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Urban Revolts, from Detroit to Clichy-sous-Bois

Caroline Rolland-Diamond is a historian at Nanterre University near Paris, and is specialized in American social movements. She is currently drawing parallels between the Detroit riots of 1967 (whose 50th anniversary will be commemorated this summer) and civil disturbance in the French suburbs. On July 24, she will be taking part in a conference held at Wayne State University in Detroit on the theme of past and present urban and racial uprisings in the United States and France.

France-Amérique: What similarities do you see between the U.S. riots during the 1960s and those in the French suburbs?

Caroline Rolland-Diamond: There were almost 40 years between the creation of the American ghettos and the equivalent cités in France, but police harassment has been the detonator for both of these time-bomb situations. The Detroit Rebellion was set off by a police raid on an Afro-American bar in 1967 and the mass arrests that followed. The 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois were sparked by the death of two teenagers attempting to get away from an identity check by the police. They had done nothing wrong, but they felt threatened. Bullying, humiliation and verbal and physical violence are constant enough to fray ties between communities and the police.

Have you observed any differences between the events in France and the United States?

The U.S. urban uprisings took place in the city center, but the relationship between the center and the suburbs is the opposite in France. Rebellions happen on the outskirts where, for historic reasons, immigrant communities are placed. And in the French neighborhoods where urban policies have worked, today there is a greater ethno-racial diversity than in the black American ghettos.

You mentioned urban policies. What were the reactions of the cities affected by the riots in the United States and France?

The Kerner Commission presented its analysis of the Detroit Rebellion in 1968, and pointed the finger at the fact the United States was moving towards two separate, unequal societies: One white and one black. But President Johnson refused the report, and no urban policy was introduced nationally. A series of investigations and commissions at a local level tried to improve the interracial situation, but with little success. In France, militants from the ACLEFEU associations (Association Collectif Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Ensemble, Unis), founded after the uprising in Clichy-sous-Bois, strove to make inhabitants’ voices heard. They were received at the National Assembly and published an investigative report. But the 2015 acquittal of the two police officers responsible for the deaths of the two teenagers shows the justice system was deaf to their pleas. The inhabitants in these French suburbs feel forgotten by public authorities, which are not meeting their needs. And the recent terrorist attacks have only worsened the stigmatization of Muslims in France [who make up a large percentage of the inhabitants in poor suburban neighborhoods]. 

We are told we live in a post-racial society. Is that untrue?

It’s certainly not true in the United States; the recent riots in Ferguson, Baltimore and Milwaukee, and the Black Lives Matter movement, are a striking reminder of that. Despite the Republican ideology and the idea that all people in France are equal, French society is not indifferent to skin color either. We urgently need to finally name this phenomenon, and measure racial inequalities in France. The lack of ethnic statistics means we are unable to find a solution to the problems of discrimination in housing, employment and at work, and to the lack of diversity in schools and public services.

What vision of the future can we have in such an unequal, divided society?

The commemorations — such as those organized in Detroit this year — are a step in the right direction, towards an explanation of the phenomenon, a de-stigmatization, and a deconstruction of the media stance in the past and today. The situation can only improve if we keep going in this direction. Social and urban policies will be more effective if they are based on the inhabitants of these neighborhoods and their experiences. But not if they are simply dictated by the public authorities. There is still a long way to go.

Rebellion and Resistance: The Unexpected Relevance of 1967
July 24, 2017, 2-4 pm
Wayne State University

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