The murder of Nahel M (a 17-year-old French-Algerian) by a police officer in Nanterre on Tuesday morning has sparked a powerful wave of indignation and anger across the country. Riots and enraged protests have rocked Paris for two nights running, where a reported 2,000 security personnel have been deployed. Protests are now spreading beyond the capital.
The video of the incident clearly illustrates what happened: the police officer deliberately murdered the young man, who was not threatening anyone, after he drove away from a traffic stop. He was shot in the chest and medics failed to revive him. Such events are not uncommon: there were 13 such police killings following routine traffic stops last year alone.
Unaware that he had been filmed, the policeman tried to claim that Nahel was threatening to kill him. This is the regular strategy of police officers who commit such “accidents”: they lie, confident in the complicity of the police and judicial institutions.
But the video does not lie. It is a spanner in the works for the state, a piece of raw truth that ridicules arguments like the “presumption of innocence”, which reactionary journalists have been coming out with for the past two days.
Everyone understands that, without this video, the police officer’s claims would probably not have been questioned – and that for lack of videos, many murders perpetrated by police officers in similar circumstances have been buried under a heap of lies and complicit silence.
Fearing a repeat of the 2005 riots, triggered by the death of three youths who were electrocuted to death after being chased by police into a power station, the government said it was “shocked” by the video, promised that justice would be done and called for “calm”.
To no avail. On Tuesday night, clashes broke out between hundreds of young people and the police in Nanterre and other towns in the Paris suburbs. By Wednesday evening, the clashes had spread to many towns, not just in the Paris suburbs but nationwide.
The riots could spread over the next few days. Nahel’s murder is far from the only cause of people’s anger. But it is serving as a catalyst, a spark that has ignited huge reserves of explosive material that have been built up over the years through humiliation, discrimination, stigmatisation, state racism, police violence, unemployment and misery of all kinds.
As in 2005, the government and its media outlets are shedding crocodile tears over burnt-out cars and buses. They see this as an opportunity to mobilise public opinion against the young rioters, who are being subjected to intense police repression. The young people arrested will probably receive harsh sentences to “set an example”. The right and far right will try to make political gains out of the situation – in the name of “order”, “security” and even, of course, the (bourgeois) “Republic”.
In this context, the left and the trade union movement must not confine themselves to the role of observers and commentators. We need to give events a clear class content. The organisations of the workers’ movement must do everything they can to mobilise all young people and workers in a massive struggle against the bourgeois state, against the government and against police and judicial repression of young people.
Massive demonstrations and rallies must be organised in working-class neighbourhoods to give this youth revolt the most organised, conscious and effective expression possible. This would enable the entire population of these neighbourhoods – and not just the youth – to take part in the movement. At the same time, it would take the wind out of the sails of reactionary politicians who harp on the “violence” of the rioters and try to turn public opinion against them.
The link between the police’s harassment of young people in the poorest neighbourhoods and the government’s anti-people policies must be established, explained and hammered home.
Millions of people have been mobilising against the government’s policies since January. The government and the police are two aspects of the same problem, the same system of exploitation and oppression, the same domination of a class of rich parasites over the overwhelming majority of the population.
It is this capitalist class that sows misery, unemployment and chaos. It is this same class that controls the state apparatus, the police and the judicial institutions. It is also this class that owns and controls the major media, one of the central missions of which is to constantly spew racist propaganda, under any pretext.
It is therefore against this class and its system – the capitalist system – that the workers’ movement must strive to direct the anger which is exploding, once again, among the most oppressed young people in the country. There is no doubt that if the labour movement speaks revolutionary language to these young people, they will respond with enthusiasm and energy.