Wed, Nov 16, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Riots are a class act and sometimes the only alternative

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress," said the black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

By the end of last week it looked as though the fortnight of struggle between minority French youth and the police might actually have yielded some progress. Condemning the rioters is easy. They shot at the police, killed an innocent man, trashed businesses, rammed a car into a retirement home and torched countless cars (given that 400 cars are burned on an average New Year's Eve in France, this was not quite as remarkable as some made out).

But shield your ears from the awful roaring waters for a moment and take a look at the ocean. Those who wondered what French youth had to gain by taking to the streets should ask what they had to lose. Unemployed, socially excluded, harassed by the police and condemned to poor housing, they live on estates that are essentially open prisons. Statistically invisible (it is against the law and republican principle to collect data based on race or ethnicity) and politically unrepresented (mainland France does not have a single non-white member of parliament), their aim has been simply to get their plight acknowledged. They succeeded.

Even as the French politicians talked tough, the state was suing for peace with the offer of greater social justice. The government unrolled a package of measures that would give career guidance and work placements to all unemployed people under 25 in some of the poorest suburbs; there would be tax breaks for companies who set up on sink estates; a 1,000 euro (US$1,166) lump sum for jobless people who returned to work as well as 150 euros a month for a year; 5,000 extra teachers and educational assistants; 10,000 scholarships to encourage academic achievers to stay at school; and 10 boarding schools for those who want to leave their estates to study.

"We need to respond strongly and quickly to the undeniable problems facing many inhabitants of the deprived neighborhoods," French President Jacques Chirac said.

From the man who once said that immigrants had breached the "threshold of tolerance" and were sending French workers "mad" with their "noise and smell," this was progress indeed.

"The impossible becomes probable through struggle," the black American academic Manning Marable said. "And the probable becomes reality."

And the reality is that none of this would have happened without riots. There was no petition these young people could have signed, no peaceful march they could have held, no letter they could have written to their members of parliament that would have produced these results.

Amid the charred chassis and broken glass there is a vital point of principle to salvage: In certain conditions rioting is not just justified but may also be necessary, and effective. From the poll tax demonstrations to Soweto, history is littered with such cases. What were the French and American revolutions but riots endowed by Enlightenment principles and then blessed by history?

When all non-violent, democratic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, redundant or exhausted, rioting is justifiable. When state agencies charged with protecting communities fail to do so or actually attack them, it may be necessary in self-defense.

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