From a reporters notebook:

Conversations in Clichy-sous-Bois

Revolution #023, November 20, 2005, posted at

7 November 2005. A World to Win News Service. In the early evening about a week after the death of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna here in Clichy-sous-Bois, at the bottom of a hill where the cité ends and a neighbourhood of small one-family houses begins, a bar/tobacco shop with an after-work crowd was the only public place for several kilometres in any direction.

They began by describing the housing. Their cité was privately owned. They felt this explained why it been allowed to deteriorate so badly. It is far from the worst, they said, since most of the buildings are inhabited by only a few hundred people, rather than the many thousands in grotesquely enormous towers of the biggest HLMs (government-owned public housing). But because it is private, the rents are comparatively high, around 600 euros for a family, which doesn’t leave much left over from the thousand or so euros a worker with a full-time job could expect to bring home. "Do you think it’s normal," they demanded, "for a whole town not to have a library or even a cinema?" A major complaint, heard everywhere in the suburbs, is that these housing complexes were deliberately located far from everything, from any place people might want to go, with public transportation only to where they’re supposed to work and practically no good way to get around at night – certainly not to Paris. "Even if you have a car, department 93 plates are like a signal to the police to humiliate you," the youth said. "Why did they build blockhouses to keep us in, instead of normal housing?" one young man insisted. They call the cité a ghetto, not in the American sense of being inhabited almost exclusively by one or two nationalities but in the original sense of a place where certain people are forced to live and barely allowed to leave.

One of these youth talked about the killing of Zyed, his neighbour. They also described the recent police raids on buildings occupied by recent immigrant squatters and Sarkozy’s pledge of mass deportations. These things showed what they are up against, signs that official society sees them all as less than human – in fact, worse than animals because they are considered dangerous. They were all French citizens, but that made little difference. "If they say our communities have to be cleaned out, that means they think we’re filth, that we should be gotten rid of," one of them explained bitterly. Another added, "If you have a certain kind of name, most companies won’t hire you. And if your address is in department 93 and someplace like Clichy, you’ll never even get an interview. The only place most of us can work is in an illegal garment sweatshop in somebody’s apartment, and now there’s even less of that. Besides, we don’t want those jobs." Some of the older among them did have jobs; the younger ones weren’t eager to discuss how they got by.

The youth in this bar thought of themselves as Islamic, in the sense of that background being part of their identity and especially the identity by which the world judged them. But their thinking was more secular and their goals in no way religious. Many people all over the region were especially angry about the tear-gassing of the mosque (in this case, a converted warehouse). More than an attack on their religion, they considered it an insult to their humanity. These youth explained it like this: "There are two or three churches around here and a synagogue" – the synagogue is, in fact, practically adjacent to the cité. "No one has ever attacked any of them. That’s because we respect people no matter what their religion. If they attack a mosque, it’s to show us that they have no respect for us at all."

"We’ll make them listen to us!" said Zyed’s neighbour. When you go home, turn on the television – you’ll see all of France is burning."

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