A few summers ago I spent a number of weeks in France with a few friends. Our time was concentrated in Paris and Lille where we sought to connect on the ground with a few communities, namely, the Roma and (mostly) young refugees from the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan etc). However, one day we went to visit a road side memorial for a young black Muslim man (boy, really, he was only 17). The young man was on a motorized scooter and being chased by police (probably for something minor) through the streets in the eastern suburbs of Paris, an area with a high immigrant population. He lost control and crashed. A young man unnecessarily dead. This sparked some fairly large protests in Paris, particularly in the surrounding suburban areas with the densest immigrant population. The protests turned into riots with cars being burned in the streets, violence and looting, and the riot police being called in.
I remember a day or two after the rioting began we walked through a housing estate in the area where the riots were occurring, just around the corner from where the young man had died. I recall feeling the tension in the estate before we even saw anyone. At one point we turned a corner into a courtyard type area and saw a number of (mostly black and immigrant) youth sitting on some benches across the yard from us. As we cut through the courtyard the tension grew and as we were approaching the other side of the courtyard with our backs to the youth something whizzed by me, missing my head by about a foot or two. What I saw land on the pavement ahead of us was a piece of metal plumbing, which one of the youth had thrown at us as we walked past.
I mention this because something significant is/has been happening in Europe over the years. You hear about it every now and then in the news, youths in Paris, London or some other large city revolting and rioting in the streets. The rioting is usually catalyzed by a particular event. In Paris it was the death of a young man fleeing police. A few days ago in London it was the death of Mark Duggan, a young black man who had his head blown off by police. They said it was a fire fight (some of the headlines literally read that it was a “terrifying shoot-out”), that the police had fired because Mark fired first. Later probes and inquiries are showing that, in fact, Mark had not fired a shot. But these events, the death of young men that spark riots, are just the kettle finally reaching its boiling point, screaming from the stove-top that the time has come. What we may not realize though, is that the kettle has been sitting on the stove for some time now, with the heat turned up, and the pressure in the kettle slowly growing to the point where it screams and all of a sudden we notice.
There was an interesting article in the Guardian 2 days ago (Monday, August 8, 2011) by Stafford Scott, a man who works with young black youth in the very community where Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police. Besides noting the disregard with which Met Police treated Mark’s family and the institutional racism and oppression that has operated within the Met for some time, Scott says:
“If the riots at the weekend and the disturbances around London today have come as a surprise to the police and that wider society, the warning signs have long been there for those of us who engage with black youths.”
This is the matter that must be addressed. We may all be quite shocked and appalled when the kettle screams, but the kettle has been on the stove for some time now and we failed to notice. Perhaps then our shock and appall ought not be directed towards poor immigrant youth in places like London or Paris but towards systems that exist which allow this to occur in the first place. Perhaps towards ourselves even, those of us whose privileged positions blinded us to the reality which others must face. How is it that youth (and immigrants) can be so ignored, so alienated, that they feel they must burn down their own neighbourhoods?
What causes young people to act in such destructive ways? How do young men and women get to the point where they are willing to burn down and loot their very own neighbourhoods, their home? Scott notes, “To behave in this manner young people have to believe they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no stake in wider society. This belief is compounded when it becomes a reality over generations, as it has done for some.” Scott notes three major signs that lay behind the events that have been unfolding in London in the last few days
“First, looting comes from the belief that if you cannot get equality and cannot expect justice, then you better make sure that you “get paid”…This is an absolute belief for those looting at the weekend – born not only out of their experiences but their parents’, too.”
“Another sign was when they allowed themselves to be referred to by the n-word. They weren’t simply seeking to reclaim a word. They were telling the world that they were the offspring of the “field negro”, no the trained “house negro” from slavery days. The field negro’s sole intent was to escape, and maybe even to cause a little damage to the master and his property.”
“A third obvious sign of major discontent was the creation of gangs and the start of the postcode wars. Yet all of these signs were largely unheeded by wider society: all perceived to be a black problem. It’s black kids killing black kids, so it’s our problem to address.”
We see this happening all over Europe. Europe is a continent that is becoming more and more hostile towards “outsiders”, towards non-Europeans. I saw it in France with immigrant youth, Middle-Eastern refugees, and the Roma (one gentleman I met had a molotov cocktail thrown at him and his brother as they slept in their car; his brother died). We see it in Holland where multiculturalism has been deemed a failure. We saw it recently in Norway. And we have seen it again this week in London. Let’s not be fooled and mistake the fruit for the root.
Jesus is not far from those who suffer. Indeed, he identifies himself with those who suffer. Christ’s body is broken today, over and over again, as Roma are set ablaze in their own car and black youth are shot in the head by police. Lord help us if we refuse to allow their brokenness to penetrate our calloused hearts and move us to suffer with our brothers and sisters.
Praying for the peace of London. Amen.
By the way, I thought this was an interesting video, I’m sure never to be aired again on BBC.