Sunday, November 06, 2005

Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose

I have been trying to understand what is going on in France with the riots, and looking for something comparable in my own experience and that of America. We did have race riots in the 1960s (around the time I was born, actually). But these riots were different. Though some of the people, members of the Black Panthers for example, did seem to hate America, most of the protestors were actually pro-American. Our riots came towards the end of a civil rights revolution that was peaceful mostly and largely successful. When they occurred, Congress had already passed the Civil Rights Bill that essentially eliminated the injustices that sparked the riots. The movement led by Martin Luther King was challenging America to live up to its creed -- though he was killed, his words still live:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I, too, have that same dream. I think that a majority of Americans share that dream. Sometimes it feels like we’re heading in the wrong direction though as we reach for that dream. The color of one’s skin or one’s ethnicity should not matter, particularly where government is concerned. It pains me when particular ‘groups’ of people are given special rights that other groups do not share.

I think that the violence back in the 1960s was motivated primarily by frustration with the pace of integration and black advancement socially, economically and politically. Patience is one thing that Americans could probably use a lot more of, even today.

But back to France and the seemingly racially motivated violence happening there right now. I’m trying to see a parallel, but it is not working for me. For one, it seems to be more of an immigration issue, while the issue underlying the riots in the U.S. in the late 1960s had more to do with left-over injustices and prejudices relating to slavery which had been abolished one hundred years prior, and by a demand for equal rights for all Americans. I don’t think that the riots in France are pro-France, and though social, economic and political disparity do seem to be motivating factors to some extent, this does not appear to be anything like the relatively peaceful civil rights movement we had in the U.S. Certainly, the intention of the rioters is not to do away with what's left over from slavery. They are legal immigrants but anti-France, while the hostility of the 1960s was rooted in the very pro-American ideal that “all men [and women] are created equal.” I feel like I'm missing some key piece to a puzzle -- perhaps if I knew more about French history and/or colonization it might make more sense to me. I do want to learn about it - this article seemed enlightening in that it paints a historical background for the riots. An excerpt:
Aubervilliers, Clichy, Vitry were and are ghettoes, and are now aflame. France must confront the reality of its bad history with minorities of various kinds, but especially with North African Arabs, who have never been forgiven for the beating the Algerians inflicted on France in the late 1950s, as evoked in the dramatic film The Battle of Algiers.
I haven't seen that movie, but just now ordered it; here is its description from Netflix.

I sincerely doubt that these riots will cause the average French citizen to sympathize with the rioters or change their attitudes towards them in a positive way. Do the rioters even want to integrate with the rest of French society? I don’t know what they want. Some say that they are saying, loudly, that "they exist." Well, they have everyone's attention, that's for sure. But if they are motivated by discrimination against them, then how is setting buildings and cars on fire going to do anything other than create hatred and more discrimination? If they have given up hope, then why haven't they moved elsewhere?

If there is a parallel with the American experience of the 1960s, perhaps it is in that those who feel that opportunities for success in life are out of reach, particularly the young (blacks in the U.S., Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in France), were/are impatient for change. Perhaps the reason that the violence in France and other parts of Europe is more severe than what happened in the U.S. in the 1960s is because, whereas things were changing for the better in terms of civil rights in the U.S. in the '60s, things are not changing in Europe.

UPDATE: Saw the movie, The Battle of Algiers, and it pretty much sucked in a "Fahrenheit 9/11" kind of way. I was expecting more of a documentary, but it was clear that the film producers and director had an agenda. Some of the scenes in the movie were actual footage of the violence of that time, like the footage of injured and dying people being pulled from the rubble of a bombed restaurant, but most of it was not real footage. At least I learned that moral equivalence is not a recent phenomenon. I know the movie is set in the 1950s, but making interrogation seem evil while making the assassination of police officers look valiant seems wrong to me. The lines were not believable, and the acting was almost comical at some points, but one thing did make me think: there was a scene where an Algerian went into a dance club full of French people with a bomb in a bag, put the bag under his chair, and then just watched the clock. Here I thought that Yasser Arafat was the inventor of the suicide bomber, but according to this movie I was wrong about that. So, I guess I learned something new today. Or not. Like I said, I doubt the accuracy of "The Battle of Algiers" movie.


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