Unjust arm of the law

Vicky Conway hails powerful research that lays bare the corrosive effect of unchecked power

September 12, 2013

The Parisian riots of 2005 generated images of riot police and burning cars and buildings that were projected around the world. Unemployment and social exclusion were at the core of these events, but also central was the role of the police, long accused of overt racism in Paris’ deprived banlieues, or suburbs. The catalyst for the riots was a police attempt to arrest six young men of African origin over a break-in on  October that year. Three of the young men ran from the police, and their attempt to hide in an electrical power station resulted in the death of two of them. At the time of the riots, Didier Fassin, a French-born scholar renowned for books such as When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Aids Policies in South Africa (2007), was conducting ethnographic research with the police in the banlieues. Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, now translated into English, is the powerful, distressing and thought-provoking product of that research.

Vignettes are a primary tool of the book; they enable it to bear witness to the experience of the residents of the banlieues and the way they are treated by the police. Opening the book is the sad tale of three young boys who are stopped by officers as they wait at a bus stop. The situation quickly escalates as riot police arrive and arrest the boys. Indeed, the reader is left incredulous at the excessiveness detailed in the account. Supposedly the boys should feel lucky that just four hours later they are released without charge but, as Fassin outlines, the experience is frightening: “they resent the injustice they have suffered and the indignity of the situation in which they have found themselves: being arrested in front of friends’ parents, the handcuffs, the threats, the taunts, the insults, the racist comments – all of them vexations that they realise they have endured because they live where they live and they are who they are”.

Through the presentation and analysis of such stories and encounters, each chapter addresses a separate theme. In combination, these offer a deconstruction of how such police behaviour has become the norm: how the police define a situation as requiring an excessive response; how the ordinariness of police work requires adherence to an illusion of more excitement; how interactions such as “stop and search” serve a controlling purpose; how police violence should be conceived of as more than the physical application of force; the politicisation of policing and how officers’ own morality can lead to the enactment of justice on the streets. The book is based on 15 months of fieldwork, an undertaking unprecedented in France and one that, as the difficulties of access Fassin encountered suggest, will not be conducted again for some time.

While he draws on classic policing texts to develop a rich analysis, Fassin is not a policing scholar and this book is in many ways not about policing. The study does indeed permit something of an understanding of police action, but more than anything it documents the racial “othering”, violence (both physical and moral), cruelty and the dehumanising and demonising treatment experienced, physically and mentally, by residents of the banlieues every day. Fassin lays bare how this treatment is relentless, excessive and hopeless.

Whether one wishes to understand the dynamics of the riots of 2005 (or even those in Trappes in July this year), or is interested in the culture and power of policing and how that power is wielded when racism is unchecked and accountability unenforced, Enforcing Order furnishes a narrative that will distress and enrage but ultimately reinforce a belief in the need for democratic oversight of uses of power.

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