Alain Badiou on riots and racism: 'Daily Humiliation'

'Daily Humiliation' is from Alain Badiou's Polemics, first published in Le Monde following the riots in Parisian banlieues and throughout France in November 2005. 

'Constant identity checks and questioning by police.' Of all the complaints made by the youth of this country in revolt, the omnipresence of police checks and being arrested in their everyday lives, this harassment without respite, is the most constant, the most widely shared. Do we really realize what this grievance means? The dose of humiliation and violence it implies?

I have a 16-year-old, adopted son who is black. Let's call him Gérard. No sociological or misérabiliste 'explanations' can be applied to him. He grew up in Paris, in all simplicity.

Between the March 31 (Gérard wasn't yet 15) and today, I have not been able to keep count of the police checks on him in the street. Innumerable - there is no other word. Arrests: six! In eighteen months . . . I call an 'arrest' being taken handcuffed to the police station, being insulted, being handcuffed to a bench, and left there hours upon end, sometimes for a day or two. All for nothing.

The worst aspects of persecution often lie in the details. So I'll tell you in a quite detailed way about the most recent arrest. Gérard, accompanied by his friend Kemal (born in France, therefore French, from a Turkish family), was outside a private high school (attended by young girls) at about 4:30 pm. While Gérard was displaying his gallantry, Kemal negotiated the purchase of a bike from a student from a neighbouring school. At twenty euros this bicycle was a bargain! Fishy, there's no doubt. Take note that, although he does not have many, Kemal has a few euros, because he works: he is a chef's assistant in a créperie. Three 'young lads' come up to them. One of them, with a slightly distraught look, says, 'That's my bicycle, a guy borrowed it from me an hour and a half ago and didn't come back with it.' Oh no! So it seems the seller was a 'borrower'. Discussion ensues. Gérard sees only one solution: give the bike back. Ill-gotten gains bring nothing but trouble. Kemal resigns himself to the fact. The lads go off with the machine.

It is at this point that a police car, brakes screeching, pulls up to the kerb. Two of its occupants jump out and pounce on Gérard and Kemal, pinning them to the ground; they then cuff their hands behind their backs, and line them up against the wall. Insults and threats: 'Idiots! Arseholes!' Our two heroes ask what they've done: 'You know damn well! Turn around.' Still hand- cuffed, they are made to face the passers-by in the street: 'Everyone should see who you are and what you did!' A revival of the medieval pillory (they are exposed like this for half an hour), but with a novelty: it's done prior to any judgement, prior even to any accusation. Up pulls a police wagon. 'You're in for it when we've got you alone.' 'You like dogs?' 'There'll be no one to help you at the station.'

The 'young lads ' say, 'They didn't do anything, they gave us the bike back.' Never mind, they're all thrown into the van, Gérard, Kemal, the three 'young lads', and the bike. Is the accursed bike the culprit? It should be stated that it wasn't. That's the last we'll hear of the bike. Moreover, at the station, Gérard and Kemal are separated off from the three 'young lads' and the bike, the three good little 'whites' are sent free back onto the streets. It's another matter for the black and the Turk. Now, they tell us, comes the 'worst' part. Handcuffed to a bench, kicked in the shins every time a policeman passed by them, insults, especially for Gérard: 'Fat pig', 'Filth' . . . This goes on for an hour and a half without their knowing what they're accused of and how they've become criminals. Eventually they're told that they are being kept in detention on suspicion of having committed a gang mugging fifteen days ago. They start feeling really sick, not knowing what will happen. Characteristics of police custody: the body search, the cell. It is 10 pm. At home, I await my son. Two and a half hours later the telephone rings: 'Your son is being held in detention on probability of gang assault.' I love that 'probability'. Meanwhile, a less complicit policeman says to Gérard: 'It doesn't seem to me you've been involved in any of these things. What are you doing here still?' A mystery, indeed.

As regards the black, my son, let's just say that no one recognized him. It's over now, said a cop, a little embarrassed. Accept our apologies. Where did all this trouble come from? A denunciation, again, as always. A supervisor from the girls' school had identified him as the guy who participated in this infamous mugging two weeks before. Wasn't he at all involved then? A black guy and another black guy, you know . . .

Apropos of high schools, supervisors and informing, I'll mention in passing that at the time of the third of Gérard's arrests - as futile and brutal as the five others - his high school had been asked for the photos and school files of all the black students. Yes, you read that right - the black students. And as the file in question was on the police inspector's desk, I'd have to suppose that the secondary school, turned into a police agent, had carried out this curious 'selection.'

We were called well after 10 pm to come to pick up our son: he hasn't done anything; apologies are given. Apologies? Who would be content with that? And I suppose that those from the suburbs don't even have the right to apologies. Who cannot see that the mark of infamy they hope to inscribe in the everyday lives of these kids will have effects, devastating effects? And if the police intend to indicate that, after all, since they are stopped and checked for no reason, it might well happen that, one day, and 'as a group', they are picked up for something, and who would object?

We have the riots we deserve. A state in which what is called public order is only a coupling of the protection of private wealth and dogs unleashed on children of working people and people of foreign origin is purely and simply despicable.

Polemics will be published in paperback in February 2012. 

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