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by Caroline Gaudriault

Riots take everyone by surprise.

Riots take everyone by surprise. As violent as a natural catastrophe, they leave burned out cars, pillaged shops, and cries of rage and discontent in their wake. They spring into existence spontaneously, powered by emotion and a feeling of great injustice. The explosion is sudden and intense; like a volcano ready to burst forth from its crater, all that’s needed to start a massive conflagration is a single spark. The origin of this incandescent fire is often the same: the death of one of their friends or a brutal clash with the forces of order. Even if their victims are often forced stoically to brave their fate, even if appalling acts of violence are sometimes committed, rioters often become icons for those who feel that their voices are not sufficiently heard. When they take to the streets, there are no declarations, no schedules, no frameworks, no negotiations, no microphone-assisted social dialogue, no whistles and no banging drums. There is nothing but a huge, chaotic mess. The crowd is swept away on a wave of emotion: together, its members lay claim to an identity. They feel emboldened by the kind of power and energy that would otherwise be beyond them. They create a force that helps them escape from the solitude of their marginality. This is not the time for political posturing. It’s a time for pillage and anger, for claiming the right to an existence. However much the violence associated with it is to be condemned, rioting is an attempt to reclaim dignity.
Most of the time, although they do not regard themselves as warriors engaged in battle, rioters put themselves in genuine danger. We could see them as courageous, but it’s more like the last chance saloon. Rioters are already wounded before they take to the streets – socially wounded by unemployment, a lack of education, a dysfunctional family, a brutal confrontation with the failure of multiculturalism. They rail against an urban, social and cultural system that no longer works, against a dying dialogue. In the streets, people attack administrative buildings, schools and banks as a symbol of protest against their marginalization. Meanwhile, the authorities endlessly condemn “delinquents” and “mindless vandals”.
A British study entitled “More Cutbacks Means More Riots” demonstrates that austerity policies lead directly to revolt because they make already hard lives even harder. But that is not the only factor fanning the flames of rebellion. Cutbacks are viewed as deeply unfair because they are regarded as stemming from poor economic management. Riots occur in the very places where poverty is biting deepest; after all, they are not events you go and see, but things that you find yourself in the midst of. In France, they are associated with towns and suburbs like Vaulx-en-Velin, Vénissieux, Villiers-le-Bel, Clichy-sous-Bois and Amiens, in England with places like Tottenham, but they have also broken out in cities around the world, including Cape Town, Rio and Buenos Aires.

A new way of making your voice heard.

Rioting is not exclusive to the contemporary era, but their frequency around the world arouses curiosity. The anthropologist Alain Bertho has studied all of them. Every day, he lists more, predominantly in Africa and Asia. But it is in the West that they have really become more frequent. For Bertho, rioting has truly become a social phenomenon, a style of action characteristic of our times. Reportedly, there were 1,200 riots in 2010, 1,500 in 2011 and 1,800 in 2012. Of necessity, the street has become a kind of tribunal, with drums and trumpets replaced by vehemence.
However, not all riots are the same. Some rise up against the established order, leaving the city in ruins, while the intention of others is to be non-violent and to express precise demands concerning such themes as hunger and the cost of living, austerity policies, and the condition of the working classes. It’s a new phenomenon: riots as a means of expression. The former diplomat, Stéphane Hessel, wrote “Be Indignant”, a pacifist call for awareness. He was right, that’s what the world wants, and more. From the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the English-speaking countries criticizing the effects of a dehumanized system, to the “Indignants” of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to the Senegalese rappers “Y’en a marre” (“We’re fed up”) to the “Zadistes” in France, people have invented new forms of intervention and face the world in an entirely new way. The objective is not to remove the powers that be; if so rioting would lead to revolution as in the Arab countries. The objective is to express oneself. People have the resources to do so now. They know it and have proved it. That is why their modus operandi has no precedent. The barricades have been replaced by mobile riots, the use of the image, and social networks. Rebellions are no longer local, but carry their contagions to neighboring countries, weaving their discontent throughout the world.
According to David Harvey, Emeritus Professor at New York University, “it’s savage capitalism taking to the streets”. According to Harvey, the savagery of rioters mirrors the savagery of the global economy. Whatever their motivations and degree of violence, riots are fuelled by the same sentiment of injustice and indignation. Revolts speak for themselves: they incarnate a split between the state and the people. Rioters do not feel represented; the links of trust with those who govern them have been broken. Today, governments are no longer able to hide the fact that their power is becoming weaker, constrained as they are by the brutal laws of globalization and the rules of soulless financial markets.
The increasingly invasive noise of discontent swells in the bleak neighborhoods at the gates of the world’s great cities, in closing factories, amongst young people directly affected by austerity plans. Anchored in a day-to-day reality, everyone has forsaken the abstraction of politics. Everyone wants to put the government back in its box. They reject its omnipotence and expect it to act in a purely managerial role. Can we see here a constructive attitude on the part of a population increasingly aware of the times in which it lives, which is asking to become more involved? Since it is not given the means, it takes them. If only they gave us a little more trust, it seems to say …

