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Cathy Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots. Urban Unrest in Paris and New York

Simon Ridley
Police Power and Race Riots
Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots. Urban Unrest in Paris and New York, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 312 p., ISBN : 978-0-8122-4618-6.
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1Race riots and police killings are a hot topic at the moment with the multiple uprisings in the United States after the deaths of racial minority individuals at the hands of the police which sparked a series of protests. Latest on a long list1 is Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man from Baltimore. In France, police killings are also grabbing the headlines, especially since the death of Rémi Fraisse, a 21-year-old nature conservationist and activist, killed by an explosive grenade containing TNT2, thrown by the French military forces3 on October 26th 2014. Though Rémi Fraisse was a white male, there have been many other people killed by the police in France4 and the victims are nearly always from racial minority groups.

  • 5 Michael B. Katz, Why Don't American Cities Burn? Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 20 (...)

2Cathy Schneider’s latest book, Police Power and Race Riots, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2014, offers a timely analysis of the process that leads to such events. Based on a cross-temporal and cross-Atlantic comparative study of urban unrest in Paris and New-York, the author aims to answer three questions. Why do police act in such similar ways towards minorities despite the dramatically different environments? Why did these actions lead to a spread of riots in New-York and across the United States in the 1960s, and in Paris and across France in 2005? And finally she asks, in the wake of Michael Katz: Why don’t American Cities Burn?5 The answer to the third question may seem simple today: “they do”. Both Ferguson and Baltimore have recently been declared in a state of emergency, curfews have been imposed and the National Guard deployed. However this does not provide a reply to the questions concerning the process that lies behind race riots. To do this, the author offers a decade long study built on the classic tools of the social scientist: extensive interviews, participant observation and the ethnography of various groups both in France and the United States.

  • 6 It is Cathy Schneider’s take on boundaries that is authentic. From a French perspective we can poin (...)
  • 7 Racism is not overlooked by French social scientists, there are many qualitative studies of this to (...)

3In the first two chapters Cathy Schneider gives us a global overview on the history of the policing of race riots in New York (1920-1993) and in Paris (1920-2002). Drawing heavily on the work of Charles Tilly, this broad approach enables her to gently introduce the key concept of “racial boundaries”. If this conceptual work is widely acknowledged in the United States, the originality of Schneider’s argument lies in her extension of the model6 to French society : for her emphasis on racial inequality and discrimination in France deals a hard blow to the scholars and the political establishment who fail to recognize this aspect of French society. Cathy Schneider’s study may not dwell on French studies of racism7, but her historical account serves the purpose of her main argument, which is that the activation of racial boundaries is at the core of a process that sparks modern urban riots, that she otherwise names “ghetto riots”. The rise of the Front National – France’s extreme-right party – is linked to a surge in police brutality, as both left- and right-wing politicians compete on the “security” issue they have themselves created. The same process of political “competitive outbidding and increased police brutality” is pointed out in the first chapter which deals with Democrats’ and Republicans’ battle on the “security issue”. These first two chapters allow Cathy Schneider to draw a damning portrait of the acts of violence, torture and murder at the hands of both the French and the American police forces, ultimately resulting in the “activation of racial boundaries” upon which the second half of her book focuses.

  • 8 A “repertoire of contention” refers to the set of performances available to actors when making a co (...)

4The third chapter jumps back to New York between 1993 and 2010 to discuss the policing of these boundaries. Interviews of both black and Puerto Rican as well as white police officers point to a form of structural racism, illustrated by racial profiling and exacerbated by the short term targets set by politicians seeking election gains. On the other hand both police reformism and more especially community-based organizations, as Cathy Schneider argues, channel anger away from riots and into a more standard “repertoire of contention”8. Such organizations offer invaluable support, be it moral, legal, or financial, to the families that have lost a loved one to police killings. Interviews with such families highlight the need to indict the police forces, and the fact that when families reach a settlement they often create new community networks hoping to eventually change national policy.

  • 9 Akin to a neighborhood, the term banlieue refers to a peripheral zone and is often given negative p (...)

5The final chapter opens with the account of Zyad and Bouna’s death and the gassing of the local mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois by the French police, events that sparked the notorious 2005 French riots. Cathy Schneider easily deconstructs the majority argument that blamed polygamy, radical Islam, or black and Arab youth unemployment; rather she points to police impunity. Interviews with police and residents in six banlieues9 (Aubervilliers, Clichy-sous-Bois, Montfermeil, Sarcelles, Garges-lès-Gonesse, and Villiers-le-Bel) allow her to draw a line between a police culture marked by racial stereotypes, and a banlieue culture scarred by a feeling of injustice caused by years of discrimination. Cathy Schneider then examines the case of Marseille, a city that didn’t burn in the 2005 riots. She claims community policing as well as mafia activities contributed to the deactivation of racial boundaries.

