My Neighbourhood in the Days of the Field-Marshal
May 18th, 2005
What follows was written over five months before the rebellion was sparked
in Clichy-sous-Bois, a similar “at risk” neighbourhood where the police act
as an occupying troop. In my opinion, it provides some necessary context to
the 2005 Fall Rebellion. - translator
It all started about a month before Ramadan. A troop of CRS [riot police]
in full battle regalia raided a low-income family home to arrest a young man.
It was a Wednesday, in the middle of the afternoon. It was nice outside. All
of the kids from the Reynerie neighbourhood (in Toulouse-le-Mirail) were outside.
They were there when the building was surrounded and closed off, they saw
the invasion by an army of police. They saw the arrested man’s mother and
young sister (4 feet tall) violently taken to the police station, and they
knew that all of this was for some tiny infraction… It almost turned into
a riot, the whole neighbourhood was deeply disturbed, and it had been relatively
calm up until then. For once, even the adults felt threatened by this uncalled
for police aggression. There was a collective and largely spontaneous reaction.
The next day, between 150 and 200 of us gathered at Abbal Place, to publicly
protest and denounce the police violence. And a few dozen of us met together
over the next weeks, to talk about the problems in our neighbourhood and
to try and bring about some solidarity between the generations, and between
residents who come from very different places.
Although we wanted to live together in peace, the police provocations did
not stop, and this provoked a cycle of revolt (cars set on fire, vandalism…)
and repression (counter-productive police ID checks, arrests, riot police…)
In this matter, there was the highly symbolic charge of the riot police,
preceded by tear gas grenades – on Christmas day. It was around 5pm and the
target was a group of children aged 12 and 13, who were playing on Kiev Street.
But this was just the beginning. A kind of taste of things to come. For
two months, in Mirail and also in twenty four other neighbourhoods throughout
France that are “to be tamed,” we are living as if we were under Field-Marshal
Petain [translators note: Petain was the man who set up a pro-Nazi government
in France after the German invasion in World War II]. This is the spontaneous
description that the oldest one of us said. It is true that he is wafting
through the neighbourhood like the stink of occupation. This is how the police
create lawless areas.
For the pretext for this abuse of power was largely the creation of the
media : there are apparently “lawless areas” where the police “cannot set
foot” and within which “criminal activities” take place.
In Mirail – as is certainly the case in the other neighbourhoods concerned
– this pretext is completely ridiculous.
How can they say that the police “cannot set foot” here, when there is a
big brand new police headquarters right in the middle of Mirail, between Reynerie
and Bellefontaine, and police stations all over the place? The police does
not need to come into the area: it is already here all the time! In passing,
please note that in order to justify this police headquarters (which was
built following the murder of a young man, Habib, at the hands of the police,
with the support of all of the political parties), they said that once it
was built there would be “no more violence” and life would be peaceful again.
Now we have the headquarters, the problems that come with the headquarters,
and less peace than ever.
As for “lawlessness,” let’s talk about it. But let’s talk about it properly:
one of the most basic rights [translators note: in French the word for a right
is also the word for the law: “le droit”; thus “lawlessness” and “without
rights” are both covered by the same phrase – I have translated “zone de non-droit”
consistently as “lawless area” but it could also be translated as “a place
where people have no rights”] is the right to come and go - as one pleases.
When we go out or come back from work, we have to pass through two, sometimes
three, police checkpoints. The neighbourhood is surrounded, closed off. All
of the roads going in and out are blocked. Day and night. There are groups
of police who are also set up within the neighbourhood. They are so close
together that from one checkpoint you can see the next. Sometimes there are
less than 200 meters between them.
Of course, as my neighbour said (he changed his mind after the fourth body
search) “Why worry if you have nothing to hide?” Why worry? Because, to pass
through one of these checkpoints means to risk being arrested, having to show
your papers (you had better not have forgotten anything!), having your vehicle
searched, having to get out of your car and have hands all over your body,
hands which are not exactly gentle. It means being viewed with suspicion,
having to listen to them laughing at you and making their little comments…
It means wasting a lot of time and being truly humiliated.
When you cannot leave your home without being subjected to this treatment
several times a week, you do in effect live in a lawless area [translator:
or “a place where people have no rights” – see above]. A lawlessness that
has been built from scratch by the police and the justice system.
And as for the famous “criminal activity,” we can be just as clear: by searching
through our vehicles and our pockets, yes, the CRS [riot police] have certainly
found some marijuana, some stolen cell phones and car radios, and other things
like that. Perhaps they even found some stolen cars. But they can search the
neighbourhood from top to bottom and they will not be able to find a single
person who traffics in 600 square meter apartments, or people who abuse social
assets, or people who loot public moneys, nor will they find anyone who makes
use of the “services” of Patrice Alègre. Those types live elsewhere,
far from police searches. They are protected by the police.
