1000 Days of Theory
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. I thought about my own abuelo, Nicolas from Pontremoli, who migrated in 1921 from his native Tuscany because of too many black shirts and no jobs. I thought about him, the rital, reconstructing the war destroyed north-east of France, near Le Chemin des Dames, quite a charming name for one of the worst WWI battlegrounds. Hell if you’re a poor bastard out of fascist Italy in 1921, you’d better be a mason. Back to the street compadre, wait for the next job pickup. Today I am a émigré in well-kept Canada, a legal alien, still a French National; aside from my name, I am French to the bone, as my fellow compatriots often remind me here. I am no more the grandson of a rital but quite simply put a maudit franÁais (and so might my son, if the trend goes on). There, there are no Muslims (as they said on Fox) nor blacks (as they wrote in the Teheran Times), but quite simply second generation African descent born in France — and being French I know of at least ten derogatory words to call them, my fellow compatriots, fils de l’émigration. Sons and grandsons of migrant workers for whom the law of the State of Emergency was first designed, back in 1955. Before ruling the projects of even the smallest towns of the country, it was used thrice, twice in Algeria (1955, 1961) and once in New Caledonia (in 1984). Bringing the colonies back to order before it brings the métropole, back to the same order. Before bringing the colonies into the Métropole. Pockets of colonies in the métropole, patches of periphery in the old center. There the troops did not deploy yet. They would have no crowd to face, only pockets of sons and grandsons practicing urban guerrilla, patches of little gangs striking at random, hidden behind the hoods of their latest fashion terrorist jacket, you know your basic hoody, but with a zipper at the front and just two holes for your eyes. You know, like in Baghdad, or better yet, like in Jerusalem or Beyrouth. You know, young people of their time, mobile and networked, flash mobs if you will. Kids of the viral marketing age, junkware. Except this time their rap shoots at firemen and nurses, and kills a poor guy in charge of the street lights — they say he was taking pictures in Epinay. What a Sunday for a family trip, for this only casualty of a riot with no crowds, no protest, and no end. A bus burns… It feels like I am watching pictures of Caracas on CNN, back in Santa Monica, but I am watching Paris on CBC, unless it is Watts on France 2. How does it feel, to see the country of your birth burning on TV? Estranged. At home, if you call yourself a migrant worker.
Montreal, November 9, 2005.