[Originally published in French by Lundi Matin on Feb. 14th, 2016. Translated into English by ediciones ineditos. Translator’s note: “banlieue” is translated as “suburbs” in this piece but in France, the “banlieues” on the outskirts of Paris carries a connotation closer to “the hood,” often accompanied by xenophobic and racist stereotypes of its racialized residents.]
Interview with Samir of the Suburbs & Immigration Movement (MiB)
Ever since the abuses of the Aulnay-sous-bois police had been made public, the evening riots in the Parisian suburbs have shown no signs of stopping, this despite the calls for calm and threats from the Executive branch. A reader of lundimatin had thus found it pertinent to send us an interview he did with Samir, a militant who came out of the Suburbs & Immigration Movement. Samir talks about his politicization in the suburbs in the ’90s, the riots of November 2005, the role of neighborhood associations and gives us his point of view on the current movement calling for #JusticePourTheo. He offers up a particular analysis on the prolonging of the riot within militant action, including its role within politics and its conjunction with other forms of struggle.
Hi Samir, could you tell us about your political career? You had notably been a part of the Suburbs & Immigration Movement (MiB) in the 90s. What was specific about your political approach in these low-income neighborhoods [quartier populaires]?
Conflict with the police started very early on, between 1988-89. But that which made me a militant happened on Dec. 17th 1997 when Abdelkader Bouziane was killed by the anti-criminality brigade [a national police force, often in plainclothes, noted for their brutality; hereto referred to as “the BAC”]. We were still not politicized yet, but we organized riots that went on for several days, following his murder by a bullet in the back of his head. We knew the police, which means we knew that that were there to hurt us and not to help us. We organized ourselves in the way we saw best fit and a way which we knew well: the riot.
Thereafter, we met people from outside of the neighborhood: they were in the MiB. They explained to us that the riot was fine – a form of political action, which works in the short term – but that the best way to defend ourselves in our neighborhood was to organize ourselves. They talked to us about autonomy and self-organization: these were the best ways according to them to be able to get the truth when it came to police crimes without letting”service Arabs and Blacks” (which at the time belonged to S.O.S Racism) to do their dirty work [this phrase will be explained later in the interview]. To head them off and avoid recuperation, we must tell our own stories about [police] violence. They explained to us that they will not do the work for us, but that they were going to get together some help so that we could self-organize and speak on our issues (urban renewal, police violence and environmental racism) that we have been dealing with for 30 years. This led us to become friends with them. Plus they never condemned the riots. On the contrary, they supported us by affirming that these were political acts. Though they found them insufficient: it would be necessary to give [the State] a follow-up act by politicking in our neighborhoods by way of popular education. Our neighborhoods are not political deserts; there has always been autonomous movements and struggles, but they have always been stifled by reps from the Socialist Party or from the Right.
Could you give us an overview of the current political situation in these low-income neighborhoods?
Right now it’s disastrous because our neighborhoods are abandoned and decriminalized. They serve as a grand training ground for the BAC and the Territorial Security Brigade, which comes to fuck with us. In the ’90s, we would say that the French police were a colonial police, but these days it would be more apt to speak of militias protected by a badge. That which also very clear today, beyond Arabs and Blacks suffering from racism, there this whole population that is suffering from precarity. And violence is not just contained in the low-income neighborhoods. A concrete example is the youth resistance (including those a bit older) during the mobilization against the Labor Law: we saw at the têtes de cortèges [translates to ‘head of procession’ of a march, but carries a militant connotation] the same practices which had been ours these last few decades. I was very pleased when I saw all these people resisting. The solidarity and the power relations established by the tête de cortège resembled what we were doing in our neighborhoods. The tête de cortège was not “guided” by the government or by the police – but rather laid its own foundation.
You talked about the Territorial Security Brigade, could you tell us more about them?
They are an extension of the BAC. Except the BAC were made up people without brains, had the worst grades in school, which often led to fights. But today the Territorial Security Brigade is much more violent because it is politicized, while still being on the government’s payroll. They have total control of the situation. If they are told to provoke some outbreak in some neighborhood then they do it. They are more efficient than the BAC because they evolved from them. Both tiers of the police are unionized under the Alliance which is a union closer to the Far-Right than the Republican Right, which gives you an idea of the police we have to deal with. Their violence is better organized, more covert and they commit more abuses than the BAC. We have reached a level of violence which was unimaginable a few decades ago.
This is not to say that we prefer the BAC, just that the new brigade is better equipped, better armed and that today the neighborhood youth (like those at the demos) have to confront overarmed cops, whom cause considerable and massive damage. The Mili [an autonomous militant youth collective based in Paris] last year conducted a census of the people injured at demonstrations against the Labor Law and thanks to this collective we were able to see the degree of violence of the police within the framework of preserving law and order. We are not talking about ten people, but hundreds. However this is the daily violence that we see in the low-income neighborhoods, which undergo the most maximum violence from the state.
You have close ties with the family of Adama [Traoré, black man killed by French police] and you have helped them when they were in need. Could you tell us how things have changed since the death of this young man the beginning of last summer?
