People are asking the media — my gosh, could what is happening in London happen in the U.S.? They forget that it already happened here — and many times over, most recently in Los Angeles in the Rodney King riots of 1992 (see my post “London is Burning”) and before that in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities in the 1960s.
Could it happen again? Conservatives are absolutely correct when they say that poverty is no excuse for violent protest. Scholars who study revolution and social protest agree, as we are well aware that poverty and income levels alone do not predict social conflict and violent protests.
The key to understanding why people riot is not poverty–it is injustice. When people feel that their suffering is not their fault or bad luck, but is being imposed on them by the entire social structure being tilted against them, they get angry. They may seethe quietly, or feel despondent for long periods. But they also feel the need to strike out, should an opportunity arise. Violence allows those who feel powerless to gain a sense of empowerment. Looting allows people who feel betrayed by the system to seize a bit back. A provocation (stories of police killing an innocent child or man from the neighborhood) can unleash a firestorm of protest, and a weak police response can encourage people to indulge their desires to ‘strike back’ against the system, unleashing wave after wave of opportunistic looting and destruction (something similar also occurred in the banlieu riots in the immigrant suburbs of Paris in 2005.)
Oddly, such destructive riots are more likely in democracies, if people feel they have no chance to gain within the system, or to change it. Where people are fighting to gain democracy (as in the Middle East) they are more likely to act in a way that helps them gain support and appear deserving and capable of self-government. But where people live in a democracy, and feel that democracy is doing nothing for them, or is being manipulated and tilted against, them, they may well rage. And when the ‘state’ in the person of police, which is supposed to protect them, instead kills one of their own, that is just the kind of action that justifies retribution against the existing order.
In the United States today, the brunt of unemployment and cutbacks in social services have fallen on minorities. But they have not yet turned against the system because they see one of their own in charge — President Obama — and trying to fight for them. Blacks still feel Obama is not being given a fair chance, that the media is hostile to a black President, and that he deserves their support.
However, that feeling can only last so long in the face of deteriorating conditions. Today, Harold Myerson reported in the Washington Post that Senate Republican Whip and GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander have “no appetite for extending either the payroll tax [reduction] or the unemployment benefits.” What that means, even though few people seem to realize it, is that Republicans want to impose a $1 trillion dollar tax increase over the next ten years on EVERY AMERICAN earning $100,000 or less, while continuing $400 billion in tax breaks on American households earning more than $250,000 per year (see my post “The Republicans’ Trillion Dollar Tax Increase). AND they want to cut the last supports of long-term unemployment insurance out from under those unable to find jobs.
Right now, minorities are being quiet to give Obama a chance to fight for them. He promised them progress on issues from the economy to affordable health care to immigration reform. Instead he has delivered 9.2% unemployment, continued huge tax breaks for the rich, the prospects of higher taxes and fewer government jobs and services, plus more people deported than under any prior president with no progress on immigration issues.
At some point, if this continues and Obama is stymied in his efforts to continue payroll tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits, rage at this injustice will grow. It will be directed against those who stopped Obama, but more generally against ‘the system.’ It will break out after some striking provocation, but will continue in a fury of destruction.
If you ask me whether an outbreak like that in London (and Manchester and elsewhere in Britain) could happen in the US, I would say it is not a question of “if,” it is a question of “when,” if things continue in Washington D.C. as they have gone so far this year.