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Van Zandt: Comparing the L.A. and Paris riots

Former FBI profiler discusses why each came about and what may be next
Firefighters extinguish a fire in a burning car in Gentilly, south of Paris.Michel Spingler / Ap / AP

In early March 1991, a motorist identified as Glen "Rodney" King was stopped by the LAPD after driving at speeds of up to 115 miles per hour.  King, with previous arrests for DWI, was thought to be under the influence of PCP.  King resisted arrest and was stunned with two 50,000-volt Tasers.  As he fought with police, four officers were captured on videotape by amateur photographer George Holliday as they fought with and eventually beat King to the ground with 50 blows from night sticks.  "Contempt of cop," or drug induced stupidity some would call it.  Excessive use of force was the legal definition, while the videotape of King's fight with and beating by the police was played and replayed, over and over again across the country and world.  Like the videos taken on the morning of 9/11 in New York City, it was hard for many viewers who watched King's beating to comprehend if each time on TV was a new beating, or the same one played again and again, much like our collective reaction to the playing and replaying of the pictures of fiery crashes of the jetliners into the NYC skyscrapers, resulting in over 3,000 deaths on 9/11/01.

It only takes a spark
The spark that ignited the South Central L.A. riots, though, was the April 1992 acquittal of the officers charged with beating King.  In the hours after the verdict what would become the worst riot in U.S. history began, resulting in arsons, looting, and murder.  The days that followed saw riots in many parts of L.A. as stores and businesses were looted, bystanders, mainly white and Korean, were beaten, with 2,400 injuries, 3,600 fires set, over 1,000 buildings destroyed, and almost 10,000 people arrested, with 55 riot-related deaths.  Just as many had watched the tape of the beating of King one year prior, the world watched-live  -- while white truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck by black youths who beat him unconscious, crushing his skull with a concrete block.  The attackers then danced in the street around Denny's limp body.  Denny was saved from certain death by fellow truck driver Bobby Green, who, watching television, saw the beating as it occurred and rushed from his nearby home to help Denny.  Green was just one of a number of other neighborhood blacks who also saw the beating on live TV and hurried to intervene on behalf of the injured truck driver.  One of the youths involved in the beating of Denny explained that when he thought about the police officers that were found not guilty in the Rodney King beating, the word "rage" stuck out in his mind.  "Someone had to stand up against this ridiculous verdict, so myself and others around me (who also beat Denny) in my area stood up."  Ice Cube would shortly thereafter release a song entitled "We had to tear this Motherf***a Up" as his statement concerning the trial of the LAPD officers-obviously a song not intended to have a calming effect on the local youth. 

An Hispanic construction worker would similarly be pulled from his truck, robbed, and beaten by another gang of youths who smashed in his head and spray-painted parts of his body black.  Hidden among the chaos was the fact that most looting was, in reality, the opportunistic theft of luxury items.  (We saw this again in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  In the chaos of the New Orleans flood were some looters stealing large screen TVs and automobiles).  Rank and file common criminals used the LA riot to cover their crimes while street gangs went after other gangs, and the police.  And so crime breeds crime, wrong follows wrong, and the explanation for man's inhumanity to man still rings hollow in our ears.

In France, as the story goes, two teenagers, one of Arab descent and one of African descent, were running from the police.  They climbed over a fence around an electric power facility and were somehow electrocuted.  Rioting began Oct. 27 in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris, with all the anger and frustration of a Muslim population burdened by unemployment, poverty, and alleged discrimination. "Obviously" this was reason enough to start riots across France in hundreds of cities that to date have resulted in over 2,000 arrests and hundreds more arsons and a death toll that continues to rise.  Riots are measured by different standards, on different scales, but never as exact as the Richter Scale that's used to measure the severity of earthquakes. The L.A. riots were measured in the number of buildings destroyed.  In France the standard is number of cars burned.  Over 7,000 vehicles have been set ablaze since riots began, sometimes over 500 cars, trucks and buses were set aflame in one night.

The L.A. riots were mainly carried out by unorganized mobs and street gangs turned loose on the city when police officials failed to initially respond in sufficient force. The flash point of the riot was initially the King beating, but the match was struck when the trial results concerning the officers involved in the beating were released.  The message was out-let the riots begin.  Police were hampered by their own reticence to respond in force, notwithstanding the well-known idea that the first few hours of a riot are critical and the initial law enforcement response may well determine how long the riot will last.

