James McNellis, Wikimedia Commons
The problem of resistance was humming in my mind when I passed through an iron gate in France that read NÉCROPOLE DE LA RÉSISTANCE. Here were the graves of men and boys who had lost their lives fighting the Nazi occupation of their country. This cemetery of the resistance was on a plateau above Grenoble, positioned so that an enormous mountain stood beyond the graves like a monument. The sun was high over the mountain, reflecting off the white gravel paths, the white walls, and the rows of white crosses. I stood in that white glare with my son, harboring an inchoate fear and shielding my eyes.
If I feared then, in 2017, that resistance in my own country would lead to this, the graves of the young, I also feared that it would not—that it would come to nothing. This was when headlines read: “The Resistance Grows” and “Resistance is Not Enough” and “Resistance is Futile.” Some newspapers put resistance in scare quotes, and some termed it the “so-called resistance.” The news didn’t believe in the resistance. And the question remained of what, exactly, was being resisted. Was it just one politician, or the enormous white shadow behind him?
This resistance, some argued, was too multiple and too defuse. It was difficult to locate—it was without a single leader and it didn’t have a platform. It was new and it was not new. It began before the 2016 election, with Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, and after, with the Women’s Marches and the airport protests of the Muslim ban. It was many resistances. It was everywhere and nowhere.
From a distance, the French Resistance of the forties could appear more singular in purpose. It had the solidity of monuments and museums, though it also seemed far away, entombed in history. “This history looms each time the word ‘resistance’ is evoked in the current American political crisis,” Teju Cole wrote in 2018. “It judges the triviality of our responses.” I felt judged, standing among the graves of resistance fighters, and all my responses felt trivial. “The triviality is not in the predicament—so many have died here, and many more will die,” Cole wrote. The triviality, he clarified, was in the public tone.
“Cheers to the resistance,” Taylor Swift said, raising a glass of white wine after publicly declaring her support for a Democrat in the midterm elections. This rebranding of political participation as resistance would be easier to dismiss as fad or fashion if the political system itself was not under threat. What constitutes resistance is necessarily different in a democracy than it is under an authoritarian regime or an autocracy. “We still have a democracy, at least on paper,” one of my friends remarked, with some hesitation, after the 2016 election. But we were already uncertain about that.
Four years later, the armed crowd that erected a gallows before pressing past police officers into the Capitol Building shouting “Whose house? Our house!” illustrated one of the sources of our uncertainty. Not everyone in this country is subject to the same governance. Some people can forcefully occupy the People’s House, while others—those who are prevented from voting, who are aggressively policed, who are imprisoned at rates unmatched even by South Africa at the height of apartheid—are locked out. Now, as ever, Black Americans live under an authoritarian regime within a partial democracy. Maintaining this democracy, history suggests, will not be enough to abolish that regime.
A candidate for president who wanted to restrict immigration and expel foreigners, who was hostile toward Muslims, an authoritarian candidate who openly appealed to white fears and racist resentments had just lost the election when I arrived in France in 2017. This was Marine Le Pen, whose supporters shouted “Give us back our house,” the house being France, to which Le Pen promised to return the keys. Political graffiti was still fresh on the walls of Paris, where someone had written NAZI on a Le Pen poster. The commentary I read before the election had warned that a win for Le Pen would be a win for white nationalism, in France and the world. But neither France nor the world was saved by her defeat, and her party went on to gain support in rural areas and small cities. After the election, as Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker, France “resumed its brooding normalcy.”
In that brooding normalcy, I found myself talking with a French scientist about the French national football team, commonly known as Les Bleus. Most of the players on that team, the scientist complained, were not French. “They are from other countries?” I asked, not quite understanding. They are French citizens who were born in France and speak French, my husband clarified, understanding perfectly. Yes, the scientist allowed, but they are not “historically” French, not “genetically” French. They are not, in other words, white.
