Paris’s République Rebounds From Terror With Skateboard Culture

Some may say Paris is burning, smoldering from the inside, with its constantly evolving politics and culture of public debate in the street. 2014’s quick transition into 2015 and the year that followed saw any number of protests, street festivals, political debates and tragic terrorist attacks that have forever changed the city.

Place de la République has symbolically been the setting off point for many a protest. Over the course of the year, the square has witnessed  its seasonal changes from Al Aqsa Brigade’s defiant protest to Bring Back Our Girls’ somber exposition to Charlie Hebdo’s mournful tragedy to angry condemnation of police practice. And then there is its current incarnation: a moving memorial to the November 2015, Friday the 13th terrorist attacks that killed scores of innocents at the Bataclan concert hall, the restaurants Belle Equipe and Petit Cambodge and the football stadium Bercy.  

Skaters practice on the ramp at République while a protest carries on in the background. Photo by Akil Wingate.

Skaters practice on the ramp at République while a protest carries on in the background. Photo by Akil Wingate.

Throughout the seasonal transition from spring and summer to fall and winter to spring one element remains constant: a legion of skateboarders improves their jumps and tricks come rain or shine, sleet or snow, hell or high water. This band of young and old skater punks alike won’t be cowed or dogged by any form of protest or tragedy. Nor will they seem dazed by the wellspring of protest or chaos that somehow ensues in the wake of everything that has happened here. This is the République, as François Holland would adamantly drive home in address after address. And the French will not be scared into submission. Nothing seems more representative of that fact than these skateboarders.

The Protest Movements of Place de la République:

AL AQSA BRIGADE

Various camps for a Free Palestine Movement and Al Aqsa Brigade competed for space at République. Photo by Akil Wingate.

Various camps for a Free Palestine Movement and Al Aqsa Brigade competed for space at République. Photo by Akil Wingate.

Spring and summer saw a surprisingly congested protest at Place de la République from supporters of Al Aqsa Brigade and a Free Palestine Movement. Each culminated in violent confrontations with the French police force the Gendarmerie. “Free Palestine!” screamed from the lips of Arab French and French Maghreb who’ve traversed routes from North Africa, The Maghreb, or even farther away origins to finally settle in France.

BRING BACK OUR GIRLS

The mayor of Paris unveiled a monument to the 400 plus Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. A skater works on his tricks just in front of it. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The mayor of Paris unveiled a monument to the 400 plus Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. A skater works on his tricks just in front of it. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The Bring Back Our Girls movement was first engendered by Michelle Obama in response to the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. The tepid response the world took in trying to free the girls and hunt down the terrorists spoke to a much larger problem about which news stories get the most attention. Here in Paris the mayor unveiled the temporary monument with a press conference and ribbon cutting ceremony. Hundreds of cardboard silhouettes stood poised in the center of the square, each representing one of the little girls secreted away by Boko Haram.

The results were mixed. While the monument itself was effective in drawing in onlookers and stirring discussion about the tragedy, not much else came about as a result.

CHARLIE HEBDO ATTACKS

The Charlie Hebdo March saw millions march against the deadly terror attack. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The Charlie Hebdo March saw millions march against the deadly terror attack. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks unfolded like a very bad moment in suspended animation for most French people. For France, the January 7th 2015 attacks on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, were the bloodiest acts of terrorism it had seen in decades…at the time. And for the French, such things don’t typically happen on their soil. So now, the 11th arrondissement is generously sprinkled with gendarmerie and soldiers coupled with police officers. They tow the line of general policing and optimum vigilance for any sort of attack or threat that may follow.

ANTI-POLICE BRUTALITY MOVEMENT

An anti-police brutality exhibition took up residence at République for several weeks. Photo by Akil Wingate.

An anti-police brutality exhibition took up residence at République for several weeks. Photo by Akil Wingate.

When things finally began to calm down for Place de la République a local activist group installed an eye-grabbing exhibition in the middle of Republique featuring life size photo portraits of local French men of varying ethnicities. Alongside each placard were stories which brought to the fore the growing sense of fear and mistrust of the police. Whether or not the police exercise too much force here in France is up for debate. But what was clear with the exhibition was that a number of upwardly mobile and successful entrepreneurs, normal average Joes and politicians alike each had something to say on the matter. And for their part they were featured in the exhibition. Did it draw the ire of the local police? Perhaps. But did it get the attention of the local public? Not so much.

FRIDAY THE 13TH ATTACKS

The Gendarmerie patrol République. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The Gendarmerie patrol République. Photo by Akil Wingate.

The attacks on November Friday the 13th went well beyond the devastation wreaked during the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Hundreds were killed in the popular concert hall Le Bataclan when a group men carrying kalashnikovs stormed the hall and indiscriminately opened fire. Subsequently attacks were then carried out on the popular restaurants Belle Equipe and Le Petit Cambodge. A pair of suicide bombers had equally planned to detonate their suicide vests inside Stade de France during a football match but had only managed to detonate outside the stadium.

Unlike the first terrorist attack, the second attack sought no specific target. Everyone was a victim no matter race or religion. Thusly, Hollande declared a state of emergency and spoke the words France hadn’t imagined it would here. “We are at war.” Boutiques, museums, and businesses were closed for the weekend and the French were urged to stay home.

This time the sense of fear and dread were palpable. Unlike the defiant marches that took place in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, there were no marches to show the defiant spirit of the people. République which had earlier seen its share of protests and rallies had suddenly become sacred ground. Hundreds of flowers and moving memorials were installed and likewise at Bataclan and the other attack sites.