The bands roaming and burning across 300 cities in France have proved to be far more organized, using cellular telephone text messages to move their planned mayhem across the country.  Many if not most of the youthful rioters in France are the first generation children of immigrant Muslim and African minorities, reflecting France's failure to integrate these minorities.  Youth, often encouraged to riot by their equally embittered parents, expressed their frustration at French society by throwing home-made Molotov cocktails at cars and buses as they roamed vulnerable cities just as L.A. mobs had, some 14 years before.  While French police have arrested thousands of rioters, it may be more the weather than the law enforcement response that brings an eventual halt to the cross-country civil disorder.

The Psych 101 of people who riot         
Like just about any other subject today, you can get as many views and explanations as to the "whys" concerning the riots in L.A. and France as you can get concerning the presence or absence thereof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or gas prices across the U.S.  Most accept that the 1991 L.A. riots were really about unemployment and racial tensions in L.A. and across America.  The acquittal of the officers filmed beating Rodney King providing the focus, "the reason to riot."  Others will suggest that "the will to riot" is always there in the shadows of the human psyche, somewhere just beyond the constraints of society, the uncivilized side of our social personalities, something Freud referred to as our "id."  Psych students will recall that Freud described the id as that part of our mind and conscious that is based purely on what we want at the time, without any consideration of others.  Like those traits attributed to sociopaths, the id cares only about itself at any given moment.  Nothing else counts. 

Freud continued to tell us about the ego, the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality, functioning both in perceiving and adapting to reality.  And then there's the superego-what the good Dr. Freud and others might identify as the conscience, the part of us that differentiates between right and wrong; moral and immoral; and, ethical and unethical.  Our sense of morality develops because of the social and ethical restraints usually engrained in us by our parents and caregivers.  Many equate the superego with the conscience as it dictates our belief of what is right and wrong.  The balance that needs to be struck, of course, is between the id and the superego.  This can be seen in the proverbial passengers on a sinking ship where the id grabs the best life boat for himself and leaves others to drown, while the superego makes every passenger take a number, line up in rows of two, and read the small print on the life vest telling how to keep the batteries charged in the little blinking lit on the vest. 

Whether Freud was right in his psychological mumbo jumbo or just too consumed with human thoughts concerning sex, the rioters in France are nonetheless believed to either be driven by their collective ids, perhaps individually disaffected concerning their inability to assimilate into French society, or their adherence to the tenets of Muslim fundamentalism, i.e., teenaged jihadists.  France cannot afford to once again capitulate, to surrender without firing a social shot at these potential 21st century fascists, should, in fact, these riots have an intelligent design behind them.  Most of the French rioters have grown up in centers of suburban blight across that country, living in substandard conditions while suffering high unemployment and making salaries that are far below those made by "real" French citizens.  The French government and its Muslim community have disagreed in the recent past, exemplified by the French banning Muslim headscarves in public schools.  "Are you French or Arab?" So the question goes, "for in France there are no special categories for people like in America where they have African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, etc."

"Chaos theory" talks about finding the underlying order in apparently random data.  So if, according to some, the French rioters are passing information and directions back and forth among themselves via cell phones and Blackberry's, are these simply disenfranchised youth with a modern means to give each other an electronic "high fives"?    Or are they a worldwide conspiracy guided by the hidden hand of some radical Islamic maestro whose ultimate purpose and order is global jihad?  Fifteen years ago France's then-Socialist President Francois Mitterrand spoke of life for the youths who lived in overcrowded cities without hope or jobs, "What hope does a young person have ... living in an unspeakably ugly high-rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by gray walls in a gray wasteland and condemned to a gray life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until it's time to get mad. ..." 

A promise of things to come?
Depending on what you listen to or read about today, we are either witnessing the "how could the French not see this coming" frustration of the many have-nots in that country, or the next chapter in the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism.  Islamic fundamentalism has the eventual goal of not just throwing the western world out of the Middle East, but achieving dominion over the entire globe.  And if this is what has happened in France, can the rest of the world be far from similar unrest, riots, and upheaval?  All a riot needs is the right spark to start it-while there will be plenty to fan the flames of unrest before it is over.  The poverty rate in America runs at about 15-to-20 percent, a figure doubles that of France. 

And we thought the riots in L.A. were a problem.

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Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."