My husband had heard this all before. He was living in France when Les Bleus won the World Cup, improbably, in 1998. That team was “not a real French team,” according to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen, who inherited his political party. Les Bleus was real enough to be celebrated in that winning moment for representing the colors of the French people: “Black, Blanc, Beur.” Its players, wearing the tricolors of France, reflected the history of French colonialism from the French Caribbean to Senegal to Algeria.
Among them was Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian parents, the player who in 2006 exchanged a few words with an Italian player, ran lightly forward, and then turned to face the Italian before ramming his head into the Italian’s chest, knocking him to the ground. In the American bar where I watched that game, there was immediately speculation that the Italian had used a racial slur, speculation that is now widely assumed to be true, but neither the Italian nor Zidane have ever revealed exactly what was said. Zidane’s headbutt was dismissed by his critics as a temper tantrum. That game, the World Cup final, was also the last of Zidane’s career, and he left the game disgraced, as some saw it. Zidane himself did not see it that way.
Slow-motion footage of Zidane’s encounter with the Italian stretches those nine seconds to five minutes in Situation One, a film by Claudia Rankine and John Lucas. Here, Zidane’s action is understood as a rebuttal. “The rebuttal assumes an original form,” Rankine says, in the words of James Baldwin. But the rebuttal is not always recognized as resistance. More often, it is condemned as bad behavior.
In the fall of 2017, a stadium full of American football fans in Boston booed the football players who knelt on one knee during the national anthem. The team that was booed was called the Patriots. Among the many meanings of patriot, which is borrowed from the French, is one specific to the United States: “a member of a resistance movement.” The New England Patriots are named after this sort of patriot, but that did not prevent debate over whether the Patriots or the fans who booed them were the “real” patriots. That was a debate over what posture citizens should take toward the authority held by our government. The protest against police brutality is, among other things, a statement that we do not want to be governed violently, in an authoritarian manner.
“It’s something that can unify this team,” Colin Kaepernick said of his original rebuttal, performed with the 49ers in 2016. “It’s something that can unify this country.” Four years later, some fans booed the “moment of unity” when the Chiefs and the Texans linked arms in Arrowhead Stadium. This moment of unity followed two anthems, the national anthem and Lift Every Voice, the Black national anthem. The Texans sat out both anthems.
In Casablanca, which is set in 1941 during the occupation of France, the only act of resistance the Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, makes on screen is singing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” loudly enough to drown out the singing of a group of German soldiers. This was cinematic, but “La Marseillaise” was not the anthem of the Resistance.
“La Marseillaise” includes a verse about watering the fields of France with the blood of the “impure” and a verse about a threatening “horde of slaves,” which may be one reason why some members of the Les Bleus have, for decades, declined to sing it. Marine Le Pen has insisted that players who refuse to sing the anthem should not be allowed to play football, comparing them to “spoilt children.” Her complaint is not really about the anthem, but about citizenship, and the rights of the children of the colonized to occupy the land of their occupier.
When Mamadou Sakho, born in Paris to Senegalese parents, celebrated scoring two goals for a win in 2014, he sang “La Marseillaise” passionately, in what one observer interpreted as a kind of protest, a theatrical performance of his Frenchness. It seems to me that Sakho had no choice but to protest. For those players who are not white, the meaning of the anthem is so freighted, and their own citizenship is so fraught, that not singing is a protest and so also is singing.
When Whitney Houston performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991, she slowed it down from 3/4 time to 4/4 time. By slowing it down, Houston and the orchestra increased its difficulty and gave the song a new gravity. “They made it the blues,” Danyel Smith writes. “You have to understand. Key to American blues is the notion that by performing them and by experiencing them being performed, one can escape them.”
Some blues scholars have failed, Angela Davis notes, to recognize the singing of the blues as social protest. Blues lyrics are personal, full of individual longing and loss. Lost love, Davis writes, stands for other losses, too. “You treated me wrong, I treated you right,” Bessie Smith sings, “I worked for you both day and night.” There is protest in the very sentiment of the blues—in lament, in steady complaint, and in bawdy irreverence. And protest is born, Davis insists, of feeling.
