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A Battle Over Murals in Parisian Ghettos

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

French filmmaker Ladj Ly scoffs at a recent suggestion from an America diplomat to literally paint over deep-seated social problems in suburban ghettoes around Paris to lessen tensions sparking two major riots in the past three years.

These problems like pervasive unemployment, police brutality and inept responses from governmental officials in France form the focus of Ly’s film “365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil.”

Ly’s documentary examines the Fall 2005 rioting and aftermath in his town located northeast of Paris.

Ly’s town is next door to the town of Clincy-sous-Bois where that rioting sweeping countrywide erupted after the accidental electrocution of two minority youth while trying to escape harassment by police.

Ly said he knew the electrocuted youth – “they were like my little brothers.” Their deaths were one inspiration for his documentary.

This US diplomat wants to initiate a project to paint murals on ghetto walls, employing famed French artists to work with ghetto youth.

The announcement of this project based on a famous mural program operating in Philadelphia, Pa came during a recent interview with the Cultural Attache’ of the US Embassy in Paris published in one of France’s largest and most influential newspapers, le Parisien.

Ly dismisses this proposed project as non-responsive to real problems.

The ghetto youth born in France of immigrant parents mainly from North and West Africa need paychecks from long-term jobs and not paint brushes to participate in projects that make diplomats feel good, said Ly, decrying the exclusion from French society facing ghetto residents.

“When you are black or Arab you can’t get good paying jobs because you have to show your ID that shows you live in a ghetto. There are few paths to upliftment,” Ly said during a recent interview in Philadelphia.

Ly (pronounced Lee) said the majority of the restive youth living in the heavily segregated ghettoes around Paris don’t care about this type of painting project because it’s “not gonna change anything.”

Further, Ly finds it insulting that this proposed wall painting project will probably exclude ghetto-based artists if the Philadelphia model is followed closely. One criticism of Philadelphia’s successful mural program is its employing of few artists living in the community where a particular mural is painted.

Ly is currently touring the US, screening his compelling documentary at four universities including Temple University in Philadelphia.

Ly initiated his own mural-like project after the 2005 riots that rocked over 250 cities and towns across France for weeks.

Ly’s project placed huge posters of faces of ghetto youth all over the Paris area as a means of challenging stereotypes about those youth. Authorities immediately removed these posters.

One scene from Ly’s “365” documentary is an interview with the Mayor of Clichy Montfermiel responding to why he ordered the face posters thrown down. The Mayor said Ly’s posters had some artistic merit but were erected without proper approval thus violating urban law.

“French people remove stuff from artists in the ghetto but will pay other French artists with American money to do work in the ghetto. This is crazy,” said Diarapha Diallo, a French academic/activist touring the US with Ly.

“It’s such a contradiction to ignore ghetto artists like Ladj,” said Diallo. “Ladj needs no renowned artist to assist him. This is so French.”

The Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia is responsible for erecting 2,700 brilliantly colored murals throughout the city, more than any city in the world.

This Program that paints murals primarily for beautification also includes an art education component.

This Program receiving widespread kudos is not without its critics.

One critic is award-winning Philadelphia-based playwright Joseph P. Blake, who wrote a newspaper commentary early last year assailing the Program as doing too little to empower residents in impoverished areas to meaningful change conditions.

“Instead of showing passion, compassion, and a spirit of self-determination and permanence, these murals have no more impact than a smiley face on a T-shirt,” Blake wrote expressing his thoughts about “these feel-good murals in areas under stress from poverty, violence, and now, gentrification.”

Harsh reaction from Program supporters across America to Blake’s commentary lead him to write a play based around on concerns about the Program entitled “Muralista.”

That “play makes some interesting points about power and gentrification…” stated one review of Blake’s creation that garnered acclaim from interracial audiences in Philadelphia last Fall – shortly before the second round of rioting in French ghettoes.

“Once you start suggesting simplistic solutions like painting on walls to serious problems, that proves your programs are a failure,” said Blake, whose directed community based improvement organizations in impoverished Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Ladj Ly lives in the Les Bosquets section of Clichy Montfermeil. He says residents of his neighborhood now confront gentrification through efforts to purchase their units in high-rise buildings for less than what residents paid for them.

One point that riles Ly is the fact that young children in Les Bosquets do not have playgrounds, even the decrepit playgrounds Ly saw during a recent tour of the North Philadelphia ghetto.

Ly criticizes the Mayor of his town for spending $6-million euro to construct a swank park on the edge of the ghetto (near mansions) instead of using of funding construction of playgrounds or other projects to improve things for ghetto youth.

“Last fall a young boy drowned in the pond in that park and they covered up his death for weeks. I didn’t even find out about this drowning for a while,” Ly said through an interrupter.

That le Parisien article quotes that American diplomat as saying her nation is interested in diversity and would like to share “our experience” with dealing with minorities.

The Bush Administration has one of the worst records on civil rights in American history.

In March 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report criticizing Bush Administration failures to forthrightly address racism in America.

Areas of criticism in this UN report include Bush Administration shortcomings on police brutality plus employment and housing discrimination – core problems in French ghettoes.

US government funded initiatives in French ghettoes are image-improving with an anti-terrorism undercurrent related to the heavy concentration of Muslims in those areas, the le Parisien article stated.

That article ended with a quote from a French resident saying the Americans can provide all the funding they want but it will be cancelled by every “ten second” report on US abuses of detainees at Guantanamo.

Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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