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Words, Pictures, Bikes, and Freedom

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Words, Pictures, Bikes, and Freedom

One murdered French cartoonist stuck up for Paris in more ways than one. January 12, 2015

More than five years ago, the Paris bike-share program, Velib’, ran a public-service campaign to get criminals to stop breaking the bicycles. One of the ads—reproduced here—was a cartoon of a masked wrestler ripping apart a municipal bike. “It’s easy to break a Velib’,” the fighter said as spectators looked on. “It can’t defend itself.” The artist who drew the cartoon for Velib’ was Cabu—the pen name of Jean Cabut, 76, one of five Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed in Wednesday’s gruesome attack.

Cabu’s contribution to Velib’s safety campaign may seem like a small thing, especially after the past week. But vandals have attacked Velib’s infrastructure since Paris launched the program eight years ago. Every week, the Velib’ folk temporarily close at least one station because of “recurrent acts of theft and vandalism.” In 2012 alone, Velib’ lost 9,000 bikes to theft or damage so violent it made the bikes unusable. (Though New York has some vandalism, it’s nowhere on Paris’s scale. Over the past year, New York’s bike-share program reported 1,167 instances of vandalism. But that includes far more frequent graffiti as well as wholesale destruction of a bike.) The sustained, low-grade war on Velib’ long ago spurred the company that operates the program to demand more money from the city for lost bikes. More recently, it has forced the program to consider scaling back the number of bikes and stations.

The Velib’ vandalism shows that Paris can’t protect public property. But it’s evidence, too, of an inability to confront deeper fissures. The people who torch bikes or dump them in the Seine aren’t mischievous boys having fun. As transportation sociologist Bruno Marzloff told the New York Times in 2009, when Cabu made his pro-Velib’ cartoon, “It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous.” Marzloff (and many others) have noted that the people who break Velib’ bikes are the same people who torch cars on New Year’s Eve. The Times described them as “immigrant youths” and “poor immigrants,” though the paper is just repeating France’s lazy way of referring to French-born people of foreign-born parents and grandparents as “immigrants.” It’s true, of course, that the majority of immigrants and their children just want to live their lives—and, in fact, care deeply about France and their fellow citizens, as demonstrated by the heroism of both police officers and store clerks of foreign descent.

But it’s also true that what the minority does matters to the majority. If you use bike share, you learn quickly that bikes are easily had in central Paris. Riding one to a predominantly “immigrant” neighborhood near the city’s northern border—say, to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, where France’s jihadists spent time—may mean you won’t have a bike for the trip back. Velib’ has all but given up maintaining its stations in such areas.

When Cabu took pen and ink to paper, then, to stick up for bike share, he wasn’t doing his city’s government a favor. He was protecting Paris’s civic infrastructure, which is just as critical to a free, civil society as is artistic expression. Just as ideas matter, working urban transportation—a symbol of a functional city—matters. How Cabu chose to defend Velib, too, is instructive. He depicted the vandal as a clueless coward pretending to be brave and strong. Only a witless bully destroys something that can’t put up a fair fight.

Of course, it’s easy to kill a cartoonist, too. The sword, for a critical few minutes, is mightier than the pen. But the work Cabu did over a lifetime helped defend his country and the West from humorless nihilists who see even a clunky silver bike as a threat, and from losers who are not clever enough to engage in civil society with words, pictures, and engineering, but must smash it.

Now, Western citizens are doing Cabu and his colleagues and protectors proud—massing in central cities around the free world to put up their fair fight for words, pictures, and ideas. These protesters for liberty held up written signs—“Je suis Charlie”—and pens. In New York’s Union Square last week as well as in Paris on Sunday, demonstrators held up photocopies of the living eyes of the dead. Your eyes show your intelligence, your engagement, your emotions, and your empathy. The murdered artists used these tools to make the world better, and, along with three police officers and six civilians among the 17 dead, paid the ultimate price.

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