What do riots signify? Are they a natural response to injustice, as a scratch is to an itch, or is their meaning more complex?
In the French city of Nantes earlier this month, a small group of riot police—the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or CRS, not generally known for their subtle approach to human problems—stopped a young man, so far identified only as Aboubakar Fofana, driving a vehicle around one of Nantes’s dispiriting 1960s housing projects called Breil. They asked him for his identity papers, which he did not have; he gave a false name. The CRS decided to take him to the nearest police station. At this point, Fofana put his vehicle into reverse, and the officer in charge shot him in the neck, causing an injury from which he died almost at once.
Fofana turned out to have been a multi-recidivist, with a warrant out for his arrest because of a robbery he was suspected of having committed with a gang. He had a long criminal record.
The CRS did not know this when they shot him. Two accounts tell of the events that led to the shooting. According to the police, Fofana’s reversal of his vehicle endangered them (one was injured in the knee) and some children. According to another version, the one that spread among the local population, there was no one behind the vehicle, and no one was endangered by its reversal. Thus Fofana was shot in cold blood.
Whichever of these stories is true, it is beyond doubt that for four successive nights about 100 youths with balaclavas descended into the street and burned at least 50 cars, as well as a doctors’ office and parts of a school and gas station. Some of them threw Molotov cocktails at the police. It’s difficult to believe that they did not take delight in the opportunity, combining delinquency with supposed moral purpose.
But what could that purpose have been? Let us grant for the sake of argument that the shooting was unjustified. Would it then make sense to burn 50 of your neighbors’ cars and destroy a doctor’s office? At the very least, this response does little credit to their thought or logic.
The fact that Fofana had a criminal record did not cool their ardor or calm their anger. As is usual in these cases, friends of the deceased could be found to say that “he was a smiling and intelligent young man” who “never looked for problems” (other than robbing people). And we might wonder whether, if he had been shot by a member of a rival gang, there would have been any rioting.
It is difficult, then, to escape the conclusion that the rioting was in part motivated by the desire that young men like Aboubakar Fofana should be left to carry on their depredations without hindrance.