We're starting a new series here on the Penn Press Log. As our Fall 2014 season of books is released, we'll be posting Q&As with many of the books' authors, giving readers a better idea of what the books are about and what the authors think. First up is Cathy Lisa Schneider, author of Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York.
Called "a remarkable achievement" by Didier Fassin, author of Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, Schneider's work traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and greater Paris, focusing on the interaction between police and minority youth. Looking specifically at the race riots that occurred in New York City following the shooting by police of a 15-year-old black youth just three weeks after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and events in Paris in October 2005 when French police chased three black and Arab teenagers into an electrical substation outside Paris, culminating in the fatal electrocution of two of them, setting off weeks of rioting across that country, Schneider shows that riots erupted when elites activated racial boundaries, police engaged in racialized violence, and racial minorities lacked alternative avenues of redress. She also demonstrates how local activists who cut their teeth on the American race riots painstakingly constructed social movement organizations with standard nonviolent repertoires for dealing with police violence. These efforts, along with the opening of access to courts of law for ethnic and racial minorities, have made riots a far less common response to police violence in the United States today.
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Penn Press: You mention the similarities between these two events but are there differences?
Cathy Lisa Schneider: No two riots are exactly alike. What is surprising is that in two countries as different as the United States and France (different cultures, forms of state, political economies, constructions of race, minority populations, structures of police, legal systems, and so on) police should act so similarly: abusing minority residents, violently enforcing racial boundaries, and sometimes killing minority youth. When they do so with impunity they sometimes provoke riots.
How does culture affect the nature of his issue? For instance, the cultural heritage of the U.S. as an immigrant nation or its long history of enslaving Africans versus comparable French ethno-homogeneity and sense of a distinctly French culture or its history as the heart of enlightenment/internationalist culture.
Again, one might expect very different outcomes as a result of such distinctions. Yet police behave in similar ways. Police do not use violence against minority youth because minority youth are more likely to disrespect police than majority youth. Studies have shown the reverse to be the case. Rather, in both countries, police respond to political pressures imposed by leaders who win elections by playing to racial fears.