The blues are both a feeling and a situation, Davis writes. America is in the blues now, and the blues are in our history. The United States isn’t occupied by Nazi Germans, it’s occupied by the same people it has been occupied by since it was colonized. “Occupied territory is occupied territory,” James Baldwin wrote in 1966, “even though it be found in that New World which the Europeans conquered, and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces.”
Baldwin was writing then of Daniel Hamm, and the act of resistance that eventually led to Hamm becoming one of six Black teenagers wrongfully convicted of murder. Long before Hamm was taken from his mother’s home with a gun to his head, and before he was beaten by police for putting himself between a child and an officer with a gun, Hamm was among a group of boys who were questioned at gunpoint for being on the roof of their building, where they kept pigeons. Baldwin wrote, “The police are afraid of everything in Harlem and they are especially afraid of the roofs, which they consider to be guerrilla outposts.” The police went up to the roof where the pigeons were kept and ordered the boys, without warrant, to come to the precinct, but the boys refused. They were later punished for this resistance.
The first person to be executed for resistance during the occupation of France was killed for jeering at a Nazi military parade in the streets of Bordeaux. This was just months after the armistice that divided France into an area occupied by the Germans and an unoccupied area governed by the French. The man killed in Bordeaux, which was just inside occupied territory, was a Jewish immigrant. He was also, in our parlance, a counterdemonstrator.
The Vichy regime, the government of unoccupied France, came into power in 1940 with a project, the National Revolution, which was a plan to make France great again. This would be accomplished by establishing an authoritarian government, restricting immigration, controlling the press, punishing abortion, persecuting gays, and passing anti-Semitic laws. The ideal of equality was abandoned, as was democracy, and Philippe Pétain was appointed head of state. One of the first acts of Pétain’s government was to repeal a law that banned hate speech in the press. Without any pressure from Germany, his regime went on to revoke the citizenship of thousands of immigrants, a third of them Jewish. The armistice did not require this, the historian Robert Paxton notes, and the Nazis did not want it. They would have preferred for France to accept the Jews who were being deported from Germany.
The history of Vichy France remains a contested history, the historian Molly Tambor tells me, exactly because it is so relevant to our time. When I met Tambor twenty years ago, she was a student in Paxton’s course on fascism. Now she’s the author of The Lost Wave, a book about the work that follows resistance. During the first year of Trump’s presidency, I called her in dismay after reading a short history of the French Resistance, a history that was essentially a litany of assassinations and executions. There’s no place for a pacifist like me, I told her, in a resistance like that. But the armed resistance was a very small part of the Resistance, Tambor told me. The civil resistance, which consisted mostly of women, was much broader. Women operated safe houses and edited underground newspapers and made forgeries and carried stolen documents in their shopping bags and bicycled hundreds of miles to recover lost radio equipment and pretended not to understand.
Much of the resistance took place in writing, in pamphlets and newspapers. One of the first glimmers of the Resistance was little stickers, “butterflies,” printed with messages and left on mailboxes to let anyone who might want to resist know that they weren’t alone. When I learned of those butterflies, I thought of the anonymous postcard I received shortly after the 2016 election, printed with one word: RESIST. And I thought of the sign a neighbor posted on her porch: RESIST. I passed that sign every morning as I walked my son to school, and it never ceased to bother me. It bothered me, I told myself, because it wasn’t doing anything. What we needed, I thought, was action, not a word, not a sign. But the sign was doing something by bothering me. It was inviting me, every morning, to consider what that word meant, and to face my own bafflement about what constituted action.
