Europe over the last decade was confronted with the worrying development of uprisings by young people without any sort of apparent political goal. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the 2005 Paris riots, we would like to ask whether lessons have been learned from these events. Considering the fast pace of today’s media, which barely allows for the consideration of a problem before covering us with a mountain of ‘newer’ issues, have politicians pushed through those promised measures, with which we were appeased in the immediate aftermath of each period of unrest? Did they tackle the actual causes, which include mostly a lack of opportunities and social inclusion of young disadvantaged people- or was the issue left to fade slowly from our memories? Too often do we forget pressing issues of the more recent past, and therefore fail to ask whether the problems that we were briefly so concerned with have actually been solved.
But we have to begin with an analysis of these uprisings and the question of their causes before speaking about solutions. Looking back over the last ten years, a certain pattern becomes apparent. The Paris riots of 2005 were suprisingly similar in nature to those in London in 2011 and Stockholm in 2013, so similar in fact that each can be divided into three different stages. Each period of disorder was triggered by an original incident, involving the death of one or more residents from a poor neighbourhood within the capital city of the respective country, with each of these initial events being shrouded in distrust in the police. The second phase then saw a mixture of opportunist violence, looting and vandalism, which spread further than just the initial neighbourhood. In the third phase, the government retook control by means of a zero-tolerance policy.
In Paris, the original incident took place on 27th October 2005 and involved two french boys, 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, who had been playing football with their friends within the deprived Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The two boys reportedly spotted a police patrol and ran away, finding a hiding place at a nearby electricity substation. It has never been established whether they were actually chased. The consequences, though, are undisputed: the two boys tragically lost their lives to an accidental electrocution at the substation. Their deaths triggered several weeks of rioting within Paris and throughout France that resulted in damages of over €200 million, including the destruction of countless buildings and almost 9000 cars. Around 2900 rioters were arrested and the country suffered injuries to 126 police and firefighters, as well the death of an innocent onlooker1.
Almost six years later, something very similar happened in London. On 4th August 2011, a policeman shot dead 29-year-old Mark Duggan at Ferry Lane in Tottenham. Again, there is some uncertainty about the events that led up to the killing, but it has been established that Mr. Duggan took a minicab to collect a gun, and that his cab was stopped by police officers from Trident, a Metropolitan Police Service unit that targeted gun crime in London. Doubts remain over the details of the shooting. A London jury recently concluded that his killing was lawful, despite also confirming that he was not carrying the gun at the time of his death, which was found nearby. Mr. Duggan’s family have not accepted the verdict. Family lawyer Marcia Willis Stewart stated afterwards: ‘The jury found that he had no gun in his hand and yet he was gunned down. For us, that’s an unlawful killing.’2 The consequences of the incident, like in Paris, were public outrage and riots that quickly spread throughout the country, and that eventually had little to do with the trigger. During this period, the UK suffered 5,175 recorded disorder-related offences, with 1,984 defendants having ‘appeared at a Magistrates court for an initial hearing for a riot-related offence’ by midday on 12th October.3 A further five people lost their lives during the violence.
Events in Sweden in 2013 also followed this pattern. In the western-Stockholm neighbourhood of Husby, an underprivileged part of the city with a high proportion of immigrants, police were called to an address on 13th May, where a 69-year-old man, originally of portugese origin, was reported to have been wielding a knife. Again, the precise circumstances are unclear: the man’s family reportedly claimed that he was trying to defend himself after being threatened by a gang4, whereas he was described as dangerous in other reports. What we know for sure is that he was shot dead by a policeman on the scene. Again, this triggered outrage and rioting, during the course of which around 150 cars were set on fire, with damages amounting to at least $9.5m5, and which, again, had little to do with the original incident.
So what happened in phase three? How did the respective governments react to the extent of underlying anger and discontent in parts of their countries, that had so easily exploded into these scenes of anarchy and violence? It seems that the response in each case was mostly a zero-tolerance policy, rather than an attempt to find long-term solutions. As sociologist Michael Fize of the Paris National Centre for Scientific Research told the Guardian newspapaer, ‘a bit of money got thrown at the problem’. He continued: ‘But this could happen again in France. The ashes are still smoldering. It just needs the spark. The political and economic systems have both failed these youths – in France, in Britain, but also in Spain, Greece. Even the Arab Spring reflects the same root problems’6.
The events in Europe were unlike protests in the traditional sense, which have usually been carried out by political groups to demonstrate their anger and demand change. What we saw was more a bandwagon of a mixture of opportunist violence, looting and vandalism, which stemmed from an initial incident in which the protestors had good reasons for their anger. What is stunning is that thousands of people had so little to lose that they could fight, burn and steal for several days without fear of the consequences. This represents a larger problem, which is often swept under the table and is only discussed briefly after such crises – that is the issue of demonisation of young disadvantaged people7, who aren’t treated with respect and who find little way through in our current system. We don’t seek to make excuses for the rioting and we’re supportive of the consequent disciplinary action. At the same time, however, we must realise that this type of behaviour is usually carried out only by people who believe that society has given up on them, or never bothered to give them a chance in the first place. Our current system, even in Sweden, provides unconditionally only for those from supportive families and those who are talented in traditional subjects at school. To deal with the broader issue of a lack of perspective and the resulting crimes committed by young people solely by punishing offenders is to ignore the cause of the problem and will, sooner or later, result in similar tragedy.
As far as we can tell, little has changed within European social systems since the start of these events. On the contrary, austerity measures throughout the European financial crisis usually hit all types of social projects and institutions rather than placing the heaviest burden on the broadest financial shoulders. So how do we prevent these events from repeating themselves? Protestors in Brazil recently called for greater investments in Education and Healthcare instead of the billions that had been spent on the Olympics and the World Cup. This would be a vital first step towards providing all young people with opportunities, and therefore giving them the feeling of being respected and socially included. We would like to extend the propositions to several other spheres, however; the investment in a livable minimum wage, greater financial rewards for careers of high social value, such as teachers, nurses and social workers, and more funds for social institutions such as libraries, youth clubs and the like. These form the backbones of our fight for more equal opportunities. Were we to take this issue seriously and make such changes, a repeat of these riots would become extremely unlikely, for we would giving young people something worth caring about.
3 Parliament.uk: The August 2011 riots: A statistical summary