(First published on Urban Times on 31st Aug 2011)
October 27, 2005. Police in Paris responding to a burglary report encounter a group of youths in the banlieue (suburb) of Clichy-sous-Bois. Half an hour later two of them are dead, electrocuted while fleeing through a power substation. The news spreads fast across the banlieues of Paris, and by nightfall the city begins to burn as angered youths spill on to the streets and inflict damage on public and private property in response to what they deem police brutality. The unrest soon escalates beyond control, and ten days later, by November 7, more than 270 towns have been affected, almost 9,000 cars have been vandalized, and around 120 police and firefighters have been injured. 2,800 arrests are made and the damage is estimated at around the €200 million mark.
The incident sounds severe, but it also rings familiar, isolated, even quaint, a typical example of the vagrancy so characteristic of a nation where people rise up and strike, picket, and demonstrate at the drop of a hat, paralyzing the entire country for days on end. But upon closer look it becomes clear that there is more to it than this unfair stereotype. Recent events show otherwise, that perhaps this violence is the symptom of something larger, something less French and more international.
Take the so-called Arab spring. It has been long overdue and was bound to take place. Oppressed for decades by ruthless dictators, secular or theocratic, people in Muslim nations across the word have been feeling much strife. Freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, the right to free enterprise, gender equality and universal suffrage, the right to worship any God one chooses – or not worship one at all – these liberties were not part of Islamic society. In an age of mass information and social media, it was a situation bound to come to a head.
And it did. Tunisia and Egypt erupted in mass protest, ousting their dictators and instating democracies in their stead. Libya is seeing the tail end of a bloody civil war, hoping to become stable in time, and Syria is putting up a strong fight against a ruthless crackdown. Bahrain’s movement has been suppressed back into submission, like Iran’s two years prior, but one can feel those insurgencies fomenting in the civilian undergrowth, looking for a breath of fresh air in order to flare up again.
So much for the Muslim mass uprisings and movements. Yet what about Europe? Why did demonstrations and riots break out in places like Greece and Spain in recent months?
The answer lies on the ugly side of democracy, in demagoguery and graft. Elected officials in these nations – as well as in many other nations across Europe – have taken advantage of their office over the years to further their own dubious interests. Incompetence took over and eroded each country’s standing. Things were done in such a way that a disaster was slowly put together, one that bled the states dry at the expense of the citizenry. It was bound to come to a head.
And it did. Lacking true leadership and plagued by corrupt politicians, Greece and Spain were led down unsustainable paths over the years, borrowing beyond their means, mounting up huge national debts in the process, producing less than they were obliged to. The result was a sovereign financial crisis that threatened the very foundation of each nation, not to mention the whole Euro-zone and, in effect, the global economy.
The problem was in fact extremely contagious. With countries invested heavily in one another, it proved hard to contain. Not managing one’s own finances properly seemed to be a southern or peripheral problem, typical of Mediterranean laxity and Irish flamboyancy, some said. But investing in each other’s debt was common practice. So the problem proved more far-reaching and harder to stamp out than many European politicians liked to present. This was a case of outright financial entanglement, one which required extremely tough resolve to unravel.
The resolve was never found. Teeter-tottering between local politics and global economics, the European leadership failed to address the problem at its roots. Patchwork measures were introduced instead, first bailing out Greece, Ireland and Portugal, then placing them under financial monitoring in order to get them to straighten themselves out. Austerity measures were passed through legislation to fix the black hole finances, and the citizens, hit hardest of all, already in black holes of their own – financial and informational – reacted to the budget cuts by taking to the streets.
There we have it. Unrest and uprising due to political oppression on the one hand and financial mismanagement on the other. Simple as that, case closed. But then comes August, and Britain, one of the most socially proper and prudent parts of the world, erupts in violence as looters take to the streets in north London, hijacking a peaceful protest over the shooting of a man by the police, ransacking entire neighborhoods in the process. The trouble spreads like wildfire and over the next three days numerous English cities and towns succumb to the blind fury of thugs, who, in broad daylight, pillage store after store and terrorize communities in a plunder that leaves everyone baffled. The British watch in awe as England becomes a playground for daylight robbery.
Each of the incidents mentioned above is unique. They all stand alone, each perfectly explainable in itself when observed in isolation. The Paris riots, for example, were racially motivated, perpetrated by people of North African heritage rising up against what they considered police discrimination, brutality, and oppression.
The Arab spring was politically motivated, geared to oust dictatorship and replace it with democracy. The England riots were an orgy of looting and criminality committed in a defiant display against authority and order. Each episode has its origins somewhere, and given time, will be dissected, analyzed, and explained.
But what about the future? Explanation is one thing – and pretty useful in setting people’s minds at ease by attempting to show that we are on top of things, that we understand what is going on. But where does that lead us? If things are to be explained and dealt with without addressing the true, undercurrent causes of what drives violent uprisings, we are merely kicking the can down the road. Things are never really dealt with and run the risk of flaring up again, when we least expect them. We need to understand more about what drives individuals to mob violence so that we may prevent further outbreaks if we can, deal with them if necessary, understand how they work if possible.
Understanding how they work is the key. We assume that all mass movements are bad, but a look at Egypt and Libya says otherwise. Most of us are supportive of the uprisings there, they serve a good cause, we say. But not so in the case of the London or Paris riots – these are outrageous instances of vagrant criminality perpetrated by sick and perverted individuals. They have no place in civilized society. They should be crushed.