The French Resistance was really a collection of resistances. There were Communists who organized demonstrations and Catholics who hid Jews and academics who published underground newspapers and railway workers who derailed trains and gangsters who smuggled people out of the country for profit. These resistances didn’t share the same mission, or the same motives, but they converged nonetheless. “We sang ‘L’Internationale,’ ” one résistant remembered, referring to the Communist anthem. “We weren’t Communists, but Pétain sang ‘La Marseillaise,’ so we had to sing ‘L’Internationale.’ ”
There were resistants, Tambor told me, who kept their jobs in the Vichy regime so they could use their positions to falsify papers and help people flee the country. Later, after the liberation, some of them were tried for collaboration. Discerning between a resistant and a collaborationist could be difficult, as a person could be both. Some people changed their allegiances, some betrayed their comrades, and some moved back and forth between resistance and collaboration. Resistance was not a fixed position, but a decision that had to be made over and over again. In the end, most people didn’t resist.
Fewer than five percent of the French were engaged in active resistance, but that was enough to undermine the occupation. Another ten percent were passive resistors who read underground newspapers and took no other action. The majority of the population neither resisted nor collaborated. They accommodated, as Eliot A. Cohen puts it. “Accommodation was understandable and reasonable,” he writes. And that is why it haunts me now.
I am haunted, in particular, by one scene from The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’s 1969 documentary in which he interviews a range of people who lived through the occupation in France—a Jewish shop keeper, a hairdresser, a bicycle racer, a former Resistance leader, a former fascist, high school teachers, German officers, members of the armed resistance, and collaborationists. The scene that haunts me features a well-off pharmacist who sits smoking a cigar, surrounded by his children. The only thing he could do when he saw Jewish people being loaded into trucks for the camps, he tells his children, was to take out his handkerchief and weep.
The black-and-white footage of The Sorrow and the Pity reveals that many people then, like many people now, lived through their political moment in fear and bewilderment. Afterward, they continued on in denial and delusion. When Ophuls asked a Pétain supporter why she supported Pétain, she couldn’t say. Pressed again, she said she just liked him. And she would support him again, she insisted. Her love for him was “apolitical,” a word that strikes me now as meaning either that she did not understand her own politics or that she did not want to take responsibility for them.
“An American who looks honestly at collaborationist France must judge not only with sorrow and pity, but with fear of what his own countrymen might do under equivalent stress,” Paxton warns. The fear he describes was the fear I felt when I stood in the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation in Paris and studied a map of France marked with locations of “Camps for Foreigners,” among other kinds of internment and detention camps. At that moment, detention centers and deportation were the news of the day in my country.
The Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation was on the site of a former morgue, and it held a tomb containing the remains of an unknown deportee surrounded by two hundred thousand tiny lights, one for each of the deportees who died in the camps. All this was underground, invisible from the street, overshadowed by Notre Dame. The memorial was underground because it was designed as a crypt, but I wondered if it was also underground because this was a history that France wanted buried.
After the liberation, France went back to thinking of itself as great again. But within ten years, the French military was fighting against another resistance. Guerrilla fighters, maquisards in the spirit of those who had fought the Nazi occupation, now fought for the liberation of Algeria. During that war, a crowd of Algerian French protestors were fired on by police, beaten, and thrown into the Seine. Dozens of bodies were pulled from the water, and graffiti on the Pont Saint-Michel read, “Algerians were drowned here.” An unknown number of people, as many as two hundred, were killed. That was the Paris Massacre of 1961, just months before the Charonne Metro Station Massacre, when police charged a crowd of demonstrators protesting for Algerian independence, trapped them in the stairwells of the train station, and killed eight people, including a sixteen-year-old boy.
The chief of police at that time had been a collaborationist in the Vichy regime, and then went on to torture political prisoners in Algeria before becoming chief of police in Paris. He was later convicted of crimes against humanity for the deportation of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children. Many of the officers who worked under him were the same officers who had collaborated with the Gestapo during the occupation. Trained under one regime of white supremacy, they went on to enforce another.
