Unrest and Repetition

When riots erupted in France at the end of June, it took police just under a week to make more than 3,000 arrests. Clashes on the streets of Paris and Marseille evoked other recent confrontations with the forces of state repression: think of the 22,000 arrests made by the Iranian police last autumn, or the 10,000 detained in America during the summer of Black Lives Matter. What do these three uprisings, across three different continents, have in common? To start with, the age and social class of the protesters. Those arrested were almost entirely under 30, and a disproportionate share were NEETs (those not in education, employment or training). In France and the US, this was linked to their status as racialized minorities: 26% of the youth population in zones urbaines sensibles are NEET, compared to the national average of 13%, and African Americans comprise almost 14% of the general population but 20.5% of NEETs. In Iran, meanwhile, the decisive factor was age: young people have lived their entire lives under US sanctions. Recent figures show that around 77% of Iranians between the ages of 15 to 24 fall into this category – up from around 31% in 2020.

The second common factor is even more striking. In all three cases, protests broke out following a murder committed by police: George Floyd, an African American, was killed in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020; the 22-year old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 16 September 2022; and the 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, of Algerian descent, in Nanterre on 27 June. In the aftermath of these killings, the media spotlight was placed on the ‘vandals’, ‘thugs’, ‘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 isn’t even known. In France, Éric Zemmour’s spokesperson launched an online fundraiser to support the cop who killed Nahel, which collected more than €1.6 million before it was taken down.

A third feature connects such protests and their repression to unrest in other countries: monotonous repetition. There is always the same recurring scene: smashed shop windows, burnt-out cars, some looted supermarkets, tear gas and the occasional bullet from the police. In the West, the same formula has been operative for decades: the police kill a young person from a marginalized community; the youth of this community rise up; they destroy a few things and clash with the police; they are arrested. The atmosphere reverts to a kind of precarious tranquillity, until the police decide to murder someone again. (Iran’s protests last year were the first major uprising against police violence in the country – a sign that even the land of the ayatollahs is easing its way into ‘Western modernity’.)

France has a long history of such incidents. To give just a few indicative examples: in 1990, a young paralysed man named Thomas Claudio is killed in the suburbs of Lyon by a police car; in 1991, a policeman shoots and kills the 18-year-old Djamel Chettouh in a banlieue of Paris; in 1992, again in Lyon, the gendarmerie shoot and kill the 18-year-old Mohamed Bahri for attempting to evade a traffic stop; the same year, in the same city, twenty-year-old Mourad Tchier is killed by a brigadier-commander of the gendarmerie; in Toulon in 1994, Faouzi Benraïs goes out to buy a hamburger and is killed by police; in 1995, Djamel Benakka is beaten to death by a policeman in the police station of Laval. Fast-forward: the riots of 2005 were a response to the death of two teenagers, Zyed Benna (17) and Bouna Traoré (15); those of 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 sufficient to remember the death of Aboubacar Fofana (22) in 2018, killed by police in Nantes during an identity check. Note how strikingly Gallic the names of victims are: Aboubakar, Bouna, Djamel, Fauzi, Larami, Mahaed, Mourad, Moushin, Zyed . . .

The exact same dynamic can be found across the Atlantic. Miami, 1980: four white police officers are charged with beating to death a black motorcyclist, Arthur McDuffie, after he ran a red light. They are acquitted, precipitating a wave of tumult 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. The subsequent unrest causes at least 59 fatalities and over 2,300 injuries. Rioting spreads to Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. Cincinnati, 2001: a white policeman 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 of various injuries incurred while he is 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 ultimately intervening. Charlotte, 2016: police shoot 43-year-old African-American Keith Lamont Scott; riots, curfew, deployment of the National Guard. A protester is killed during demonstrations, 26-year-old Justin Carr; 31 are injured. We eventually arrive at George Floyd; the scenario repeats itself.

