Total Rioting: From Metaphysics to Politics

Image: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Saturday 1st April, 2017

Fabien Truong

Firstly, I would like to thank Joshua Clover and Marie-Hélène Bacqué for their critical reviews. My response here provides the opportunity to clarify possible misunderstandings, and comes at a point where recent events make the analysis even more raw and timely. Adama Traore died on the 19 of July 2016 in Beaumont-sur-Oise after running away from a police ID control. Theo was severely attacked on 2 February 2017, in Aulnay–Sous-Bois during a police ID control. One of the policeman is currently being prosecuted for rape. Over the days and weeks that followed, demonstrations and violent confrontations between youths and the police spread throughout various outer cities areas. Total rioting once again.

In response to Clover’s main concern about a ‘one-sided view’ which, by ‘attending almost exclusively to the subjective aspect of the riot’, would lose the ‘objective forces’ and the material ‘want based’ explanations, I can only reiterate that: a) rioting as a biographic moment and a personal experience does not oppose the structural dynamic of what I have called the ‘mechanics of urban riots’. On the contrary it allows for an understanding of why violent responses covering local needs for self-defence and material concerns has to make total sense to be triggered; b) there is no such thing as a binary opposition between objective and subjective, material concerns and symbolic dimensions, wants and aspirations. This is precisely why ‘totality’ appears to me to be the adequate anthropological concept to qualify what is at stake for rioting individuals, as it works ‘all together and at once’ (see conclusion); c) that said, the ‘balance’ between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ is not the target of my paper. The subjective dimension is very rarely addressed on a topic particularly prone to wishful thinking and my paper aims to re-address such an invisibility.

Clover ‘suspects’ that people attack the police or school primarily because they embody the figure of a daily enemy. I would agree. The power of past traumatic memories—such as when Elliott fears for his security while facing a policeman even though he is on the ‘good’ side of the fence—speaks for itself. It also speaks to looking at the confrontation with the police as the consequences of a potent political socialization process shared by many boys in the French banlieues (‘death by the police and policed by death’). These practical experiences of self-defence and self-affirmation do not invalidate the symbolic dimensions of the struggle for recognition. Clover ‘suspects that people attack school because there are polite prisons’. This is true, but this is not the full story. All the rioters I have been socializing with say that they ‘hate school’ while sharing the same ‘regret’—not having ‘managed to do better at school’—and recalling a misadjusted appetite for school. They hate school in a society overvaluing diplomas and intellectual work. They attack a core French institution they would have liked to fit into, to make their parents proud. It takes time to unravel these contradictions in an ethnographic relationship. But again, I believe it works ‘all together’. This is precisely why it is working.

I do not see such a dialectical relationship being a ‘conservative just-so story complaining that looters act with inadequate self interest’ as Clover puts it. ‘Adequate self interest’ does not make much sense for a sociologist. Most of the time, people do not entirely know why they do what they do. I believe this is one of the reasons why social sciences matter. Asserting that schools are only ‘polite prisons’ is not far from being a culturalist just-so story depicting the traps of a working class anti-school culture, which has now vanished with the post-Fordist area. It is also not far from being a scholastic just-so story romanticising school opposition from a radical chic point of view. It seems that we both agree on the importance of a two-sided dialectical account. The key question is how to address this question empirically. I believe that studying long-term social trajectories offers a fruitful and solid contextualisation.

‘Context’ takes me to Bacqué concerns. The first one lies in the reaffirmation that ‘these revolts were not solely angry youths’. I totally agree with her. In 2005 as today, it is not only the youth who has been revolting and protesting, but a bigger and older scope of the population. There have been many debates, marches, associative events and pacific protest, often invisible. But rioting as a physical means to express this social revolt still has its very own particularities. I disagree that you can understand them sociologically with the term ‘social revolt’. Rioting always generates mixed feeling within inhabitants who tend to understand ‘rioters’ as well as condemn violence. The general message is roughly always the same: ‘you are right but you have to calm down and express yourselves in a different way’. Eliott’s dad and his older brother’s reactions represent a paroxystic masculine case: they beat him up but they let him go out.

Different ways of revolting betray different socialization contexts. You have to be a social being of a particular kind to find meaning in a trade-union meeting, a set of open ‘état généraux’, a silent march, a strike or a petition – the kind of revolt that artists and intellectuals, including myself, would do in such circumstances.  For some groups of young men all around France, total rioting is the conveyor belt of this social revolt. This is why the tragic stories of Zyed and Bouna in 2005 or Adama and Theo more recently are fundamentally vicarious. It is not by chance that Parisian high school pupils have gone on strike to protest against the police’s behaviour whilst other boys have gone for total rioting, even though Adama or Theo did not live on their doorstep. In doing so, they could also isolate themselves from their own neighbourhood or peers. On March 6th  and 7th, a group of boys entered a high school in Saint-Denis with metal bars and started to set bins on fire to provoke a fight against the police. This attack has ignited antagonist feeling and bitterness amongst the high school pupils who all came from the same neighbourhood.

Politically, I would also agree with Bacqué’s second concern.  There is a war of words within the social world to (de)legitimize what is ultimately a fight for justice.  In this respect, ‘social revolts’ tick more boxes than ‘riots’ (and even more so than the French ‘émeutes’). Violent confrontation with the police is not a fixed ‘thing’ with no history, no relations, no projection. This is why I have chosen ‘rioting’ over ‘riots’ and ‘total rioting’ to replace ‘rioters’ and ‘riots’. ‘Social revolts’ and ‘total rioting’ are two expressions with different aims. ‘Social revolts’ describes a wider movement of protestation and could be turned into an effective political motto; ‘total rioting’ tries to conceptualize a sociological phenomenon.

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