What is it about Molenbeek? The Belgian suburb that was a base for Paris terror attacks

Locals light candles during a vigil to the victims of the Paris attacks in Molenbeek, November 2015. Image: Getty.

Just as during the German invasions of 1914 and 1940, war, it seems, is coming to France through Belgium. If one follows the logic of the statements of various French political leaders since the bloody attacks in Paris on 13 November, Belgium has become the base from which Islamic State has brought the conflicts of the Middle East to the streets of Paris.

There is much about that logic that would not withstand serious analysis. France has grown many of its problems within its own suburbs. And groups committed to armed action, from the Resistance movements of World War II to the Basque nationalist groups of the 1980s and 1990s, have often found it expedient to use neighbouring territories as a base from which to launch their operations.

That said, the French authorities have a case. Molenbeek – an urban commune on the north-western edges of Brussels – is unlikely to feature any time soon on tourist-bus tours of historic Brussels.

Though it lies only a couple of kilometres from the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis, and a mere taxi ride from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s office, Molenbeek is another world. This inner-city area, now on the front pages of newspapers across Europe, is deprived of funds, social cohesion and effective government.

Former residents have left for more prosperous suburbs on the outskirts of Brussels. In their place, a fractured community has emerged. Those who carried out the gun attacks in Paris allegedly found convenient anonymity there, as well as access to weaponry and the support of like-minded radicalised Islamic militants.

It was not always so. Molenbeek was, only 20 years ago, a Socialist bastion of working-class Brussels. It is francophone for the most part, but composed predominantly of people who, a couple of generations earlier, had arrived as Dutch-speaking migrants from Flanders.

Times, however, have changed. Its former football team, FC Brussels, has slipped into the third division – and, in the last communal elections, the Socialists, who controlled the commune for decades under the leadership of leading Brussels political figure Philippe Moureaux, finally lost control amid a multitude of accusations of institutionalised corruption.

The present mayor, Françoise Schepmans, is an implausibly middle-class Liberal, who presides over a commune which is indisputably broke, but also broken.

The combined impact of urban decline, social exodus and the remorseless development of Brussels as a city that exists to service a rootless international elite has found its mirror in the transformation of Molenbeek into a commune composed, in large part of short-term migrant workers – drawn from a vast array of cultural backgrounds, united only by their limited engagement with somewhere called Belgium.

All of this is a step beyond what Europeans have become accustomed to think of as multiculturalism. Brussels has long been a multicultural city, and especially so since the arrival of substantial communities of North African, Turkish and Central African migrants in the 1960s and 1970s. But Molenbeek, in common with some of the other inner-city districts of Brussels, has become a micro-world of multiple communities within which people construct their own sense of identity.

A world away from Brussels

Much of this is the product of the contemporary tides of globalisation. What is true of Molenbeek would be equally true of areas of London and Paris. But what is specifically Belgian about this story is the state of Belgium.

Belgium has many virtues as a political community. It has provided a model of how the decline of national loyalties need not be accompanied by mass mobilisation and political violence.

But the radical devolution of central power that has occurred since the 1980s has emptied the Belgian federal institutions of much of their former power. Their responsibilities have gradually been devolved to a complex structure of regions and linguistic communities.

That is a contemporary story of the decline of centralising nationalism. But, as current events have served to reveal, that has also resulted in the erosion of public institutions.

Molenbeek lacks not only resources, but also the support provided by an effective state authority. As one of 19 largely independent communes of the city of Brussels, its public officials, who are confronted by all of the problems of an inner-city suburb, lack the ability to provide effective schooling, social services or the public structures which might generate the ties of community. The consequence is a world where the more conventional role of the state has been supplanted by other less formal sources of provision, support and community.

It also, as we have discovered, lacks much by way of an effective police. That is not unique to Molenbeek. Ever since the horrific child kidnappings committed by Marc Dutroux and his accomplices in the 1990s, the manifold shortcomings of the Belgian police have hardly been a secret. Too much localism, too many overlapping authorities and too much politicisation of nominations have all diminished the capacity of Belgium’s multiple police forces to rise to more than the most mundane challenges.

This, as the events of the past few days have demonstrated, has left Molenbeek vulnerable to gangsterism and opportunistic terrorism. To fix such problems, Belgium, it seems, might have to reinvent itself as a state.The Conversation

Martin Conway is professor of contemporary European history at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.