6This well documented book offers a clear transatlantic comparison of racial policing and riots sparked by police violence. Though the French spelling is shaky at times, the structure is clear. Cathy Schneider answers her initial questions with the idea of “boundary activation”. Though simplistic, it does offer an explanatory argument for the polarization – the “us” against “them” divide – which feeds a vicious circle of fear, hatred and violence. This study therefore focuses its attention on the politics of fear and their consequences on minorities that have become the victims of these policies.

  • 10 See for example: Sébastien Peyrat, Justice et cités. Le droit des cités à l'épreuve de la Républiqu (...)

7It would have been interesting to push the arguments further and take a longer look at the sentiment of injustice10. Another aspect would have been to examine the international market in riot control and riot gear, as it seems to me that both the United States and France are also using their police forces and policing methods as a showcase. On a broader level Cathy Schneider’s book allows us to question the limits of a specific international comparison and the difficulty of contextualizing a single research object. In this respect her book is a relative success as the three-step process that lead to race riots – racial fears and political outbidding (1), intensified police violence (2), police killing of minorities (3) – emerges clearly, thus making for an interesting contribution to this field of research.

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Notes

1 To date there have been 432 police killings in the United States in 2015, see: http://killedbypolice.net/.

2 Among the many articles, see: http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/societe/20141028.OBS3423/mort-de-remi-fraisse-les-grenades-offensives-peuvent-elles-tuer.html.

3 It is shocking to find that no French Wikipedia page exists for Rémi Fraisse, and that the English page talks of a “flashbang grenade thrown by the French police” when the death was in fact caused by an explosive grenade thrown by the French Gendarmerie, a military force that polices the civilian population.

4 A list can be found here: http://www.urgence-notre-police-assassine.fr/123663553.

5 Michael B. Katz, Why Don't American Cities Burn? Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

6 It is Cathy Schneider’s take on boundaries that is authentic. From a French perspective we can point, amongst others, to the work organized by Didier Fassin: Didier Fassin (dir.), Les nouvelles frontières de la société française, Paris, La Découverte, coll. « Bibliothèque de l'Iris », 2010, reviewed by Guillaume Arnould for Lectures: http://lectures.revues.org/1084.

7 Racism is not overlooked by French social scientists, there are many qualitative studies of this topic, for instance: Michel Wieviorka (dir.), La France raciste, Paris, Seuil, 1992 ; it is also interesting to analyze the different conceptions of race, such a study has been carried out: « Racisme, race et sciences sociales », Raison Présente, n°174, 2°trimestre 2010, reviewed by Audrey Célestine for Lectures: http://lectures.revues.org/7123 ; from a quantitative point of view opinions are mixed, some scientists reject the use of ethnic statistics, see: Hervé Le Bras, « Quelles statistiques ethniques? », L'Homme 2007/4 (n° 184), p. 7-24, available here, others advocate their use under certain conditions, see for example: Olivier Masclet, Sociologie de la diversité et des discriminations, Armand Colin, coll. « 128 », 2012, reviewed for Lectures by Eric Keslassy: http://lectures.revues.org/8767.

8 A “repertoire of contention” refers to the set of performances available to actors when making a collective claim. See: Charles Tilly, The Politics of Collective Violence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

9 Akin to a neighborhood, the term banlieue refers to a peripheral zone and is often given negative press, however Hervé Marchal and Jean-Marc Stébé remind us that there is a vast heterogeneity of banlieues ranging from slums to exclusive gated communities. See: Hervé Marchal, Jean-Marc Stébé, Les Lieux des banlieues. De Paris à Nancy, de Mumbaï à Los Angeles, Éditions Le Cavalier Bleu, coll. « Lieux de... », 2012, reviewed for Lectures by Lionel Francou: http://lectures.revues.org/10422.

10 See for example: Sébastien Peyrat, Justice et cités. Le droit des cités à l'épreuve de la République, Paris, Anthropos, 2003.

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Simon Ridley, « Cathy Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots. Urban Unrest in Paris and New York », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2015, mis en ligne le 21 mai 2015, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/18106

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Simon Ridley

Doctorant en sociologie à l’Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, laboratoire Sophiapol

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