There are demonstrations, there are manifestations, there are riots and there are emeutes, but this week-end in Perigueux, the departmental capital here in the southwest of France, there was a riot produced entirely by the police, and that’s no joke.
It happened, fittingly enough, in the plaza in front of the Odyssey Theater, which last week had hosted Israeli choreographer Emmanuel Gat’s version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or “Sacre du Printemps.” Even if you didn’t notice the “Securité Routiere” tables set up, foire (fair) style, the orderliness of the shield-bearing police, not to mention the orderly er ‘rioters’ or manifestants, not to mention that the ‘t.v. cameraman’ was being left alone to do his work as opposed to being roped in and toppled with the rioters, might have tipped you off that, evidently, this was a police, or securité organized demonstration of how the police handle a, er, riot or demonstration, even though it bore little resemblance to my experience.
But to be fair, first a distinction: My limited experience participating in demonstrations here in France, mostly before, during, and in the immediate afermath of the U.S. illegal invasion of Iraq, and in support of Lebanon when Israel invaded that country in 2006, contrasts favorably with the same in the United States. The closest the police came to anything that could even remotely maybe be considered to have an aspect of intimidation was in filming one of the manifs and in sending civilian ops to monitor another. I was actually more frightened *covering* the 1992 demonstration in San Francisco reacting to the Rodney King verdict, to the point of getting off the street — with little confidence that my SF Police press card would protect me. Since then, police tactics in repressing demonstrations in the U.S. have gotten even more out of hand, particulary during and at the presidential nominating conventions, with pre-emptive arrestations, reporters being beaten and arrested, people being jailed in unsanitary conditions, bystanders being arrested just for being in the ‘wrong’ place at the wrong time, and more. Also, as I’ve previously written, during the 2008 Olympic torch relay, Paris stood out as just about the only city which refused to buckle under to Chinese pressure and allowed people to demonstrate for Tibet and against Chinese repression there.
Still, I have to make fun of Saturday’s mock manif for its one-dimensional aspect:
First, what was this demonstration (or demonstration of a demonstration and the police response) doing as part of a securité routiere foire? I mean, would a group of random people really assemble at the scene of an accident with the ends of trampling on and kicking the victim of the vehicle accident, trying to prevent the police from putting him in an ambulance, and egging on the police (in a sort of Vinny of Brooklyn, arms hanging down, hands cupped, fingers beckoning come and get me copper manner)? And why would the police show up at the scene of an accident in full riot gear? And would police at a riot really do a sort of carefully choreographed (usually I hate that term as applied to anything but dance, e.g. war, but here it’s appropriate) Busby Berkeley array, four lines across, six or so police deep? And would their batons stay in their belts? And what exactly was the, well, motivation of the demonstrators?
What’s scary about this is that it suggests that for the police, demonstrators, or manifs, have just one goal in mind, to egg on the police — and if they can do it by kicking an innocent road accident victim, all the better! People demonstrate for a reason. Even if one allows that there is a separate cadre, a sort of sub-set if you will, of ’emeuteurs’ or rioters who exploit legitimate manifs just to spread chaos, the politicians — the government — evidently needs to do a better job of educating the police as to the reasons behind such manifestations of discontent. (I think the funniest of these I ever saw — not counting the time when the striking firemen battled the police with firehouses — was when a group of about 15 sans papiers were followed by at least 50 police in a manif that took place last year in my old Paris ‘hood, a couple of blocks from where (then) candidate Nicolas Sarkozy had set up headquarters.)