In a way, the riots going on in Paris are absolutely, utterly predictable.
Two teenage boys from a housing project outside Paris were killed while attempting to hide from police (very fuzzy detail on this portion), and many other young people from the community– poor, racially mixed, and tired of discrimination and police abuse– rise up and attack.
Hearing this story, it immediately reminded me of similar riots in an aboriginal ghetto in Redfern, Australia last year. A young man was killed when fleeing police, and in response, the young, poor residents rioted and attacked the police.
Or of the Cincinnati riots of 2001, where the police shot and killed a 19-year old African-American man, Timothy Thomas. The riots lasted for 3 days.
Or the 1985 riots in Brixton, UK, where police shot a black woman in her bed (accidentally, they say), and young blacks fought the cops with clubs and molotovs (the woman survived, paralyzed from the waist down. The officer who shot her was cleared of all charges).
Hell, last month in Toledo, riots against neo-nazi agitators– only to transform it into an anti-police riot.
The story just gets told again and again and again. Poor folks of a racial group that is discriminated against by the general population, suffers at the hand of the police, and no one from the wider society seems to care. Then along comes a moment that is simply too much to bear: a child dead, a mother mistreated, an outrageous injustice of some sort. And then, the fire.
So I guess my only question here is about whether these regular uprisings are “anti-police”, or if they’re against “the system.” Poor folks and people of color obviously bear the brunt of police brutality, police harassment, and having their lives torn apart when some number of family and friends are inevitably thrown to the jaws of the justice system. It wouldn’t be hard to see these riots primarily as a way of striking back at the police for the damage they do.
But at the same time, poor people of color face a lot more discrimination that has nothing to do with the police. But the cops are the most obvious symbols of authority that they’re likely to see. “I can’t fight my landlord in court, I can’t yell at my boss, I can’t attack that radio DJ who says that my people are animals, but in the chaos, I can sure as fuck throw a brick through this cop’s windshield.”
“Mépris” is a French word meaning “contempt.” I discovered it in the comment of a Parisian on another blog, as he relayed what his French Carribean and Arab friends told him about their experience. “People are just sick and tired of the waves of racist contempt radiated by the police and the government in particular, employers and landlords, the media, and white French people in general. So yes of course people want jobs, decent jobs, decent housing. But this issue of respect is really important too.”
I think the most poigniant is this quote from a nice Christian Science Monitor article about the French riots:
Taïb Ben Thabet, who has been a social worker in the projects north of Paris for 35 years, fears that the kind of discrimination his young wards face undermines his patient efforts to help them find their place in society.
“I teach them that the state is for everybody, that it treats everybody the same,” he says. “But what credibility do I have when everything I say is contradicted by experience? The kids say it’s all lies.”
The kids are right. This man is frustrated because the government’s actions are undercutting his calming platitudes. He tells the kids that if they’re just patient and flexible, that everything will be okay. It won’t. It seems pretty clear that white French society wants to keep these immigrants in ghettos, far away from the mainstream, where most French people don’t have to see or think about them. Not much different from the US, really. I don’t know that torching police cars is going to build them a better life, but I don’t think that waiting for the problem to go away is going to do the trick either.
(Well, I take some of that back. I’m sure that there are many non-racist whites in both France and the US. I also think that many white French folks, like many white Americans, don’t mind people of color if they’re properly “assimilated.” In other words, once someone talks like you and acts like you and likes the same things you like, it’s hard to dislike them. But asking someone to discard their culture and identity so that you can feel more comfortable is a bit… assholish)
I’ll conclude with my frequent theme of “convenient white racism.” White folks in the US frequently define “racism” as “hating someone of a different race.” Which is handy, because it means that if you don’t hate someone, you’re not a racist.
So, my fellow white folks, what if you found out about an institution, a place, a culture in your society that was racist and you didn’t do anything about it? What if you found out that people of one race were much more likely to face poverty, violence, abuse, and violence than people of your own race? What if this happened all the time?
What if you learn all that, and then you don’t speak out, or try to do anything to change it? What does that make you then?
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