Beaumont [Parisian suburb] gives hope to other low-income neighborhoods given that the way they have chose to fight, has been through self-organization and autonomy, since the family from the beginning trusted [Adama’s] friends, his acquaintances and the residents of Beaumont. That is what creates their current strength since no one tells them what they must do, but they do decide together the way they’re going to organize their struggle There are various examples of their victories: the rapid dismantling of the lies of the gendarmes [French police unit] which had less to the removal of the prosecutor and beyond that there’s the power relations they’ve successfully been able to install in the prefecture authorities, with the mayor and in the ministry of the interior.
According to you, what differentiates Théo’s case? For instance the mobilization of well-known individuals in the suburbs, like rappers for example.
If you would allow me, when you speak of those “well known in low-income neighborhoods,” we call them “service Arabs and Blacks.” Let me explain this to you. When we talk to Dupont-Moretti (Théo’s lawyer), what do you think we talk about? We talk about his network and the Socialist Party whom would like things to not take place as they took place in Beaumont: they impede residents, relatives of Théo and his friends from speaking their own words and to self-organize. There is a dispossession of voice when we let others speak instead of those whom are most impacted. When we say words are important we mean, we speak of a criminal act, of a collective rape, not just a simple act of “police brutality.” It was a barbaric act and Theo points that out. There is also the racist act: the insults the police hurled at him, calling him a “bamboula,” a “dirty black” and these words are not noted in the mouths of those who are supposed to be close to him.
Note that when I talk about “service Arabs and Blacks” this does not refer to the rappers, or other people from the neighborhood, but anti-racist associations which are in fact a front of the Socialist Party when it comes to stifling the voice of the residents. They have an artful way of stifling the discourse coming out of the neighborhoods. I am going to point out names of certain associations since I think this is worth emphasizing. For example “AC le feu” or the “Pas sans nous.” These two organizations work hand in hand with the Socialist Party to deconstruct that which is constructed in our neighborhoods. They proclaim to be our representatives even though we never see them. On the other hand, what we do see is the money they get from the State and which could serve for popular education, but instead is transformed 100% into their paychecks.
The positions of the rappers right now is great. It reminds me of the heyday of the MiB where rappers got together to do the track “11 minutes 30 seconds against racist laws” and whose raised funds were completely given to the MiB so that we could print posters and newsletters.
It was the rappers who offered themselves up for the neighborhood militants so that they may continue to work in their autonomous way. Today we have a new generation of rappers who are beginning to re-transmit news and put themselves at the service of the families and associations which work in the neighborhoods. Anyhow, I tend to give props to rappers who have always been there for the neighborhoods like Skalpel, la Scred Connexion, la Rumeur. Another example is when Bobigny I saw Fianso who comes from the Blanc-Mesnil neighborhod, who have I spotted for months in the demos against police violence. He talks about Arabs, Blacks, just as well as about white people and that is great to see. The rapper is the spokesperson of those who are on the move everyday on the streets. They have understand that they are there to spread the news.
The revolts have spread across the suburbs and many demos have taken in the more posh parts of the center of the city. There’s this impression that there are certain junctions which are starting to link up, but that they are yet fragile, what do you think?
Fragile, yes, because there is a passivity between the Far-Left and the low-income neighborhoods. Except that the new generation, in my own opinion, is growing stronger and stronger. Like I said earlier, during the movement against the Labor Law I saw things that I have not seen since the movements against globalization or since other struggles which had rejected us and in which the militants had not taken us into consideration, viewing us in a paternalistic way. Today we have real discussions and alliances made up from autonomous, anti-fascist milieus and militants from low-income neighborhoods. For example, with Antonin’s case [university student who was charged and incarcerated, accused of having participated in an attack against a police vehicle during the anti-labor law movement] was defended by his political family, but also by the militants from the low-income neighborhoods. It’s not really a convergence, but it is a terrain which we must continue to nourish. This is what the new generation is doing.
Last Saturday [2/10/17], almost 5,000 persons came together at Bobigny [suburb of Paris] for Théo and all victims of the police. We also saw there residents from the suburbs and from the city center. Could we say that this conjunction is operational for the moment?
I would say so from what I was able to see. I saw many militants from the so-called tête de cortège that came not just to support the family of Théo, Beaumont and the demo on Nov. 5th in Paris but also support Théo following the aggression he underwent. Returning to Bobigny, I was happy with what I saw. What I saw there was really great and magnificent: whether it was the white kids, shouting the same slogans with the same rage as those from the low-income neighborhoods, or the rising rage following the police provocations on the nearby bridge and the tribunal park of Bobigny. There were people who finally had the impression that they had found each other. United on the matter of police brutality, but not just that: also on the issue of Islamophobia which many militants spoke on without letting up. To see white people, the precarious with the not-precarious, associate with kids from the low-income neighborhoods to throw rocks, taking aim at the police, really brought a smile to my face as I returned home.
What do you think about the Young Communists 93 who talked with the media explaining that it was young Parisian bobos who had set-off the clashes [with the police] and that rather their group sought to pacify the gathering, dialoguing with the police?
