We will be posting two extracts from the 2007 text Grassroots Political Militants featuring interviews with participants in the 2005 uprising to accompany the recently released texts from the 2015 10th anniversary meeting.-Signalfire
The journey in the banlieue begins with M.B., a no longer young black woman, politically active in the banlieues for some time.
The first things that need to be mentioned are the objectives central to the revolt. There was not a trace of these in the various media. What was shown, I would emphasise, was the irrational aspect of the revolt. But in fact it wasn’t that way. There has been much talk of cars burned as if this had been the only target, but in reality the main targets were other things, the police and the police stations obviously, and a little bit was said about this, in part because when they started talking about criminal command [of the riots], which didn’t exist, talk of an attack on police stations could have supported that thesis. But it was not only the police who came under attack. Temporary work agencies and ‘state community centres’ were attacked and destroyed no less than the police stations. There was no trace of this in the press or on television, or, when it was mentioned, it was shown simply as a secondary effect. When there’s an explosion, everything around gets blown up too, that’s what I mean by a secondary effect. But the temp agencies and the community centres were not burned by chance, they were deliberately attacked no more and no less than the police stations.
Everybody knows what temp agencies are. They regulate access to the labour market on a temporary basis and on conditions that favour companies. They are also organisations of blackmail and social control by police and unions, because if you’re someone who organises the struggle and the conflict in the workplace or in any case someone who steps out of line, you’re thrown out, and you can be sure it will be very hard for you to get another contract. You end up among the undesirables and you don’t work again. The agencies are the main weapons used by capitalism to make workers harmless. Apart from the agencies there were also quite a few businesses, ones that use illegal or semi-forced labour exclusively, that went up in flames. There are quite a few of these which mostly exploit female labour, through piece-work done on domestic premises. Or, in other not infrequent cases, adapting for work warehouses and basements where women work almost under concentration camp conditions, with no safety, no ventilation, with shifts of never less than 10 hours, under the control of physically violent and arrogant bosses.
Some groups of women, and I can guarantee this because I organised some of them, settled our accounts with our bosses and guardians while the battle was going on in the streets. When it was impossible to attack the warehouses, we went for their cars and homes. Some caïds met with accidents. This should give at least a bit of a different picture of the revolt and of the role women played in it, which was in no way subordinate or even invisible. But this is not what seems to me to need emphasising most. It seems more important to speak of the silence which there has been on this, starting from the left parties and movements.
At the centre of the revolt, or among its most important targets, was the critique of the capitalist organisation of labour, and this passed completely unobserved, which is very telling […] It shows, for example, that work is a completely different thing for one part of society than it is for the other. It’s a question of two worlds that speak different languages, where for one there are opportunities and possibilities while for the other there is a rigid subordination, domination and blackmail. […] But it’s not something new that happened yesterday. To understand this it’s enough to see what has happened [in the past] during marches and demonstrations. The left-wing movements – and this is quite striking when you think that it’s even more true in the youth movements – don’t want to be contaminated by the young banlieuesards, they do everything to keep them out, and in some cases have worked together with the police to keep them from acting in the centre of Paris. Without seeking overly complicated explanations, I believe the origin of the problem should be sought in the social background of the two groups. The youth of the left movements are mostly students, whereas the others are workers, thieves, robbers, and, as there’s no reason to hide it, also small-scale drug dealers. This, you’ll say, is nothing new, and that’s true. Those who, like me, have a long history of political militancy know very well that things have always been this way, but this is not the point.
