Professor Cathy Schneider Chronicles Link Between Police Repression and Race Riots
Associate Professor Cathy Schneider’s new book, Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York,
traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and Paris, focusing on
the interaction between police and minority youth. Schneider found that
riots erupt when political elites activate racial boundaries, police
engage in racialized violence, and racial minorities lack alternative
avenues of redress.
Schneider, an expert on social movements, collective violence,
policing, criminal justice, immigration, and racial and ethnic
discrimination, says the book evolved out of her community work where
she encountered first-hand the police harassment and racial profiling of
minority communities. "This made me wonder about conducting a
comparative study between what I saw in New York and somewhere else. I
wanted to see how the French police were similar or different in their
treatment of minority communities.”
Then, on October 27, 2005, an African boy and an Arab boy,
15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, were electrocuted
while hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of
Clichy-sous-Bois. A third teenager suffered serious burns. This sparked
riots against police brutality and harassment in Paris and other French
cities that lasted several months.
Schneider became interested in why these cases led to riots in
France, while similar cases did not lead to riots in New York. Schneider
began her research in Paris by interviewing the families of victims of
police violence, including the brother of one of the deceased teenagers.
One of her main findings was that in racially divided unequal
societies, police are tasked with the job of enforcing racial
boundaries. The activation of racial boundaries, Schneider found, makes
violent explosions more likely. As communities are polarized along an
“us vs. them” boundary and there are no avenues of redress, riots are
more likely to spark.
Schneider also discovered that political campaigns shaped how police
understood their jobs. In studying campaigns, she found that candidates
in tight elections often won by appealing to racial fears. “These fears
are often coded as ‘wars on crime’ or ‘drugs’ or ‘illegal immigration,’”
she explains. In such a context, police are rewarded for increasing the
number of arrests and for targeting minorities.
Schneider says that the reason there have not been race riots in New
York since the 1960s is the presence of options of redress that dampen
social unrest. Community organizers in New York have developed a
“standard non-violent repertoire” to protest police brutality. State and
federal courts also opened to minority plaintiffs and allow minorities
to sue on a civil and not just criminal basis, which helps to diffuse
tensions. The availability of avenues of redress, Schneider postulates,
is the variable that differentiates New York from Paris.