Clearly this is inadmissible. I think they had better just shut up and it was clear to everyone that it was not Parisian bobos who started all this. For the communists of Bobigny it was not the police who started all this. But here’s what I say: the neighborhood youth had mobilized, and they responded to the police presence and their repeated provocations. This is what we call popular self-defense. If the pigs had been well-behaved the gathering would have gone on differently.
In your opinion, what do you think would allow us to emerge from simple riot-based alliance to a long-term strategic approach?
First of all, we need to continue these meet-ups which have been happening since the State of Emergency has been declared [in France], conduct popular education which respects our differences, without erasing the history of one another. The new methods which have been put into place since the attacks on Nov. 13th in the heavily-politicized wild demos [manifestations sauvages] must continue more and more, with militants from the low-income neighborhoods. We must continue to participate in these types of mobilization. This is how we will learn how to find each other and in this way grow stronger in the long term. A most recent example of this is the tête de cortège. It is an example of solidarity, of the construction of a power relations and of autonomy, while at the same time include the demands of everyone.
I’d like to recall an episode which I really enjoyed, the youth which they called white bobos had not forgotten one afternoon the role which the CGT play in our neighborhoods and I saw the tête de cortège refuse to let the CGT join them. When the CGT has decided to join the side of the police, for us in the low-income neighborhoods, give what we have suffered from their treacherous social leaders, it’s great to see the young and not-so-young alike refuse to collaborate with those who talk to the police.
Let’s return a bit to the low-income neighborhoods and political life. You have said these neighborhoods themselves have their own history, their own political culture, but how does this “politicking” translate there today?
We do this by way of autonomous organization, taking care of our own youth with school support, activities, but by way of popular and political education. The best example in France from an action by MiB was the Justice pour le Petit Bard association which had long-term work with the youth, the elderly by winning political victories by way of the power relations which comes from the streets and not from the offices where the “service Arabs and Blacks” churn their butter. No one is sold out. Everything comes from the street and from the political strength which the residents have built themselves.
In my city of Dammaire-les-Lys, following the murder of Abdelkader we put into place an association, Bouge qui Bouge, which worked on conducting popular education with this leading principle: never align with, converse with or sit at the same table as those which oppress us. For example here’s an action we took on: we were returning from a protest and there was a neighborhood building where we asked the residents whether they’d like to hang street-side some banners which we had used. They all responded positively and on the banners were messages on urban renewal, against police brutality and racism. What we found surprising was that the residents all said yes. They knew us because we would help out their kids. They were all happy to do this and to this day I still get goosebumps thinking about it. There was a real link with the residents.
I would like it if you would talk to us about the differences that you note between right now and the riots of 2005, as well as the continuities.
What has changed since 2005 is that now people know that Zyed & Bouna had been chased by the police and killed by shots to their back, but the difference also lies in that now everyone knows why rocks have been thrown [at the police]. The youth can explain this all in their own words that they are fed up with the côntroles aux faciès [racially-motivated ID checks], fed up with having their friends killed and they also see youth like Bagui and Antonin and hundreds of others who end up in prison due to their [political] convictions or situation despite having committed no crime. Throwing a rock is not a crime, but a consequence of the violence they have undergone. They are political prisoners, whether your a kid from the hood or a you’re chewed up because of your situation or whether your an militant outsider who is defending them and end up with a case because of it.
There was a lot of media . When I say that now the youth know why they throw rocks I should point out the interviews from 2005 that all talked about Zyed & Bouna but did not noting there was a daily nature to the criminal practices on behalf of the police. The riot allows us to build for the long term, political violence leads to the long term by capitalizing on the construction of political militants through the spread of an ideology.
We don’t all have the same methodologies. We are also responsible for making [voting] municipal lists, on the local, so as to build political relationships. Yes I am talking about this at the municipal level and not everyone agrees with this, but this allows us to locally defend ourselves. In certain neighborhoods, our struggles have been especially strong like at Dammaire-les-Lys so that we did not feel the need to create such lists. We were on the ground everyday and we had more power than the deputy mayor or the mayor themselves. Here’s another situation: at Toulouse and at Lyon, autonomous lists allowed us to be well-known and to bring our demands into the debates. Note, we allied up, we’ve created convergences but never at the detriment of each others’ histories. In the second round we dissolved because were not about to ally ourselves with those whom spit on us. Our methodology allowed us to pose questions during the debates. At the end there was a residential control over the debate, which gave us the liberty to decide on the issues touched upon.
To finish up I’d like to ask you about your point of view on the upcoming [Presidential] elections.
For me, the ideal would be that what has been achieved in recent years would allow for us to massively call for people to not vote for those whom don’t even consider us and whom oppress us. Repeat the banquets [outdoor meals & discussions during the Nuits Debout] against the State of Emergency last year in Menilmontant, create events where we have fun, put on shows, discuss with each other, find each other and then get really organized after the elections. I hope there will be a record-breaking and phenomenal level of voter abstention. I saw on the internet a phrase which I really liked: “ungovernable generation.” That is what we are, ungovernable, and we must make this known.