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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

The Banlieues Are Burning

On 27 October, 2005, two teenagers of North African descent died while trying to escape from the police in a neighborhood outside Paris.  A group of them coming home from playing football ran from a police patrol to avoid yet another of the lengthy interrogations to which police in the neighborhood frequently subjected youth of color.  Several of them climbed over a wall to hide in a power substation, and two of them, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted to death.  It was just another police action in the banlieue—the ghetto suburb that exists on the outskirts of many French cities; impoverished, crowded with second generation immigrants who are alternately exploited and excluded in the informalized, deregulated economies.  It was just another couple of marginalized young people of color whose deaths were certain to go unanswered.  Except that their friends, their families, neighbors, people who didn’t know them but could still identify, all started to gather.  Their rage grew like a storm.  Rather than forgive, they fought.

Cars started going up in flames.  The growing crowd ferociously beat any cops or firefighters who came near.  Soon it was a full-fledged riot.  The next night people came out again, and the next night.  On 3 November, the riot spread to the banlieues in other cities, until all fifteen of France’s major urban centers were affected.  Streetfighting was intense.  Roving gangs torched cars and moved on, using hit and run tactics, dispersing when the police came.  When a group of cops was small enough to be engaged, they were pelted with bottles and rocks.  The most common targets for attack were police and cars, but additionally rioters burned down power stations, government buildings, tourist agencies, daycare centers (at night, when they were empty), schools, police stations, churches, and mosques; in other words, key infrastructure and locations ghetto youth identified with their daily oppression.

The riots were uncontrollable.  On 8 November, then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy declared a national state of emergency, allowing police to institute curfews, conduct house-to-house searches, and ban protests. On 16 November, with the uprisings still continuing, the government voted to extend the state of emergency for three months.  Though the media tried to portray it as a specifically Muslim or even Islamist uprising, second-generation Portuguese immigrants and native French youth also participated.  In total, the rioters injured 126 police and firefighters, torched nearly 9,000 vehicles, and caused 200 million euros in damage spread over 274 towns and cities.  Police arrested 2900 people, and brutalized many more.  Sarkozy declared a policy of zero tolerance, and called the ghetto youth “scum.”  Afterwards, politicians across the country clamored for the prosecution of hip-hop artists who they said encouraged violence.

Some observers compared the burning of cars—an action that spread spontaneously from one riot and one city to the next and came to symbolize the uprisings—to the spontaneous smashing of clocks that accompanied proletarian rebellions over a century earlier.  The clocks were seen as a tool of wage labor, capitalism’s latest imposition.  Nowadays, cars can be seen as tools of alienation, the vehicles of the consumer-citizen, and thus the symbol of capitalism’s most dehumanizing developments today.  Or maybe they were simply an object that was easy to find and simple to burn.

The riots presented the greatest threat to the French state in some time, and naturally the media placed them in a moralistic vacuum, outside of any political context.  Despicably, most leftists and even many anarchists denounced the riots.  Denouncing the spontaneous byproduct of human rage in the face of overwhelming misery is an act of stupidity, like denouncing a hurricane.  The real significance of such denunciations is to signal allegiance to the current power structure in the face of an incomprehensible threat, and to participate in the media’s dehumanization of the rioters.  Instead of empathizing with them, these commentators conferred on the rioters the status of benighted victims, and advocated development programs that would help incorporate the slum-residents more solidly into the economy.

Other anarchists saw in the rioters an example of insurrection.  A few texts compared the rioters and the swelling underclasses from which they came to the barbarians that brought down the Roman Empire, and theorized that this population would be the next revolutionary subject with a chance of defeating the system.  I couldn’t help but wonder what the African and Arab ghetto residents would think to know they were the theoretical barbarians on whom some white anarchists were depending to abolish capitalism.  From a distance, it was impossible to know what the people of the banlieues thought, in what various ways they saw their struggle, how they would characterize the system, and what they wanted.  I read of ethnically French radicals taking to the streets in an attempt to build solidarity with the rioters meeting distinct outcomes—some got beaten up and had their cellphones stolen, others were tolerated or even welcomed as allies in the street fighting.

Some insurrectionists claimed to have gotten close to groups of these banlieue youth, and said they had a lucid understanding of capitalism, which is much more credible than the stale media portrayal of blind violence perpetrated by unthinking brutes, although I’m suspicious in how it confirms our wish that they have the same analysis as we do.  I hoped it were true that relationships of solidarity and mutual understanding were indeed springing up.  One group, Les Amis de Nemesis, wrote an article defending and attempting to explain the rioters.  In their view, the rioters faced the typical revolutionary question: do they fight to break with the market system, or to demand that the system save them its worst abuses, which they may not yet realize are inherent to it.  As for their tactics:

“The dominant system is no longer [...] a centralized system that possesses a “seat of power” against which the jacqueries must march, with pitchforks and scythes in hand; there is no longer even a network of factories that the workers can blockade or appropriate, but a diffuse order of which the manifestations are everywhere, like the market values that constitute themselves through all of the moments of the economical cycle (through production, circulation and consumption of commodities), and in which human beings vegetate without jobs and especially without income; that the offensive against the system consequently recognizes that system’s existence everywhere, in the supermarket as in the school, in a Public Treasury building as in the auditoriums, in automobiles and the means of transportation; and that it seems easy to understand, at least after the fact, that to undertake one or the other of these objectives inevitably involves annoyances for third parties: there hardly exists an accessible place where only Power can be hindered or attacked[...]

“[...]It is only in questioning the dominant order that those to whom one has refused all power, and thus all power to constitute themselves as subjects, can accede to the condition of being human. By being insurgents against the absence of their lives, the young banlieue residents will not show that they are human wreckage, but, on the contrary, that they no longer want to be reduced to such. And, faced with such a project and such a necessity, only fools will deplore the fact that they make several mistakes in their syntax.”

A French sticker against deportations.

A French sticker against deportations.