Thursday, November 03, 2005

State Violence in Clichy Sous Bois : An Eyewitness Account

Please note that the below account of the past week’s riots in Clichy-Sous-Bois come from the website les mots sont importants and translated by yours truly. I have a “fast and loose” translation philosophy, meaning that when there is a choice between readability and the original phraseology i tend to favour the former, provided that the meaning stays the same. The original document can be seen in French.

Please also note that i am translating this as i have not been able to find any radical accounts of the riots or the police racism that provoked them in English… i do not necessarily agree with the author’s point of view, nor does the author necessarily agree with mine. Si quelqu’un a un meilleur texte à suggérer, svp envoyezmoi le!

For background to the riots, including a timeline, check out the Wikipedia entry.

State Violence in Clichy Sous Bois : An Eyewitness Account
Clichy-sous-Bois : lawlessness or injustice?
by Antoine Germa

I have been in and out of Clichy since Saturday morning, working with a France-Inter reporter on a series of reports about the situation in Clichy-sous-Bois. The city was “in arms” from the night of Thursday October 27th to the night of Monday October 30th.


I am writing what I have seen, heard, understood, and been told.

1. Two dead teenagers (Zyad and Bounna, 17 and 15 years old, from college #3) do seem to have been chased by the police, contrary to the official version which denied that there was any pursuit (the Sarkozy/Parquet version). Why else would they go in that alleyway and climb a wall to hide in a power substation when they lived so close by?

2. The ten young people who were playing soccer ran away from the police who were checking people’s i.d. because some of them did not have proper papers (amongst these, the third electrocuted youth, Metin, was in the process of having his case regularized). They were never involved in any theft from the site as the official version claimed, but that did not stop these claims from being repeated by [Prime Minister Dominique] de Villepin on Thursday. Nobody stands by these claims today, as the prosecutor from Bobigny acknowledged Saturday that it was a simple i.d. check. The youths who were arrested were released within an hour, more proof that the police had nothing on them. Metin, suffering from severe burns, “does not remember anything” according to the official version… is this silence connected to his legal status?

3. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the city : Why are the police lying? What are they hiding? People spontaneously began to riot on Thursday, on Friday they were reinforced by the “older ones”. The first targets were: the post office (many cars burnt), the fire station (a fire truck demolished), bus shelters, a school (set on fire). The rioting became particularly violent on Friday (people throwing rocks and firebombs and shooting at police cars) This took place in the big thoroughfares that run through the Chene pointu neighbourhood (close to Pama). Many cars were set on fire, their burnt out shells were still littering the streets Saturday morning.

Saturday morning there was a silent march organized by religious associations and the mosques. There were appeals for calm. All eyes were on the justice system and [Minister of Public Security Nicolas] Sarkozy was singled out for criticism. Moslem community institutions, city officials and activists were visibly united, and seemed to have the situation under control. There were slightly more than a thousand participants. Visibly tired and emotional, the Socialist Mayor of Clichy, Claude Dilain, who seems to enjoy real support amongst the population of Clichy (including the youth), made an official request to Sarkozy to open an investigation into the deaths of the two teenagers. Coming out of a meeting at the city hall after the march, the lawyer for the victims’ families announced that he would be filing a complaint in order to expose the circumstances in which they died. The police were nowhere to be seen and all seemed calm that day.

Saturday night, as the fast was broken (around 6:30pm), 400 riot police – including some who came from Chalon s/saone – appeared all over the Chene pointu neighbourhood. As usual, they were encircling – “closing off” – the neighbourhood. The police are ridiculous : joggng in step, like Roman legionnaires, shields raised and flash-guns in hand, they went street by street as if fighting invisible enemies.

At that time of day everybody is eating and nobody stays outside. So why such a show of force at a time when the streets are unusually quiet? “Provocation” is the answer given by everyone from the area I asked. This is the recurring theme since Friday night.

After an hour, some young people go outside and stand in front of the police: everyone expects a confrontation. How does the police strategy make ay sense, except in terms of “marking their territory”, “restoring order” in the most primitive and macho way possible.

Several different eyewitness accounts and recordings clearly show that the police wanted to have it out with the youths: calling out racist insults, challenging them to fight, posturing. I went to the Bousquets mosque at 9pm: it was overflowing (roughly 1200-1300 people), as this was the Night of Destiny that is traditionally spent in the mosque. Several cars and garbage cans had already been set alight, and young people were here seeking refuge in this sanctuary in the middle of the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, there was a mood of solemn contemplation, and from the beginning the imams had played an important role in restoring the peace.

