Amidst all the apocalyptic talk about the economy, we now have another vision of the apocalypse, as parts of London start to look like a scene from Resident Evil (minus the zombies), and the violence spreads to Birmingham and other cities.
We have seen this before. I was in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots of April 1992 when large parts of downtown Los Angeles were looted and burned by rioting crowds. Driving over the Santa Monica mountains and looking down on Los Angeles aghast, all one could see was flashes of fires and columns of smoke rising eerily from dozens of sites.
The immediate cause in both cases was police violence followed by police failures. In Los Angeles, after a jury found police not guilty of any crime in viciously beating a black man, Rodney King, whose beating was captured on video, demonstrators assembled outside a south LA police station. When the police retreated inside the station the crowd became emboldened, and started throwing rocks, which escalated to molotov cocktails. At this time, the Police Chief was attending a banquet and gave no orders to marshall extra forces to deal with the demonstrations and riots against the court decision that were starting to spread throughout downtown and south LA neighborhoods. As it became evident that the police were simply holding in their stations and there was no strong police presence, looters starting helping themselves to goods and burning stores. Accumulated anger at the police, at Korean shop owners (Koreans had purchased and ran many of the locally owned businesses in downtown neighborhoods), and general resentment at lack of opportunities and services exploded into opportunistic looting and destruction of symbols of commercial success (large supermarkets and other major stores).
In London, after a black man was killed in an encounter with police in Tottenham (like south LA, a racially mixed area with a history of riots), crowds moved on the Tottenham police station to protest. But the chief of London’s police and its chief counter-terrorism officer had recently resigned over the News Corp. phone-hacking scandals, so the force was lacking leadership and unprepared to react quickly. In recent weeks, the police had done a poor job in responding to anti-austerity protests, and were hesitant to act strongly (and lacked the manpower on call) to deal with a fast-growing riot.
As in Los Angeles, protest at the Tottenham station that soon escalated to rock throwing and molotov cocktails brought little immediate police response. The lack of response acted like an ‘all free’ signal to crowds, and the protest quickly escalated to setting fires; then as the absence of police became more clear, it turned to looting and attacks on major stores (a major furniture store and a Sony warehouse were both destroyed by fires).
The Rodney King riots occurred while LA was still feeling the effects of the worst recession between 1980 and 2007, the 1990-1991 recession in which unemployment reached its peak of 7.8% only in June 1992. Anger over economic issues combined with anger over police discrimination and police violence to fuel the riots.
In London, obviously hit by the global recession, the raw anger and anxiety about joblessness and government austerity measures provided fuel for rioting; but of course such fuel is widespread. The riots appear to have burst out now mainly because the British police are demoralized and in disarray after their role in the News Corp scandals. Their response to a series of anti-austerity protests, and then finally the anti-police violence protest, was so weak as to encourage lawbreaking.
Still, politicians in the UK and the US should take stock of the scope and depth of popular anger. Ordinary people facing high joblessness and cutbacks in government services on which they depend, while watching bankers and executives of multi-national companies continue to rake in millions and billions and continuing to benefit from tax breaks — and in the UK, from cozy relationships with the police and politicians — are becoming enraged.
In a previous post “La Grande Revolution Encore?” I warned that popular anger could spill into actions against the social order if politicians and elites continued to act as if all the economic pain from global events should fall on ordinary folks while they skate by. The London violence is criminal and highly regrettable. But the message for elites to take away is not just “we need more and better policing.” That is true, but the grievances behind the riots are real as well. The violent riots in Greece last year — also triggered by a combination of police violence and anger over austerity and lack of economic opportunities — should have made us realize that Europe would not be immune to violence. In a paper being published early next year on popular protest, I wrote: “In cases of police brutality and economic discrimination, we should even expect violence as a recurrent result of such practices, for victimized groups often will have no other, and certainly no more effective, means to display the extent of their hurt, and to call attention to their grievances.” Let us hope that the London Riots of 2011 are not just the opening round of further violent riots that will accompany the ongoing austerity and economic downturn.