Funny how things change guise according to geography. Crushing criminal looters in our back yard is imperative, but when Gaddafi and Mubarak use the same language regarding those who are attacking their own state of affairs, regarding those who are undermining authority and order in their own country, they are deranged dictators.
Am I likening the British and French governments to the regimes of Gaddafi and Mubarak, or the uprisings in Egypt and Libya to the riots in France and England? Not at all. I am merely showing how when the shoe changes foot, so does the way we evaluate things. It all depends where you stand and how you perceive order and justice.
Did the London looters have right on their side? Most of us think not, but some are not too quick to hang them. There are plenty of individuals who can relate to their anger, hatred and defiance of authority. Maybe they don’t agree with it, but they see where it is coming from. So do many people in developing countries, who, upon seeing the footage on TV were probably neither shocked nor awed, they were simply amused, laughing and nodding their heads, wondering how we, the complacent and affluent “first world” like it now that we have tasted the poison they have been raised on. It must be amusing to see those in power fumble and stutter in a mayhem of – what is perceived as – their (our) own making.
Same goes for France. Her riots were an item of shock to most Europeans as well as to middle class citizens around the world, but to many of the poor of the country, and to many ethnics an immigrants, and to much of the rest of the world, they have probably ranged from rather amusing, to inevitable, to just plain justified.
What does this mean? Firstly, that our audience is not so sympathetic, not when we take the whole world into account. A devastated West will spell eerie times for the entire Globe, but people don’t know that, they are just eager to watch the custodians crumble, and they like it. It may even mean that their time has finally come, now that the old are dying out. The meek shall inherit the Earth, they believe, not because it is a popular Christian dictum but because it is a truism that follows from the principles of exhaustion and decadence of the mighty.
Secondly, it does not matter if outbreaks of public violence are condemnable, ridiculous, or criminal. If they persist long enough and capture the imagination of a critical mass of people, they will probably start fires in places we never imagined. Everything is interlinked in ways exponential, one incident affecting the other no matter how far removed they may seem to be. Each outbreak is a drop of blood in deep waters, in an age reeking of catharsis. Our leaders – from politicos to stooges and the odd incorruptible fellow – know it. This is why they panic at the sight of trouble, trying to restore order. Some people are lashing out, and it makes everything uncertain.
For now these insurgents are launching the game either on foreign lands, where they are congratulated for their extraordinary courage by outsiders, or at home, where they are condemned for their extraordinary criminality by the entire society. Truth be told, the riots in France and England were nothing more than disorganized, mindless bouts of rage. But even rage stands for something. It says that part of the population are mad enough to go on a rampage and destroy property because it reminds them of how oppressed they feel, how outcast and hopeless they have been rendered. By their own hand or by force of society, it matters not, their alienation is real and their feelings dangerous.
And that is what matters. Illogical, unsound, criminal their actions may be, but if we continue failing to address the root of the problem, the violence will keep returning. Our appraisal of given behaviors as disgusting and outrageous will not be enough to push them back, and neither will harsh punishment, not without something more substantial to back it up.
Make no mistake, harsh punishment for breaking the law is necessary and must be enforced without hesitation when the situation calls for it – but so must the search for answers regarding what causes the problem in the first place. Getting to the bottom of things and finding ways to deracinate problems rather than bury them under the rug is tantamount to an intelligent society. The two approaches go hand in hand, contrary to what the politicians would have you believe. The problem is that there is no political party out there able to combine the ballsy spirit of the right with the heady intellect of the left in order to apply a tough but informed grand policy on the issues at hand. So here we are, teeter-tottering between the two sides, getting only half of the things correct at any given time.
For now any sort of lasting insurgency seems an unlikely scenario. It hits close to home once in a while in flash form, sometimes too close for comfort, from platforms that come across as appalling and condemnable, eroding all calls to violent uprising rather than inspire them. But let us not get complacent. These outbreaks are signs, symptoms if you will, of a deeper problem, so let us treat them as such so that we may prevent them from spreading, perhaps even palliate and heal them. Failure to do so will allow them to set in, to come back even stronger, giving the global audience watching us – as we have been watching them over the past decades – the show of a lifetime. If this happens – and it would be interesting to see how much money the mass media would make from ongoing local unrest, and what frenzy they would induce in their effort to grab the exclusive stories, and what laws will be enacted by the state to restore law and order – we are talking a whole new ball game. Win or lose, reality will never be the same again. We will be left either with an insurgency situation or with a police state.
Let us wrap this savory little article up with a children’s rhyme, paraphrased of course, to convey the variety of guises in which violent uprisings come.
‘This brave insurgent overthrew a dictator – This defiant rebel started a war – This angry youth had a grievance with police and started burning down the city, as did this sociopath looter, who snatched himself brand new foot gear to wear in gangland – And this curious reporter is watching it all unfold, unwilling to be indignant in case he is mistaken for the protesters demonstrating outside the Spanish and Greek parliaments, who are crying for entitlements that will ease their suffering while rendering their countries totally bankrupt.’
I couldn’t let the indignation take over. I simply waited until my head cooled down. I did it in order to write not an angry article but a resolute one, addressing the points at hand, telling the story from an angle you never get to hear. In case we get too comfortable in making up our minds before giving it another thought or two.