[…] The real issue today is that the world has changed radically in its material and structural basis, with important repercussions. It’s as if there existed two worlds, inhabited by different species. And these two worlds, as far as I can see, are no longer simply separated by different positions in the social hierarchy within a single social model; now they belong to two different realities, coloured black and white. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the critique of the capitalist organisation of work is extraneous to much of the left, because, in the end, it’s a white organisation, therefore it’s also theirs. […] Explaining the attacks on the ‘state community centres’ seems very important to me because it clarifies – yet again, it might be said – our point of view on these events. A story that wasn’t born yesterday but goes back in time. This is also a way of responding to all those, regardless of ideology and politics, who live in Paris and think, when everything’s fine, that here in the peripheries the one thing we want is to be integrated by them. We are not included in the Republic and we don’t even want to be, this is not our problem. A lack of interest, or to be clearer, a refusal which, among other things, was not born last autumn but has origins long ago, going back to the Mitterand era and the birth of SOS Racisme. […] Yes, because precisely then many things were understood and marked out which have continued over time, leading to an irreconcilable break. On one hand there’s the path that leads to the institutions, on the other, the way to the streets. These two paths cannot coexist.
What did those associated with SOS Racisme want to do? To pile up mountains of francs, because Mitterand wasn’t worried about the expense. For many, especially for the blacks who joined the project, it was a good opportunity for individual emancipation. […] They were included, even if not at a very high level, in some organisation, project or similar bullshit, and they went around like the flower of the Republic. The noble savage offered a chance by white civilisation, all that, because those were the stakes, giving up political and organisational autonomy, to put it simply giving up being class-for-itself. On the other side there were the others, us.
For us the problem is not to be integrated into the Republic, becoming the good servants of the white boss. We are the Arabs, the blacks and, as has been seen recently, the bad whites – because a lot of whites in the banlieues have been active in no small way in the riots – dangerous because we want to cut the throat of the white boss and his domination, just like we did when we were under colonial domination, from which in some ways we have never emerged. The rupture between us and our leaders, who rushed frantically to sell themselves out to the whites, is something that should be properly noted. […] We don’t want them to tell us what we should be, we want to be us, not what they would like. On this point you can see clearly that there can be no mediation. […] From our point of view, then, the ‘state community centres’ are no more than another face of domination, not a vehicle for emancipation. As anyone with the least experience will immediately see, they are the other face of the police, with whom, although in Paris everyone avoids saying so, they co-operate and collaborate. Attacking the police stations and sparing the ‘centres’ would have been a pure contradiction. [M.B.]
The temp agencies and ‘state community centres’ were strategic targets on which the practical critique of the banlieue inhabitants was concentrated. As the ‘militant’ quoted above explained, this was no improvisation, it was the product of a discourse with a significant hold and legitimacy in the black areas, and in a certain way it entailed a model of ‘urban guerilla’ activity capable of attacking these targets. It is important here to observe the type of ‘military model’ used in the course of the revolt and the way the relation to the security forces was handled. All this leads to one point: how are the police perceived by the people of the banlieues? This aspect allows something significant to be said about the banlieue and its relation to legitimate and respectable society. We discuss this in the following interview with J.B., a 29 year-old beur, a precarious worker and an active participant, neither more nor less than others, in the émeutes.
The police are the enemy, full stop. And this is not just because, obviously, you find them against you when you act but they’re against you always. It’s not a political question but one of everyday life. The deaths of Bouna and Zyed, which, as you know, were not an exception but the latest in a long series of murders, normal one might say, committed by the police in the banlieues, didn’t happen as the next consequence of some rebellion. They were the consequence of what, for us, is normal routine. The police are in the habit of stopping you with no reason, searching you, insulting you, beating you, simply because you are you and they are them. For us it’s normal to find your doorway covered in cops like in an American TV show; they go inside, hold you face down on the ground and throw everything around. You are an enemy for the simple fact of existing. You don’t have to do anything to be guilty, you are the guilt. So for us the problem of the police is not to do with some particular events, it’s always a problem. If it can even be a problem when you’re at home, imagine what it means to go out in the street. Every time you go out and walk around, a problem can start.
