however, made me question my convictions.

When the demonstrations in Martinique first started, they were peaceful, with a festive atmosphere. I sang along and swayed my hips as men banged their drums and sound systems played protest Zouk music—but most of my days during the protests were spent in my loft fighting the late-season mosquitoes and idly watching the news. The French gendarmes were a normal sight in the streets and tourists were returning to the cruise ship terminal. In the harbor, the double-handed transatlantic boat race Transat Jacques Vabre was retracing the old coffee route from France to Martinique (they always left out that it was the same route that brought enslaved Africans and then indentured Indians and Chinese to the West Indies).

That boisterous climate swiftly transitioned into widespread blockades at strategic junctures, notably the primary port and the airport. I once found myself stuck one weekday on the highway for hours, upset that protests had blocked my path to a famous beach—but the trip made me bear witness to the challenges facing the people. Returning to my rented flat in Fort-de-France meant navigating through the government housing projects in Le Lamentin. Widespread unemployment and a high cost of living were compounded by the misuse of the land. Land—the one thing with any real value—was owned by a few families. What everybody else had couldn’t be used to create self-sufficiency and, thereby, dignity—instead, people lined up at the post office waiting for their monthly government assistance checks from Paris.

Until then, my resistance was surviving and crafting sternly worded emails. Perhaps that needed challenging.

As a member of a semi-privileged elite, Fanon understood that colonial rule was maintained through violence and repression and that he could benefit so long as he out-Frenched the French, in language, thought, and culture. As a colonial subject, Fanon also knew that self-rule achieved through violence was cathartic for the subjugated. He abhorred barbarity and felt compelled to advocate for non-exploitative economic and social structures. Systems that would prevent banana plantation owners from using the pesticide chlordecone long after the rest of the world had banned it. My sense of his intent in Wretched of the Earth was to cultivate pride and confidence in local traditions, rejecting the alienating imitation of the dominant white culture.

A Saint Lucian street vendor I would converse with in English told me that interest in the protest was waning. “The people here are schizophrenic,” he added as he pressed upon me the need to buy a peanut he turned into an earring for €50. “They don’t know what they want. Pan-Africanism or Créolité. If they want to be French or Martinican. They march and get a little, then they go right back to the same mindset.”

“Martinique is absolutely lovely,” I wrote in an email to my professor, sharing details from an island-wide group chat. It is an unorthodox scene—pinned text decorated with rainbows and sunshine headed with 🌥🌈 La météo des blocages🌈🌥 (the weather report on road blockages) —listing all the roads, highways, and roundabouts that are blocked and reminders to watch out for the “discreet felled tree that is blocking a certain roadway,” a euphemism for burning cars. “They seem to be getting tired of the protest but won’t oppose the inter-unions.” Even I wanted life back to the old normal, even if it meant keeping what Fanon calls the white mask on. In another email to my university’s creative director, I added, “I am vigilant,” as if anyone were gunning for me. “I do not know if I should leave and come back early,” I say. “I have 12 days left. I will let you know. As of now, I am safe.”

Unfortunately, the vendor’s words came true. The French mainland was paying attention: over the following weekend, talks slowed when the French minister for the Overseas Territories arrived in Guadeloupe where the protests originated. The minister, of course, insisted the inter-union leaders first condemn the violence before talks could occur. Promises were made; the minister spent less than a day in the city before heading back to France. There were fewer talks about autonomy and self-rule, and the issue with deceptive governance and cost of living were put to rest; the ports opened and food items came back on the shelves at the Carrefour.

This carrot or stick threw out what the inter-union people had agreed to on a past Saturday night, which was to make this the disruption “The One” where France would be forced to reckon with its past and current treatment of the Overseas Territories. The compromise reinforced the centuries-old distrust of the mainland leaders which was at the core of the protests. The news reported that the disruption and rioting ended. No one was hurt by the police or gendarmes, but protestors did shoot at police and reporters, allegedly. And there had been attacks on police stations by supporters of the unions, allegedly. The minister had left Martinique after meeting with the union leaders and rolled back mandatory vaccinations, allegedly. Factually, there was now a heavier presence of the mainland French gendarmes and local police.

I typed an email to a friend who had asked how I was doing. “Martinique is still in a state of lockdown with protestors blocking some roads, but you know ahead of time if you’re on the group chat. Since Nov 22, an island-wide general strike has been called. The port has been blocked. Travel has been restrictive. An early curfew was reinstated. The streets are patrolled at night by mainland gendarmes with concussion grenades being used to disrupt gatherings. This weekend, there seemed to be a resolution between the French government and the inter-unions that called off the protests. Indeed, on Sunday I was able to drive all the way south to see the Mémorial de l’Anse Cafard, a stone monument dedicated to the fight to free the enslaved people in the French West Indies, though a few years later Napoleon wanted to reinstate slavery. Oh, I finally made it to the beach.”

Driving around in search of my way back home, I realized that I wasn’t perceived as an American or Jamaican. I was simply a Black person. No matter where I came from, there was an injustice in need of a battle or one I could lend my voice or fist to. A quote from Alan Moore, coauthor of V for Vendetta, resonated with newfound relevance: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” It was a reminder that, collectively, Black bodies in the world still have a long journey ahead before achieving true equity and justice.

Perhaps violent protest is the only answer to an inherently unfair system.

Further Reading