Riots and rampage

Image: Mike Gonzales


Cartography of state repression shows that it is against the class that many of today's so-called "progressives" despise, fear or ignore

When riots broke out in France in late June, it took police just under a week to make more than 3 arrests. Clashes in the streets of Paris and Marseille evoked other recent clashes with state repression forces: think of the 22 arrests made by Iranian police last autumn, or the XNUMX detained in the United States during the summer of Black Lives Matter. What do these three revolts, on three different continents, have in common?

To begin with, the age and social class of the protesters. The people arrested were almost all under 30 years of age and a disproportionate number were NEETs (people not in education, work or training). In France and the USA, this was linked to their status as racialized minorities: 26% of the young population in zones “urban sensible” are NEET, compared to the national average of 13%, and African Americans comprise nearly 14% of the general population but 20,5% of NEETs. In Iran, on the other hand, the decisive factor was age: young people have lived their entire lives under US sanctions. Recent data shows that around 77% of Iranians aged 15-24 fall into this category – up from around 31% in 2020.

The second common factor is even more striking. In all three cases, protests erupted after a police killing: George Floyd, an African American, was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020; 22-year-old Kurd Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 16, 2022; and 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk of Algerian descent in Nanterre on June 27. In the aftermath of these deaths, the media spotlight was on the “vandals”, “bandits”, “hooligans” and “criminals” who took to the streets, but rarely on law enforcement itself. In Iran, the identity of the policeman who caused Amini's death is not even known. In France, Éric Zemmour's spokesperson launched an online fundraising campaign to support the police officer who killed Nahel; it raised over €1,6 million before being withdrawn.

A third feature connects such protests and their repression to unrest in other countries: monotonous repetition. There's always the same recurring scene: smashed shop windows, torched cars, a few looted supermarkets, tear gas, and the occasional police bullet. In the West, the same formula has existed for decades: the police kill a young person from a marginalized community; the young people of this community stand up; they destroy some things and clash with the police; they are trapped. The mood returns to a kind of precarious tranquility, until the police decide to murder someone again. (Iran’s protests last year were the country’s first major uprising against police violence — a sign that even the land of the ayatollahs is paving the way for “Western modernity.”)

France has a long history of such incidents. To give just a few indicative examples: in 1990, a paralyzed young man named Thomas Claudio is killed in the suburbs of Lyon by a police car; in 1991, a police officer shoots and kills 18-year-old Djamel Chettouh in a “banlieue" from Paris; in 1992, again in Lyon, gendarmerie shot and killed 18-year-old Mohamed Bahri for trying to flee a traffic stop; in the same year, in the same city, Mourad Tchier, 20 years old, is killed by a brigadier-commander of the gendarmerie; in Toulon, 1994, Faouzi Benraïs goes out to buy a hamburger and is killed by the police; in 1995, Djamel Benakka is beaten to death by a police officer at Laval police station.

Moving forward: the 2005 riots were a response to the deaths of two teenagers, Zyed Benna (17) and Bouna Traoré (15); those in 2007 sought redress for the death of two more, Moushin Sehhouli (15) and Laramy Samoura (16), whose motorcycle collided with a police car. The litany is unbearable: it would be enough to remember the death of Aboubacar Fofana (22) in 2018, killed by the police in Nantes during an identity check. Notice how the victims' names are strikingly Gallic: Aboubakar, Bouna, Djamel, Fauzi, Larami, Mahaed, Mourad, Moushin, Zyed...

The same dynamic can be found on the other side of the Atlantic. Miami, 1980: Four white police officers are accused of bludgeoning to death a black motorcyclist, Arthur McDuffie, after he ran a red light. They are acquitted, precipitating a riot wave that rocks Liberty City, resulting in 18 deaths and over 300 injuries. Los Angeles, 1991: Four white police officers beat up another black motorcyclist, Rodney King. Subsequent riots cause at least 59 deaths and over 2.300 injuries. O "rioting” spreads to Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and San Jose.

Cincinnati, 2001: A white police officer kills a black man, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, and 70 people are injured in the ensuing protests. Ferguson, 2014: a white police officer kills Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man; riots, 61 arrested, 14 injured. Baltimore, 2015: A 25-year-old black man dies from multiple injuries sustained while being detained in a police van; clashes leave 113 police officers injured; two people are shot, 485 arrested, and a curfew is imposed with the National Guard intervening.

Charlotte, 2016: Police shoot 43-year-old African-American Keith Lamont Scott; riots, curfew, mobilization of the National Guard. One protester is killed during demonstrations, 26-year-old Justin Carr; 31 are injured. Finally we come to George Floyd; the scenario repeats itself.

British police have no reason to feel inferior to their transatlantic counterparts, nor to their neighbors across the English Channel. Here are a few examples among many: Brixton, 1981: Persistent police brutality and harassment issues in protests and riots among the black community; 279 police and 45 civilians are injured (demonstrators avoid hospitals out of fear), 82 arrests, over 150 vehicles burned, 1985 buildings damaged, a third of which set on fire. The turnaround extends to Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Brixton, 43: Police search a suspect's home and shoot his mother, Cherry Groce. A photojournalist is killed, 10 civilians and 55 police are injured, XNUMX cars are set on fire, and a building is completely destroyed after three days of rioting (Cherry Groce survives her injuries but remains paralyzed).