[…] Perhaps some people need to be reminded or don’t even know that the BAC, the Brigades Anticriminalité, operate in the banlieue. These special units were created just for us. They act like an expeditionary force in enemy territory. The Brigades are the exact nexus between army and police, and they represent on a local level the instruments used by the West in its foreign policy. In relation to the banlieues they apply, in full continuity, the same logic now amply tested on the external periphery. Within the metropolis, we are the equivalent of rogue states. In any case that’s what Sarkozy said quite frankly. It’s a wide-ranging discourse that can’t be resolved right here. But it has to be kept in mind, otherwise it becomes difficult to answer your questions.
[…] To understand the dimensions of the conflict within our areas you have to make an imaginative effort and enter into the colonial reality. This is necessary in order to understand the guerrilla model used, which is very different from the one commonly known and practised by the various left movements, especially in the past. These movements fight by putting into the field an opposing army which clashes frontally with the police. Of course, within this schema there were variants, adjustments, but the essence was the same. In particular there was the idea of the military corps, the combat force which carried out the strictly military tasks, and then the rest of the militants who were something like the equivalent of the civilian population. The division between combatants and non-combatants was quite clear. Within the various organisations the combat force formed a structure autonomous from the political section. A miniature version of the traditional division between the military and the political. There were the politicians, the military and then all the others who represented the population.
[…] In the banlieues the guerrilla warfare took completely different forms. Partisan action, rather than the army – regular or otherwise – was the operational model. Small groups moved, struck, dispersed and regrouped to reappear soon afterwards somewhere else. The effective number of guerrillas is limited, although not to be underestimated, and at first that might seem to suggest isolation from the population. But in fact if the number of guerrillas is limited it’s for exactly the opposite reason. In the guerrilla war that developed in the banlieues, the entire population, apart from spies and pimps, had a combatant role. […] In any case, this is a new phenomenon only up to a certain point because if you look closely it does no more than bring the model of the colonial wars into the present. In these wars the population never played the role of civilians, it was never a hypothetical neutral party; it was always in the front line. […] There is no room for neutrality round here. Anyway the police make this logic standard practice, with no need for an emergency situation. They never acted differently. They never arrested the people materially responsible for the actions, they just took whoever they could get their hands on. They followed the logic of the ratissage, but that was nothing new for us. This is something we’ve grown used to, and it didn’t make any particular impression on anyone.
In reality, rather than arresting the guilty they got thousands of people deported: they did what they do every day, but on a larger scale. […] Answering this question gives me another opportunity to refute some myths about the banlieues that have spread like weeds. The most obvious and common is the one that presents the banlieues as places without a social life. We’re [presented as] pure nullity: when we do express ourselves in some way the most we can do is create chaos. But in a reality like that the existence of a network of spies and informers becomes incomprehensible. How and why spy on nullity? Why organise a network of informers inside places that don’t exist? In reality things are very different, and in the banlieues the network of spies and informers is something the police take great care of. This in itself should already make the theorists of nullity – or perhaps even worse, of the presocial dimension we live in – think again.
Obviously, if they spy on us it’s for a reason. If nothing else, this acknowledges one thing: that we exist. And this first acknowledgement inevitably leads to another. If the spies are identified it means that within out territories there must exist a more or less organised social model in which thousands of threads can be followed in an investigation leading to the identification and the unmasking of the network sold to the enemy.
[…] When I talk about spies I don’t mean the small-time informers known to everybody, who sometimes give the police something in order to protect their own little operations. What they’re up to is well-known already and anyway they’re not in a position to do much harm. They can grass someone up, like they’ve been grassed up themselves other times, but only for matters of petty crime which in the end are marginal aspects of our lives. No, I’m not talking about them. I’m referring to those who act as informers in the most complete anonymity and without attracting the least suspicion. These people don’t reveal themselves, they have to be driven out into the open. Exposing them means setting up an organised network, there are no alternatives. […] And it’s clear that in the course of the events these people were targeted, and it doesn’t strike me as an exaggeration to say that the majority of the internal victims attacked by the demonstrators were part of the network of spies working for the police. […] You can see then, that what you have to take seriously is that we always live like we’re at war. (J.B.)