Friday, November 11, 2005

Thierry Bardini: France is Burning

(There used to be an old saying "When Paris sneezes, the world catches a cold")

France Is Burning
by Thierry Bardini

How does it feel to see the country of your birth burning on television? Today it makes me feel like a migrant worker, watching the kids of other migrant workers rioting in the streets of cities you've probably have never heard of -- but that they have been cleaning for two generations. Today I am reminded of the same scenes I once witnessed first-hand in the streets of Caracas and Los Angeles. Today I am reminded by all these comparisons I read in the papers, Paris-Baghdad, Ile-de-France-Tchetchnia, that bring back images and feelings to my mind. Flashes of light, Carnival, riot. My neighbor, this insignificant dog-walking-little-man, breaking a window, shoplifting. Black uniforms on motorcycles with very long sticks and machine guns. Fires. Dionysian parties, tomorrow tears. Hepa chamo why did you burn our car, and your school? Flashes of Curfew (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 1988, Caracas, Venezuela, 1989). Toque de queda, my poor Thomas. What to do but keep on partying when I can't get back home in time? Avoid the crowd, stay in well lit areas, talk to the cops only if you have to, only if they ask you a question or if you fear something worse. Be ready to run. Don't stay too close to the windows. Watch the same General over and over again on TV, lying through his teeth, back to order. That was then, in the Third World, homeland of the migrant workers before migration. There riot rhymes with coup, as in "coup d'État" or "coup sur la gueule." There the troops take three days to deploy in streets on fire, and the troops are eighteen years old, wearing helmets too big and carrying ten ammos apiece. Needless to say, they are scared shitless. And so are you and so it seems is everybody -- past this third day. A week later, the streets are cleaned, a thousand people are dead. Order is restored, until the next coup. There, in Caracas, the poor and the desperate came down to the heart of the city and burned it. Their targets of choice were the abastos, the dammed little capitalists on each street corner who were shelving coffee, rice and pampers, waiting for the prices to come up, or the caritos, the damned little capitalists who doubled the price of the ride, just a few days before they burned. Just a step above them on the starvation ladder, barely out of the barrios. In Los Angeles (1992) I was working for the University of Spoiled Children, thanks to a Japanese endowment at the famous Annenberg School. The building was rumored to have been a Republican think tank, unless it was an intelligence think tank I don't remember; a massive eagle was covering the entrance hall. The first strange thing that I noticed that day was a guy armed at the gates of the University. He was not yet eighteen years old and wore no helmet. I bet that he had plenty of rounds on his belt. I jumped into my car and saw the rest on TV -- from my rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. Downtown and Watts seemed very far away, until I noticed the smoky skies from the window. It felt like I was watching images of Caracas on CNN -- It can't be here. Sounds concrete suddenly, pockets of the Third World in the First World. They too started in a party-like atmosphere, burning their own neighborhood. Starting with the liquor stores. I bet I could have seen my neighbor from Caracas, Residence Sans Soucis, Avenida Libertador, Chacaito, stepping out of the broken window of this licoreria, carrying a full case of Red Bull. The troops, the National Guard that is, took two days to deploy, and prevented any damage from reaching North Hollywood. In the meantime, the small-business owners from little Seoul made use of their own NRA licensed machine guns. There, in a so-called civilized country, they only burned their own neighborhood. A week later, one house out of two was left to ashes on Normandy Street, but order was back in the city (or so they said on CNN). Who knows how many died, in a democratic country and land of hope we do not keep stats like this. Some of them did not officially exist anyway; they were just some migrant Chicano workers.

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