Posted by Bruce Crumley
With the violence that broke out in London Saturday having spread to other English cities during a third straight night of rioting Monday, it's tempting (and probably portentous) from the comfort of Paris to offer up lessons learned from the nearly three weeks of upheaval that rocked French towns in 2005. Yet while there seem to be certain details common to both those explosions of urban fury, significant differences not only complicate directly comparing events in the U.K. to those that occurred in France nearly six years ago—but also leave the current unrest looking more serious in terms of destruction and consequence. As shocking as the images of burning cars, vandalism, and clashes with police were in 2005, the scenes today from across London inspire an even stronger, awesome fear. Here's why.
The detonators of both uprisings appear to have been similar: first, police involvement in the deaths of local youths in neighborhoods with large populations of visible minorities, followed by the fury — nourished with wider frustrations of discrimination and alienation — that those killings unleashed. And as happened in 2005 France, the initial unrest that broke out Saturday in Tottenham has gradually spread to other areas of London and to two other British cities as young people have embraced the underlying message of social protest and rage—or used them as convenient excuses for running amok. Not insignificantly, the spread of violence in both cases also provoked laments-cum-accusation that over-dramatization and voyeuristic media coverage early on led to “copy-cat” replication of the urban outrage.
From there, however, things seem to get different in important ways--starting with urban geography. The Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois that initially erupted in unrest in Oct. 2005 is just that: one of the many towns hosting huge but decrepit housing projects for increasingly disenfranchised segments of French society. Those large clusters of projects are almost invariably located in relatively remote suburbs ringing most major French cities, sparing France the kinds of intra muros ghetto areas that cities like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles have—or neighborhoods with very large non-white, often economically disadvantaged populations as London does.
In stark contrast to the districts in London now suffering violence, therefore, virtually all unrest that rocked France in 2005 occurred in these project-heavy outlying suburbs. And for all intents and purposes, the nightly clashes in 2005 France were never exported anywhere near the businesses, shops, and primarily white, affluent residents of French city centers. The recurring destruction that stunned wider French society in 2005 essentially involved its most disadvantaged and alienated members wrecking havoc in their own, very remote backyards.
As anyone watching the images of destruction knows, the rioting in the English capital and other cities is now surging right up to the doors of comfortable, middle and upper-middle class homes. The reasons: the sprawling nature of London makes it a much geographically larger and a far more populated city than intramuros Paris. Meanwhile, like France's blighted banlieues, the London neighborhoods now suffering turmoil have heavy immigrant and visible minority populations airing complaints of discrimination, endemic unemployment, and tense relations with police. Yet these populations are part of a wider, mixed residential pool. Indeed, unlike France 2005, the Watts or South Central riots in Los Angeles, or instances of arson and looting in New York's Harlem, objectives of “containment” by officials in reacting to violence those cities are non-starters in London—whose mixed socio-economic-ethnic demographics make the current violence an equal opportunity threat. It numbs the mind to contemplate what kinds of new attacks on multi-culturalism will surge in Britain once the waves of nightly violence subside.