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1964 New York Police Riot Déjà Vu in 2005 Paris

Prof. Cathy Schneider explores racial barriers and politics

By J. Paul Johnson

Riot police enforce the line

Riot police are the tool to enforce barriers erected by politicians

Wars on crime, immigration, and drugs and similar coded appeals to racial fears allow politicians to win votes, which in turn pressures police to enforce racial boundaries, according to new research from School of International Service associate professor Cathy Schneider. 

Schneider studied the cause of riots in her new book Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York and recommends the people who could learn the most from reading her book are U.S. and European voters, political leaders and legislators who make the laws that the police enforce.

"Police are not rogue agencies," says Schneider. Schneider's research looks at the 1964 riot that erupted in New York when a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager three weeks after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. 

The New York riot set off almost a decade of Black and Latino riots that crisscrossed the United States. Yet, by the late 1970s, riots had become rare in the United States. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, particularly in Great Britain and France, they became more frequent. Schneider wanted to know why.

Read Prof. Schneider's blog post about the historical echoes of the August 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri.

U.S. Accountability

In the United States, she argues, young people who had experienced the riots were hired by the city as peacekeepers, using moneys from Great Society programs. By the 1980s these young people had become community activists, and created an array of community-based organizations and a standard nonviolent repertoire for dealing with police violence. 

The Civil Rights Movement had opened up access to the judicial system for minorities to act as plaintiffs in both criminal and civil complaints against the state, and activists increasingly channeled community anger into the courtroom. Police violence remained a major issue, but the opening of alternative avenues to pursue justice made riots less likely.

Transatlantic Déjà Vu

Rioting in France had all the hallmarks of New York's riots decades earlier. In Paris, French police targeted minority youth, brutalizing and sometimes killing them, and doing so with impunity. By not holding police accountable the state was "saying that foreign and minority children's lives had no value" explains Schneider. "The unmistakable message was that the state does not represent you. The state won't even hold its own forces accountable for killing your children." 

Paris in Flames

France's worst riots occurred in October 2005 when police chased three minority youth into an electrical substation and an African boy and an Arab boy were electrocuted. But initially the community responded with nonviolent protests. Only after the French minister of interior defended the police twice, first claiming the youths must have committed a crime to hide in an electric grid, and then again after police lobbed a tear gas canister into a mosque did riots erupt. They began where the boys had died, and then spread rapidly to 300 other cities, towns and suburbs in France. 

"For three consecutive weeks youths set cars and buildings ablaze," says Schneider. "In setting cars and buildings aflame they externalized their internal pain, externalized the fires in their heads and in their hearts."

U.S. Community Policing Gaining Ground 

Schneider argues that other forms of community police relations are possible and more effective. Activated racial boundaries are bad for both community members and police. "When police enter a high crime neighborhood they should recognize that most residents are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime. These communities need police, but they want police to protect them not treat them as criminals. For police too it is safer and more effective to work in a community that trusts them and is willing to give them critical information." 

Schneider gives the example of New Haven Police Chief Nick Pastor who turned the arrest incentive model on its head. "Chief Pastor gave awards to officers that engaged the community rather than boosted arrest statistics," Schneider explains.

U.S. Problems Still Remain But Change May Be Coming

While riots have become less frequent in the United States, the American criminal justice system is even more discriminatory than that of France. The explosive growth of the U.S. prison population from 250,000 in 1972 to more than 2.3 million Schneider attributes to the mid 1980s harsh mandatory sentencing laws and statutes that supplanted judicial discretion in sentencing. 

Wars on drugs and crime packed prisons with minority youth. Pressures on police to meet arrest quotas also contributed to the racial disproportion in incarceration. Together these measures dramatically increased the likelihood that poor minority males and even females would spend time in prison, for nonviolent, often victimless crimes. Even innocent minorities, Schneider says often plead guilty to offenses because they cannot afford lawyers to vigorously defend them.

Today there are some positive signs says Schneider. U.S. prison populations are on the decline and harsh mandatory sentences are falling out of favor. Whether sentences will be shortened retroactively for those in prison, remains to be seen, or whether the country will help those leaving prison to reenter the job market and reconstruct their lives.

France's Dilemma

In France, Schneider says, "The centralization of policing has left little room for local innovation. The victory of the far right in the European elections coming on the heels of the National Front's strong showing in local elections months earlier are a bad omen." The recent riots and attacks on synagogues and Jewish residents in the French suburbs of Sarcelles and Garges-les-Gonesse (in response to the Israeli aggression in Gaza, and the French governments defense of Israeli actions),"show how quickly simmering anger and resentment at the low value placed on the lives of Muslim and minority children can erupt into violent conflict."