Despite the police provocations, Saturday night seemed less violent. Was this because of the appeals to calm repeated all day long? Was this due to the importance of the Night of Destiny at this point in Ramadan?

4. Sunday night, I receive an outraged and dismayed telephone call from Ibrahim, the son of an imam, at 10:55pm. He tells me that while people were praying the police gassed the de Bousquets mosque. He tells me that some women – who were in the section reserved for them – almost passed out. As they left they were met with insults from the forces of law and order: “whore, bitch…” Attempts to speak to the police proved futile, those who dared to try were ordered to “Move on!” and risked being wounded with a flash-ball. Ibrahim asks me to come to be a witness but I am not in Clichy at the time.

This news seems beyond belief. How can they attack a religious gathering? Why gas the mosque when (apart from the mayor) the religious authorities have been the only ones capable of calming things down? Things are now ready to explode; new confrontations break out and more cars are set on fire: positions are becoming more and more radical, especially as the police deny that they used tear gas in the mosque. They say the type of grenade that was used is not the kind issued to police. From this point on there are two issues: the deaths of the teenagers and the attack on the mosque.

It is at this point that Sarkozy appears on television defending and justifying the police actions in Clichy, once again calling for « zero tolerance » : one hand the iron fist, the other hand… nothing, except perhaps the invisible hand of the market.

5. Monday morning : the mood is tense. At 11am, Sarkozy meets with the security forces at the de Bobigny police station, offering them his congratulations and support. The official version of the gas attack on the mosque has been somewhat modified over night. It turns out the kind of grenade used was indeed the sort issued to police, but there are still some doubts: just who could have thrown the grenades into the mosque? Yet again, the official version is completely disconnected from reality.

At 1pm I arrive at Chene Pontu to watch the news on TV with the Imam and his family: the way the media is covering events is another one of the things people have complained about since the “riots” began. People here feel that the media are the representatives of the establishment, that they are spreading lies, and more than anything else that they are helping to stigmatize people who live in these working class neighbourhoods.

And yet, one can hear a change: the newspapers and the television channels are voicing some criticisms. They are beginning to question the official version of how the two kids died and the mosque was gassed.

At 2pm here is a press conference at the Bousquets mosque. A video of the attack was caught by on a cell phone camera. It is shown to many reporters: it shows the panic as the worshippers were gassed. Then the officials spoke, firmly, with emotion, demanding a judicial inquiry and an official apology. At the heart of these demands is the fact that people of different beliefs should be treated equally. The mosque president, Mr. Brouhout, who is close to the UMP, was strikingly able to calm people down. Bouna’s older brother told journalists that he would not meet with Sarkozy, who he feels is “incompetent”; instead, along with Zyad’s family he demands a meeting with the Prime Minister. There is a consensus that the police must leave the neighbourhood in order for things to calm down.

Around this press conference, community activists are highlighting the socio-economic causes behind these events. Clichy is one of the poorest municipalities in France and community groups have less and less money to work with. Things are tense as the press conference draws to a close: young people are sharing their stories, women are explaining what they experienced and saw first hand. A common theme in all these accounts is anger at the police, who are carrying out more and more foolish – and often illegal – “muscular” interventions, and at the authorities in the ministry who are not condemning the gas attack against the mosque. The religious authorities, visibly shaken by what happened the night before, slowly manage to take control of the situation.

Everyone is nervously waiting for nightfall. At 7pm representatives of the mosque and the police reach an agreement: some youths are designated mediators in order to “calm” the more hot-headed ones and prevent further confrontations with police. This is not a new idea: indeed, some young people had suggested this Saturday, but the police were not interested then. Is it that they feel they are unable to find a solution? Is this the end of the “hard” approach, which has proven itself so ineffective?

11 :30pm : the police are playing cat-and-mouse with some young people, but the situation seems under control. I am told that the mediators are playing a key part on the ground: they go and meet with the younger kids, they talk to them to convince them to not do anything. Later that night I learn that the police station at Montfermeil has been set on fire and that the police had made some arrests. There had been no major confrontations.

Antoine Germa , Tuesday November 1st. The author is a history-geography teacher who works in Clichy-sous-Bois.

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