MORT POUR LA FRANCE reads the inscription on the graves in the resistance cemetery outside Grenoble. I sometimes think of that phrase when I hear the litany of names of those killed by the police in the U.S. That litany includes, from just this past year, William Howard Green, Manuel Elijah Ellis, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, Michael Ramos, Dreasjon Read, George Floyd, Tony McDade, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, Dijon Kizzee, and Jonathan Price. I wonder if they died for their country, or if they were just killed by it. They didn’t volunteer for battle, and they didn’t ask to be made martyrs. They were handcuffed or sleeping or running naked in the street or driving away from the police or buying liquor or protesting police brutality or sitting in a car or riding a bicycle or offering to shake hands with a police officer. Now their faces are painted on buildings and their names are chanted in the streets.
The résistants buried under the phrase mort pour la France fought in civilian clothes and hid in the woods from their own government. They weren’t fighting for the regime they died under. They were fighting for the possibility of a less compromised country. “Did they win?” my son asked me. No, I told him, they lost. They lost that battle, and they lost their lives, but they won the war. That battle was in June of 1944, and the liberation of France was already underway.
Driving down the mountainside from the resistance cemetery, I tuned to a radio station on which the announcer spoke the English phrase “Chicago blues” before continuing on in French. We listened to the blues as we descended the steep switchbacks into a fog. After a long stretch of road my son asked if the blues are always sad. The melodic structure of the blues, my husband told him, depends on a repeating pattern that feels not so much sad as determined. The blues, he said, are about perseverance.
I sat in silence, staring into the fog. I felt then, as I feel now, undereducated for my political moment. All I know about the blues is what I have read in my attempts to understand my country and my place in it. The blues were born under an oppressive regime that was a precursor to fascism. “The first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe,” Paxton writes. The former Confederate soldiers of the Klan saw themselves as an aggrieved group whose traditional way of life was threatened by freed slaves. The tactics of the Klan, their use of intimidation and violence, and even their uniform, their white hoods, were later taken up by the Whitecaps, who drove Black farmers from their land, which was then repossessed by white farmers. We should recognize this practice now, the historian Carol Anderson writes, as ethnic cleansing.
Shortly after the 2016 election, I was at a bar in Chicago with a friend who grew up in the former Yugoslavia. He was trying to show me something on his phone, a list of the defining characteristics of fascism. He was reading the list to me, straining to be heard above the noise of the bar, saying, “Look, this is happening here now.” He had lived through this once already, he was telling me. I believed him, but I didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t know what to do. That was before George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, before protesters defied stay-at-home orders to fill the streets, where some were pushed from behind by the police, some were met by U.S. Marshals, some arrested and imprisoned, and where some were shot and killed. Before signs reading BLACK LIVES MATTER were carried through cities all over the world, including Paris.
My friend and his wife had marched against Milošević for several months in 1996, back when they were university students in Belgrade. There was a carnival atmosphere at those marches, where cars carried speakers blaring music and protestors sang and blew whistles. They were part of the movement that would later become Otpor, which means resistance. Otpor’s emblem, a graphic of a raised fist, is a version of the fist that was the emblem of many other resistance movements from the Industrial Workers of the World to the fight against fascism in Spain to the Black Panthers to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It is the same fist that is now spray-painted on the sidewalks of the city where I live.
The persistence of that fist is a reminder that the problem of resistance is always ongoing. Resistance must be remade and reimagined for each new political moment. Our resistance has its own history and its own blues, but it is continuous with other resistances. And while the word “resistance” carries a freight of history, resistance is not what the work of liberation has been called in the U.S. “Those who opposed slavery didn’t view themselves as resisters,” Michelle Alexander writes, “they were abolitionists.” The cause of abolition has been taken up again in the streets now, where it is marching on. Recently, deep into the Chicago winter, I saw a woman engaged in a protest of one. She marched up and down the sidewalk in front of a police station in the cold, shouting her protest. She was, to me, the embodiment of perseverance, part of a repeating pattern, a long song.
Eula Biss is the author of four books, most recently Having and Being Had. Her essays and prose poems have recently appeared in the Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The Believer, Freeman’s, Jubilat, The Baffler, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University.
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