Tottenham, 1985: A black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, dies of cardiac arrest during a police house search, and a police officer is killed by mobs in the resulting riots. Brixton, 1995: protests after a 26-year-old black man dies in custody; 22 arrests. Tottenham, 2011: Police shoot and kill Mark Duggan; riots break out, spreading to other areas of London and then to other cities. Over the next six days, five people died, 189 police officers were injured, and 2.185 buildings were damaged. Beckton, 2017: a 25-year-old black Portuguese man, Edson da Costa, dies of asphyxiation after being stopped by the police. In subsequent protests in front of the police station, four are arrested and 14 police officers are injured.

I imagine this list was as exasperating to read as it was infuriating to write. At this point, police violence cannot be considered a “smudge”, as the French say, but a persistent and transnational feature of contemporary capitalism. (Here one may recall Bertolt Brecht, who, faced with the East German government's reaction to popular protest in 1953, asked: "Wouldn't it be simpler if the government dissolved the people to elect a new one?").

What is astounding is that, after each of these turnarounds, thousands of urban planners, sociologists, criminologists, health professionals, charities and NGOs turn, in their contrition, to the deep social, cultural and behavioral causes of such “violences”, “excesses”, “explosions” and “vandalism”. The police, however, are not considered worthy of the same attention. Police violence is often described but rarely scrutinized. Not even Foucault sharpened our understanding of this by focusing on specific places where law enforcement is organized and institutionalized.

Policing has clearly evolved over the centuries: it has been subdivided into specialized bodies (traffic, urban, border, military and international police) and its tools have been improved (wiretapping, tracking, electronic surveillance). But it remained identical both in its opacity and in its irreformability. The states mentioned above have never put significant police reform on the agenda. None of its governments have ever pushed for an alternative – why would a regime want to tinker with its most effective disciplinary mechanism? Not even riots, riots and agitations could bring about changes. It seems, conversely, that popular anger is a stabilizing factor, a safety valve for the social pressure cooker. Finally, it solidifies the image that the powerful have of the population. In the Histories of Herodotus, written in the 5th century BC, the Persian nobleman Megabyzus states: “There is nothing so empty of understanding, nothing so full of impudence, as the rabble. Behold, it was madness not to bear domination. Men, when they sought to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, gave themselves up to the meanness of a rude and unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what he is about, but a mob is completely without knowledge; for how can there be knowledge in a rabble, who have not been taught, and who have no natural sense of what is right and proper? It runs wildly against the institutions of the State with all the fury of a swollen brook in winter – and confuses everything.”

From the regime's point of view, it is quite possible that the riots are welcome, as they guarantee renormalization, allow the social “bantustans” to remain so, and deflate discontents that could otherwise be dangerous. Naturally, for them to perform this stabilizing function, they must be subject to external condemnation: vandalism must be denounced, violence must arouse indignation, looting must arouse disgust. Such reactions justify the cruelty of repression, which becomes the only means of stemming the tide of barbarism. It is under these conditions that riots serve to ossify the social hierarchy.

We cannot fail to remember the popular uprisings that periodically shook the “ancient regime” and were regularly and ruthlessly suppressed: the Grande Jacquerie of 1358 (which gave rise to the common name for all subsequent peasant revolts), the Tuchin Revolt in Languedoc (1363-84), the Ciompi Revolt in Florence (1378), the Wat Tyler Rebellion (1381), the Peasant War in Germany (1524-6), the Carnival at Romans (1580), and the Masianello Revolt in Naples (1647). Historian Samuel Cohn counted over 200 such cases in France, Flanders and Italy from 1245 to 1424.

But it was the great historian Marc Bloch who observed how the feudal system needed these revolts to sustain itself: “A social system is not only characterized by its internal structure, but also by the reactions it provokes: a system founded on commandments can, at certain times, imply reciprocal duties of help performed honestly, as it can also lead to brutal outbursts of hostility. In the eyes of the historian, who only has to observe and explain the relationships between the phenomena, the agrarian revolt appears as inseparable from the manorial regime as, for example, the strike is for the big capitalist company”.

Bloch's reflection leads us to the following question: if the "jacquerie” is inseparable from feudalism and the strike of Fordist capitalism, so what system of domination does the turmoil of the NEETs correspond to? There is only one answer: a system – neoliberalism – in which the plebs were reconstituted. Who are these new commoners? They are the NEETs of the US skyscrapers and the southern neighborhoods of Tehran, the sub-proletarians of the sensitive areas. They are the class that many of today's so-called "progressives" despise, fear, or at best ignore.

*Marco D'Eramo is a journalist. Author, among other books, of The Pig and the Skyscraper (To).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on sidecar blog.

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