A Paree Teenage Riot
Sunday 6 November: 8:00 pm. Abdel, Bilal, Youssef, Osman, Nadir and Laurent meet up outside the 10-story structure of Building 112 in Aubervilliers (Seine-Saint-Denis). When Rashid, dressed in an oversized down jacket, comes along, he lights a cigarette and sets fire to the building’s garbage collection station. That’s too bad but we have no choice, blurts Nadir. For the last 10 days this scene has been repeating itself daily. This small gang from the “projects” of Hélène-Cochennec Street, which house more than a thousand tenants, wants to “fuck shit up.” Cars, warehouses, and gymnasiums are the targets of anger which to no authority.
If we ever get organized someday, we’ll have grenades, explosives, Kalashnikovs…We’ll meet outside the Bastille and it’ll be war, they threaten. Neither kadi nor Islamist seems to dictate their behavior or manipulate them. But for now, the gang from Building 112 acts only in the neighborhood: the “organization” seems to be more of an improvised happy hour than a warrior undertaking. Everyone brings some stuff along, explains Abdel.
We have more revolution inside us than hate, announced Yussef, the eldest member of the gang. At age 25, he says he’s calmed down since getting engaged. Nonetheless, he feels “rage”. His hatred is mostly directed at Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his bellicose language. Since he thinks were scum, we’re going to clean his racist clock down at the pressure car wash. Words hurt more than punches. Sarko must resign. Until he apologizes, the violence will continue.
Adding to the “rage” is the tear gas canister launched at the Clichy-sous-Bois Mosque a week ago. That was blasphemy, says Yussuf. A judicial investigation will determine if the tear gas grenade was fired from inside the mosque or next to the entrance. All these young men have too much pent-up rancor to listen to appeals for calm. When a dog is backed against a wall, it becomes aggressive. We are not dogs but we’re responding as if we were animals, affirms Osman.
17 year-old Laurent, the youngest of the lot, claims he torched a Peugeot 607 just a stone’s throw from here two hours ago. Nothing could be easier. All you need is to fill a bottle with gasoline, stuff in a rag as a fuse, break a window then toss in the Molotov cocktail. Within two minutes, the building’s aflame if it doesn’t explode.
But why are they burning neighborhood cars? We have no choice. We are ready to lose everything because we have nothing, Bilal justifies. We even burned this guy’s car. That really pissed him but understood.
The “guy” is here. He’s 21, works as a chef’s assistant in a restaurant in Paris’ 15th Arrondissement and doesn’t deny what happened. He whips out his cellphone and proudly displays the screen: there’s an image of a police squad car on fire, taken on one of the gang’s prior outings in the aftermath of the death of a youth from Aubervilliers. You know, when you brandish a Motolov cocktail, you hear people shouting for help. There are hardly words to express how you feel. You “speak” by torching something.
There’s no unknown recipe in their incendiary quest. Their most worthy handiwork is acid bombs you can buy at Franprix and stuff with aluminum foil, usually done by 13 year old kids. If you’re 13 and all you feel is revolt, then that’s a big problem, explains Abdel, who hopes that he’ll never have rage-filled kids.
At 8:15 pm, you hear the firetruck sirens. Here come the cops…Let’s get out of here, orders Yussuf and the gang disappears into the vestibule. The building’s elevator only stops at two floors: the 4th and the 9th.
Up on the 4th floor, they think they are safe from police patrols. Bilal, 21, knows something about that: Today I was searched twice. Les flics threw me down on the sidewalk and shoved a Flash Ball [a double-barreled plastic pistol that uses rubber bullets] in my face. They don’t understand why the government spends millions of euros to equip the police and won't give us a dime to open a youth center.
Yussef and the gang aren’t chumps. They know very well that the violence which they unleash will be met with backlash. We’re not punks, we’re rioters, they say defensively. We’re calling everyone together, to spread our revolt, they say. And they complain about their wretched lives. Every member of the gang is jobless and unemployment subsidies are running out, deplores Nadir, 24. Just like the others, he stopped going to school at age 16, after failing his electromechanical exam. Since they, he has worked only small-time janitorial jobs and stacking pallets. What other job could we do? he shrugs. Out of the 100 resumés I mailed out, I only got three interviews. Even if I show them I’m earnest, they reject me, he says bitterly. For this bunch, school was never much use. That’s why we are burning them down, interjects Bilal.
Did Nicolas Sarkozy’s provocative comments represent the occasion they were waiting for? Did they feel they were entitled to release their bottled-up rage? We are drowning and instead of throwing us a lifeline, they’re pushing our heads under water. We need help!, they insist. These youths say they are without resources, misunderstood, victims of racial discrimination, condemned to live in the dirty projects and rejected. They are not shy about hiding their satisfaction and pride as the rioting spread throughout the country. There is no competition among the cities. It’s all pure solidarity.
9:00 pm. The gang goes back outside, at the end of the fence. The firemen have put out the fire in the garbage collection station. Yussef and his homies ask the question : What are we waiting for to burn something else?
Yves Bordenave and Mustapha Kessous
LE MONDE | 07.11.05 | 16h27