British police have no reason to feel inferior to their transatlantic counterparts, nor their neighbours across the Channel. Here a few examples among many: Brixton, 1981: constant police brutality and harassment issues in protests and riots among the black community; 279 police and 45 civilians are injured (protestors avoid hospitals out of fear), 82 arrests, over 100 burnt vehicles, 150 damaged buildings, a third of which are set on fire. The upheaval spreads to Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Brixton, 1985: police search a suspect’s house and shoot his mother, Cherry Groce. A photojournalist is killed, 43 civilians and 10 police officers are injured, 55 cars are set on fire and a building is completely destroyed after three days of rioting (Cherry Groce survives her wounds but remains paralysed). Tottenham, 1985: a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, dies of cardiac arrest during a house search carried out by police, and a policeman is killed by crowds 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, extending to other areas of London and then to other cities. Over the next six days, five people are killed, 189 police officers are injured and 2,185 buildings are damaged. Beckton, 2017: a 25-year-old black Portuguese man, Edson Da Costa, dies of asphyxiation after being stopped by 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 bavure, as the French say, but a persistent and transnational feature of contemporary capitalism. (It brings to mind Bertolt Brecht, who, faced with the reaction of the East German government to popular protest in 1953, asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected a new one?’) What’s astonishing is that after every one of these upheavals, thousands of pitiful urbanists, sociologists, ‘youthologists’, criminologists, healthcare professionals, charities and NGOs turn, in their contrition, to the profound social, cultural and behavioural causes of such ‘violence’, ‘excesses’, ‘outbursts’ and ‘vandalism’. The police, however, are not deemed worthy of the same attention. Police violence is often described but seldom scrutinized. Not even Foucault sharpened our understanding of it, focussing instead on specific sites where law enforcement is organized and institutionalised.

Policing has clearly evolved over the centuries: it has been subdivided into specialised corps (traffic, city, border, military and international police) and its tools have been refined (wire-tapping, tracking, electronic surveillance). But it has remained identical in both its opacity and its unreformability. The states mentioned above have never put meaningful police reform on the agenda. None of their governments has ever pushed for an alternative – for why would a regime want to tamper with its most effective disciplinary mechanism? Nor have upheavals, riots and agitations managed to bring about change. It would seem, conversely, that popular rage is a stabilising factor, a safety valve for the social pressure cooker. Ultimately, it solidifies the image that the powerful have of the populace. In Herodotus’s Histories, written in the 5th century BC, the Persian nobleman Megabyzus states:

There is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wanton­ness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what he is about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? It rushes wildly into state affairs with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything.

From the point of view of the regime, it may well be that riots are welcome, for they guarantee renormalisation, they permit social ‘bantustans’ to remain such, and they deflate discontents that could otherwise be perilous. Naturally, for them to perform this stabilizing function they must be subject to outward condemnation: vandalism should be denounced, violence should spark indignation, looting should cause disgust. Such reactions justify the ruthlessness of the repression, which becomes the only means to beat back the tide of barbarism. It is under these conditions that riots serve to ossify social hierarchy.

We cannot but recall the popular revolts that periodically shook the ancien régime and were regularly and mercilessly repressed: the Grande Jacquerie of 1358 (which gave rise to the common name for all subsequent peasant uprisings), the Tuchin Revolt in Languedoc (1363-84), the Ciompi Revolt in Florence (1378), the Wat Tyler’s Rebellion (1381), the Peasant’s War in Germany (1524-6), the Carnival in Romans (1580) and Masianello’s Revolt in Naples (1647). The historian Samuel Cohn has counted more than 200 of these instances in France, Flanders and Italy from 1245 to 1424. But it was the great historian Marc Bloch who noted how the feudal system needed these revolts to sustain itself:

A social system is not only characterised by its internal structure, but also by the reactions it provokes: a system founded on commandments can, in certain moments, imply reciprocal duties of aid carried out honestly, as it can also lead to brutal outbursts of hostility. To the eyes of the historian, who must merely note and explain the relationships between phenomena, the agrarian revolt appears as inseparable to the seigneurial regime as, for instance, the strike is to the great capitalist enterprise.

Bloch’s reflection leads us to the following question: if the jacquerie is inseparable from feudalism, and the strike from Fordist capitalism, then to what command system does the tumult of the NEETs correspond? There is only one answer: a system – neoliberalism – in which the plebe has been reconstituted. Who are these new plebians? They are the NEETs of the US high-rise projects and the neighbourhoods of south Tehran, the subproletarians of the zones sensibles. They are the class that many of today’s so-called ‘progressives’ disdain, fear, or at the best of times ignore.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, NLR 116/117.