This article originally appeared on VICE France
As a reaction to the dangerous rise of the extreme right in early 1980s France, a handful of young people from Nanterre gathered around the charismatic figure of a man called Yves Le Vent to form the Black Dragons. Much like their source of inspiration, the American Black Panthers, the group's activity focused on the militant self-defense of minority communities.
Patrick Lonoh was one of the first Black Dragons. He was present at their first meeting and he remained a member till the very end; which came at the beginning of the 1990s, when the legendary antifascist crew began to fight their allies in, what he calls, the "Parisian gang war". Lonoh has also just written a book: I was a Black Dragon tells the forgotten history of the French anti-fascist movement and the people that brought it to life. I met up with him for a chat.
VICE: What did it mean to be a Black Dragon?
Patrick Lonoh: At the beginning, we were skinhead hunters. The group was created in 1983 by Yves Madichon, aka Yves Le Vent. We wanted to pass the message that we were like anybody else and shouldn't be beaten up because of our skin colour. But the Black Dragons were also a community – we took care of each other no matter what our religious beliefs were.
Were the Dragons a gang or a collective?
The Black Dragons were first and foremost a philosophy, which borrowed characteristics by certain martial arts disciplines. We wanted to be able to walk with our heads held high; we refused to let ourselves to be walked over. The generations before us were more docile to racist attacks, as they were more concerned with surviving in a foreign country. Also, if the skinheads had never existed, the Black Dragons would have never appeared either. It was a war led by young people who did what they could to shape the world.
The notion of a gang was created over time. The gang war of the early 1990s was in many ways more violent than the war against the skinheads – it was like two brothers fighting. It prevented the transmission of the Black Dragons' philosophy.
Was the movement inspired by the American Black Panthers?
Yes, we shared the same basic ambitions – we were fighting for self-affirmation. But our story wasn't the same. In France, we didn't look at slavery in the same way; we also didn't face the same kind of repression. We weren't at war with the police – our enemies were the skinheads.
You were assaulted by a crew of skinheads just before you joined the group. Could you tell us about it?
I had just walked out of school with two friends – one was white, and the other one was an Arab. We got to the train station to take the train home and when we passed the doors, we noticed there were some skinheads in the car. The doors shut and they started to insult us – they said things like "dirty nigger" and "fucking Arab", and they would not stop. We finally got out of the train at the next stop, just before they made a move to beat us up. That was my first encounter with skinheads.
Your parents were living in Congo at the time. What did they think of your involvement with the Dragons?
I have a story about that. One day a journalist came to take some pictures of the crew for an article about the gang war. Most of my friends refused to have their picture taken but I was happy to do it; I posed dressed in black, with a military beret on my head and gold chains around my head. When the article came out, some people sent copies of the newspaper to my parents in Kinshasa.
My mum was furious; she wrote me tons of letters asking for an explanation because she did not get it. But my dad knew what racism was. I wrote my book for him. My father had a lot of influence on me; He brought me to France, taught me about art and culture and passed down his humanist values on me.
The Black Dragons were strict. In your book, you write that two members were thrown out of the group – one for getting drunk and the other for assaulting a woman.
There was a Black Dragon who assaulted a woman and then bragged about it; that was just unacceptable. When it comes to the alcohol, we had to be strict because of our general activity. We were young, athletic and operated without adult supervision, which is why a certain amount of discipline was necessary.
How many people were in the group?
We were between 900 and 1000 but we could not count everybody. There were about 100 permanent members, and then we would do mass recruitments every now and then. Oftentimes we would recruit 40 people at once, like when an entire gang wanted to become Black Dragons. We would explain our philosophy to them, test their physical strength and fight behaviour and, at the end, about half of them were allowed to join us.
You also write about the Miss Black Dragons gang, who had a lot of influence over the clan. Could you explain their role?
Yves Le Vent created them because he wanted some female representatives. They acted as intermediates between us and the black female community, but they were also warriors. They were independent girls, living their life. Of course some love stories flourished within the clan but, for the most part, they were like our sisters.
When and why did the gang war start?
The gang war started at the beginning of the 1990s, though the first tensions had begun long before that. Most of those tensions had to do with parties and girls.
What would you say was the trigger?
Some members of another gang – the Requins Junior (Junior Sharks) – and the Dragons met at a party, and there was a fight. The next day, the Requins Junior went on a punitive expedition at La Défense, the meeting place of the Black Dragons. The Black Dragons responded by sending a group to Gare du Nord, which was on the Requins' territory. This ended up spreading to most of the Paris gangs: the Black Dragons, the Mendy Force, the CKC, the Requins Vicieux (Vicious Sharks) and the Requins Juniors – we all fought each other.
What happened in the end?
The gang war took everything. It destroyed the heritage and the philosophy of the Dragons. Many of us were arrested during the war but the main problem was that the war at its core, contradicted our reason of existence. We ended up fighting against the people we were supposed to defend.
Where does the group stand today?
The antifascist struggle is still real but the rules of the game have changed. I am over 40 and so are many of my peers – we don't spend our days chasing skinheads. But we observe the evolution of our society and find many similarities. I hear things on TV – the racism is in many ways more prominent than ever and more widely accepted, it's just hiding in plain sight. The skinheads I used to fight have become adults and these days they wear a tie.
Mazdak and Alice are members of the French collective Pepper. Mazdak is on Twitter.