Startegy of Tension
We realized that what those in power were doing was carrying out a veritable
strategy of tension which, as in other such cases, has two results.
The first is that people are trapped in their neighbourhood, on their block,
in a true ghetto. You hesitate before going to see a movie, because you know
that you will have to go through two CRS checkpoints at night in order to
get back to your home. And so you stay at home. Your friends hesitate before
coming to visit you. You understand: they don’t want to have to go through
a body search at one of the police checkpoints. You have less and less contact
with the outside world.
Within the neighbourhood, people are getting more stressed. That’s the point.
One example, that occurred on Saturday March 26th, during the Easter weekend.
Everything was calm, and one of us took the car to go into town. He was not
out of the neighbourhood before a CRS police car sped past him, turned around
and stopped in front of him, while two others came up behind him, and three
or four others closed off each of the side streets. So he was surrounded by
ten police cars. What had he done? Was this a war? No, and in fact they were
not even interested in him; he made his way through as the cops were jumping
out of their cars with their shields and guns, charging into a building. A
few minutes later when he came back, there was nothing to see. What happened?
Why such a show of force? We will never know. But, even if one is not particularly
sensitive, the risk of suddenly finding oneself at any moment caught in the
middle of a western, is quite stressful, to say the least. Many residents
cannot deal with it, most notably the many elderly people who still live here.
Being shut up in a closed space, rising tensions anxiety, this is a recipe
for the rise of fundamentalisms. We already had some little girls who wore
the veil. Thanks to de Villepin’s policies, within the past two months we
have seen the first boys in the neighbourhood going to school in djellaba
[translators note: a long, loose, hooded garment with full sleeves, worn especially
in Muslim countries]. And within just the past few days, there have been
school students who, when their teacher tries to teach them a song, take
out notes explaining that Muslims do not sing. These are definitely the results
of policies carried out in the name of “Republican values,” and they will
only grow unless something changes.
The second result is that the repressive machine gets bigger. The permanent
surveillance of even the tiniest detail, the shows of force on a background
of poverty, are just so many provocations that lead to reactions, of individuals
or groups “taking action.” Sometimes, when he is pulled over for the umpteenth
time that day, a resident will crack and “tlk back to” a cop. Sometimes the
anger sets fire to garbage cans or cars (sometimes just a few meters away
from the police checkpoint)… And all of this serves as an excuse for the next
police searches, a greater police presence, more arrests… and then it starts
all over again. The State would like to provoke more riots in Mirail, that’s
why it continues to act this way. This is becoming more obvious every day.
What Is The Cost? What Is The Goal?
Another thing that should not be forgotten: all of this is very expensive.
But those in power, those who count every penny they can save at the expense
of workers, they make sure not to ever put a number on it. Hundreds of CRS,
officers with the Anti-Criminal Brigade, the Intelligence Services, police
of all sorts are permanently set up in the neighbourhood. Apart from their
fat salaries (take a look at the propaganda leaflets at the Bellefontaine
headquarters), they all get bonuses for working at night, on the weekends,
danger pay… without counting the maintenance costs for all of their equipment.
The total must be out of this world.
And what does it get them? In regards to the official objective (to have
a peaceful neighbourhood) it is useless. We are living in one of the most
tense periods within the past ten years. The money spent makes no sense. Unless
of course the official objective is not the true objective.
Be Clear About Who The Real Enemy Is
Caught between the State’s strategy of tension, the falling back onto one’s
identity and the some people’s idiocy (those whose latest national incarnation
is the campaign ‘against anti-white racism”), people don’t have a lot of space
left. But, as in the past, anarcho-syndicalist neighbourhood activists insist
that we must be clear about who the real enemy is.
We are saying and we will continue to say that our enemy is not our neighbour,
whose misery is also our own. Our real enemies are those who humiliate us.
Those who exploit us when it’s worth their while, and who fire us when it
becomes convenient. Those who raise our rents and utility bills. Those who
evict us when we can no longer pay. Those who cut back on social spending.
Those who leave us with no future apart from being warehoused in a ghetto.
So let’s be clear. Even if it is more difficult than ever, we should respect
each other, support each other and continue to work to build a different future.
The CNT-AIT residents in Mirail
Please note that the above text life in a “sensitive” neighbourhood comes
from the website of the CNT-AIT
This originally came from my blog - Sketchy Thoughts
- and is one of a number of pieces i wrote or translated regarding the riots
that rocked France in October and November 2005. To see the a complete list
of such posts, i suggest you check out the 2005 Riots In France page on the Kersplebedeb