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Friday, November 11, 2005
Humanity in an Age of Terror: Reflections on the Riots in France

I got an excellent tip from Connor on The Little Green Blog. He wrote: "If you are the sort of person who actually wants to know why riots are happening in France, you are probably the sort of person who should read this Afro-French chick's blog. It's been passed around a lot but it's quality."

True to form the website is very instructive. In my most recent post about the French riots, I forwarded the theory that the French riots were a reaction to the hard-line taken by the French interior minister and the police brutality that followed, which also led to the deaths of the two black youths. I argued that the proposition that the rioters were burning cars because they were black or poor was insufficient persuasive as a causal explanation of the violence; rather the racially and economically stratified nature of French society and its politicization of the black woman's body and her progeny as a threat to the French nature accounts for the character of the violence.

This blog seems to confirm my theory in two ways.

First, the title of the post is "Mort pour rien - Dead for nothing." The choice of title immediately indicates the tragedy of the situation: the lives of two youths were thrown away simply because they were black. The author maintains this posture in the opening paragraphs and is worth quoting at length.
The riots were triggered by the death of two youths of African decent, Bouna Traore, aged 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were electrocuted at an electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois as they ran from the police. A third youth who escaped death, said they panicked and ran because they found themselves near the scene of a break-in incident where police began to arrive. The police of course deny any involvement in the boys death. It should be noted that these young people are not immigrants. Their grandparents and possibly their parents are but they are born in France and are French citizens. Constantly referring to them as "immigrants" is a problem in itself and reinforces their exclusion from mainstream French society.

The boys did not have criminal records nor were they known to the police so why did they run[?] The explanation given in Indymedia Paris by Laurent Levy is very plausible given the appalling racist record of the French police. They knew what would happen to them if they were stopped for an ID check. They would risk being detained and spending several hours being humiliated at the police station - you do not have to have much of an imagination to know the kind of taunts the boys would be subjected to. It was late and they wanted to get home where they were expected by their families. Levy also asks why the Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy had to say that this drama took place after a burglary attempt implying the boys were invovled or boys "like them" ie Africans and Arabs. (emphasis added)

Second, the police overreacted to the intiatial response to the dead youth. The author then observes, "Following the death of the boys on Thursday there were two days of riots. On the Saturday community members in an attempt to calm the situation organised a silent march in memory of the teenagers." The author's re-telling appears to complicate my story somewhat because the original riots were only two days. In fact, another damning piece of evidence against my theory is that these riots typically break out and at least 80 cars a night reguarly are burned around Paris. (I noted that frequency of the burnings in my original post.) This evidence, however, is not as damning as it seems for I argued that the hardline of the minister and the police brutality led to the big riots. The minister's declaration of war on the "scum" charged the atmosphere; the police's brutal response to the peaceful protest (which I will detail below) leads to the rioting.
In the evening, some 150 young Africans met with the Mayor to discuss the events. The mayor talked about the cost of the damage but did not make any reference to the heavy handed policing. The youths became very angry at the police, the repression, the abusive language directed at their mothers, calling them sluts. The police began to arrive with flashballs (for shooting rubber bullets) and riot gear provoking the crowds. They then told the brother of one of the dead youths to go home. He took three steps towards the police who then began to fire tear gas at the crowd. The following day, about 8.30pm on Sunday evening there was another incident which took place around the local Mosque. By this time according to Netlex things had calmed down but it seems the police presence was heavy in the area. It is not clear what exactly happened but the police released tear gas grenades one of which landed in the local Mosque during prayers which was full of families. A panic followed as the building filled with smoke and people were crying and coughing and running. It is this incident that triggered the riots again and they have continued ever since spreading into a worsening situation and spreading to other French cities.

Laurent Levy, whom the author quotes, and whose reflections I shall also reproduce, also credits the charged atmosphere created the by Interior Minister and the police for the situation.
Why did the Minister of the Interrior make a point of saying that these events took place following an attempted theft? Doubtless, he wanted to play on the fantastic and disastrous idea that people have of the “suburbs,” an idea that he himself helps to spread. That they are lawless places ruled by criminals, threats to public safety, breeding grounds of delinquency.
If some young people die while fleeing the police, you might as well tell the good people that it is because they had done something wrong. Anything will do.
If the story takes place on the edge of a poor neighbourhood in the “inner suburbs” around Paris, it is because we’re dealing with “trash.”
. . .
What we may doubt, though, is that we have the same idea of what is “tolerable” and what is not: after all, what is intolerable in a civilized society is not the revolt of those whose children, brothers and friends are hunted down and killed. What is intolerable is the arrogance of the authorities, of irresponsible police, of the State which is waging war against the poor.
Throughout these events the agents of the State have acted as if they were in a civil war.
. . .
And so it was that during their prayers, on the Night of Destiny, that the Moslems of Clichy were given a chance to appreciate the efficiency of their country’s police. They have no need to fear for their safety. They got to see how the Flash-Balls work. They got to see the children running scared while their mothers, trying to protect them, were called “whores” and chased down the stairs by the Mr Sarkozy’s soldiers.
Those who did not know are now able to see what “colonial neighbourhood management” means. Tomorrow, it will be clear.
Tomorrow they will be told about the republic, about liberty, equality and fraternity. They will be reminded of how well respected and admired the country that produced the rights of man is all around the world. Tomorrow, the suburbs will be taken care of – and just wait til you see how!
The Minister has already set a date; every week he will visit a “sensitive neighbourhood,” for this is the new name for working class neighbourhoods. He’ll do what’s necessary. There will be units of riot police and special intervention squads. And yet, people were not asking so much: simply to be allowed to live. Of course, this was doubtless asking too much.

Levy's and the African-fem's outrage is one of the many expressions of people looking for their humanity in the 21st century. Message to democratic governments of the world: do not sell the lives of your poor short. We, the poor, have our humanity and our dignity. We will not be denied.

All to often in America the politics of race, crime, and class are conflated to justify inhumanity to some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens. This must stop.