Author Q&A: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots

Police Power and Race RiotsWe're starting a new series here on the Penn Press Log. As our Fall 2014 season of books is released, we'll be posting Q&As with many of the books' authors, giving readers a better idea of what the books are about and what the authors think. First up is Cathy Lisa Schneider, author of Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York.

Called "a remarkable achievement" by Didier Fassin, author of Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, Schneider's work traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and greater Paris, focusing on the interaction between police and minority youth. Looking specifically at the race riots that occurred in New York City following the shooting by police of a 15-year-old black youth just three weeks after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and events in Paris in October 2005 when French police chased three black and Arab teenagers into an electrical substation outside Paris, culminating in the fatal electrocution of two of them, setting off weeks of rioting across that country, Schneider shows that riots erupted when elites activated racial boundaries, police engaged in racialized violence, and racial minorities lacked alternative avenues of redress. She also demonstrates how local activists who cut their teeth on the American race riots painstakingly constructed social movement organizations with standard nonviolent repertoires for dealing with police violence. These efforts, along with the opening of access to courts of law for ethnic and racial minorities, have made riots a far less common response to police violence in the United States today.

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Penn Press: You mention the similarities between these two events but are there differences?

Cathy Lisa Schneider: No two riots are exactly alike. What is surprising is that in two countries as different as the United States and France (different cultures, forms of state, political economies, constructions of race, minority populations, structures of police, legal systems, and so on) police should act so similarly: abusing minority residents, violently enforcing racial boundaries, and sometimes killing minority youth. When they do so with impunity they sometimes provoke riots.

How does culture affect the nature of his issue? For instance, the cultural heritage of the U.S. as an immigrant nation or its long history of enslaving Africans versus comparable French ethno-homogeneity and sense of a distinctly French culture or its history as the heart of enlightenment/internationalist culture.

Again, one might expect very different outcomes as a result of such distinctions. Yet police behave in similar ways. Police do not use violence against minority youth because minority youth are more likely to disrespect police than majority youth. Studies have shown the reverse to be the case. Rather, in both countries, police respond to political pressures imposed by leaders who win elections by playing to racial fears.

What about these two specific events caused the riots that followed?

In both cases the riots occurred as the result of police killings of minority youths. In both cases these killings came during a period of escalating police brutality when minority residents lacked alternative avenues of redress.

What makes these incidents different from plenty of other incidents of this kind of police brutality or even from other instances of race riots like the Chicago race riots of 1919?

First, most “ghetto” or minority riots are provoked by an act of violence that is only the most egregious of a long line of violent attacks by police. Second, the youths killed are young and innocent: they have done nothing wrong. Third, residents feel powerless to prevent further abuse. If political authorities take measures to investigate and show sufficient concern, then riots are rare. They are also rare where social movement organizations have developed a standard non-violent repertoire for dealing with police violence or where courts of law offer minority plaintiffs the possibility of legal justice. In contrast to white riots, or majority riots like Chicago in 1919, where rampages lead to the deaths of many people, most “ghetto” or minority riots are nonlethal confrontations with police and attacks on property. When there are deaths, it is usually the police who do most of the killings.

You talk about the dynamics that led police to use violence against the minorities in question, but were such dynamics the norm before these incidents? Were these uncommon instances of police brutality towards minorities?

Yes, these were dynamics that had become the norm in poor minority neighborhoods, and were inevitably going to result in a particularly egregious outcome.

The fact that the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed three weeks before the riots seems to fit in prominently to your description of the book’s subject matter. What is the significance, if any, of this new law with regard to the race riots in the U.S.? Was there a comparable piece of legislation around the time of the riots in Paris?

I mention it only because the riots occurred not before civil rights legislation but after. It is ironic that on the one hand Johnson is signing landmark legislation to protect blacks, and on the other hand police are killing black youth with impunity. The only relatively comparable legislation in France would be the affirmative action policies pushed by integrationists during the Algerian War or the signing of the Evian Accords severing France’s control of Algeria. But there was no official recognition of France’s long history of racial discrimination or any legislation designed to give minority residents legal protection from discrimination by the state itself.

What about the ethnic make-ups of these two cities made them prone to these riots? What were the social forces that led to there being large ethnic populations in these areas?

In both cities, the size of the minority population had grown quite rapidly as employers searching for cheap labor recruited those fleeing poverty and violence. In New York, blacks and Puerto Ricans were first recruited during the war years, but their numbers increased in the 1950s and 60s. In France, colonial subjects from Africa and the Maghreb also were recruited to fight during both world wars. And in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s their numbers likewise increased. In New York, minorities were often confined to the inner city, while in Paris immigrants found it hard to find housing in the city, and tended to live in poor suburbs. In both cases, whites moved out when poor minorities moved in, not only in direct response but as the result of a host of factors. The end result was concentrated poverty in neighborhoods where minorities and new migrants lived.

The "war on drugs" has been mentioned as an influence in events like these. What if any role did it play in the violence?

In both the United States and France a large percentage of minorities are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. The racial disparity stems in part from the unfeasible task these countries have assigned their police: asking them to fight a drug war in societies where the majority of youth admit to consuming illicit substances. To show they are doing their job, police try to beef up their arrest numbers. To avoid political problems that might ensue if they arrested the child of a political or economic elite, they search for drugs only in poor minority neighborhoods. They avoid searching elite universities, for instance, where they might find more drugs. To make matters worse, in the United States there are very few restrictions on gun possession. The plethora of guns makes police very nervous. They are not sure who might come out shooting, so sometimes they simply shoot first.

How does access to the judicial system affect the nature of these riots? In what ways was such access denied to the minorities in question?

The opening of the courts to minority plaintiffs in the United States has provided an outlet for pain and outrage. It has meant that most battles in the U.S. now take place in the courtroom rather than on the street. Prior to the civil rights movement, blacks and Puerto Ricans had no hope of winning against a police officer in open court. While criminal cases against police are still rarely victorious, plaintiffs now and again win civil suits for millions of dollars, and cities often settle such claims out of court. The federal government will also on occasion intervene to pursue hate crime or civil rights cases against violent police. In France, the judicial system is hopelessly stacked against minorities, and the country does not have the same tradition of civil suits or trials by jury. French judges almost never side with minorities against police officers accused of abuse. Police commonly press counter charges against minority plaintiffs and in such showdowns the police usually emerge victorious.

What are the motivations of the rioters? Are they always expressing outrage or do the riots also act as an excuse to loot or to exact reprisals for unrelated enmities?

Any disorder or breakdown will lead to some opportunism. No neighborhood or community is composed of identical people with identical motivations. The bigger question is what is the cause of the disorder in the first place. In most cases it is pain and outrage, especially in riots that explode after police killings. There are riots that erupt when opportunities suddenly appear, such as New York’s blackout riots of 1977. Even here, however, pent up grievances fuel the fires that burst forth when the state’s repressive capacity is suddenly diminished.

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Cathy Lisa Schneider is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University and author of Shantytown Protest in Pinochet's Chile. Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York is available now.

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