A fantasy reflected by rap and street art

Art has always been drawn to strong themes: wars, revolutions, revolts and, more recently, riots. But it is probably music that best expresses such ideas. In the past, rebellion was incarnated by England’s punk movement, particularly Joe Strummer of The Clash and the song “White Riot”. Today, the phenomenon has returned with rap. And the crowds love it even more because rebellion and disobedience have always nourished fantasies. Current videos of rappers use images of riots as a kind of aesthetic backdrop. From L’il Wayne to Kanye West, insurrection is the name of the game. In 2012, Romain Gavras filmed a video of “No Church in the Wild” by US rappers, Kanye West and Jay-Z. We see no singers or musicians, only Molotov cocktails, flames, burning cars, a devastated city, and police forces confronting rioters in a hyper-realistic mise-en-scene. And the following lyrics can be heard: “Human beings in a mob/What’s a mob to a king?/Will [it] make it out alive/No church in the wild”. After the violent riots of August 2011 that affected 66 towns and cities in England, the country asked itself about the role such videos play in fomenting violence. But even if the protagonists of those riots were the children of poor, neglected neighbourhoods abruptly expressing their day-to-day concerns, there is an enormous gap between fantasy and reality.
Wasn’t Gangsta Rap born in the gang-infested suburbs of Los Angeles? And didn’t it find its justification in 1992 after the acquittal of police offers accused of beating up black American citizen, Rodney King. The incident was experienced as an injustice and Los Angeles was riven by rioting. Twenty years on, rappers are marking the anniversary by using even more riot imagery than ever. They like to take reality and turn in on its head, using social codes which are, a priori, beyond their reach, codes based on opulence and luxury. From 50 Cent to Slim Thug, rap stars have gold teeth and diamond necklaces, wear Louis Vuitton clothes, and drive Rolls Royces with plates saying “The Boss”. Now, having made their money, they are the ones who fly first class and whose business is coveted by the world’s leading luxury goods companies. From slum life to the high life, they are the contradictions of modern society.
Street art also plays a major role in the nexus between art and insurrection. Banksy, the English graffiti artist, often creates stencil images of rioters, undermining authority, creating bridges with hip-hop imagery, pointing out the world’s humiliations and contradictions. An irony of fate – the artist, who operates illegally, at night, and in disguise, covering London’s walls with his images, sells his work for considerable sums of money. “Keep it Spotless” was sold in Sotheby’s for 1.87 million dollars. The subversive illustrator takes Londoners by surprise with his images of a slightly lost society. Following the riots in England in 2011, he made a documentary, shown on Channel 4, about the emblematic figures of social disobedience: the “Antics Roadshow”.
Contemporary society is fascinated by these images of rebellion that artists are gifted enough to be able to transpose. It is able simultaneously idolize and demonize urban revolt, thereby sublimating its own hypocrisy: rebellion is acceptable as long as it remains a work of fiction.