London is Burning — Will New York or L.A.?

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.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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9 Responses to London is Burning — Will New York or L.A.?

  1. Gary LaFree says:

    I would agree with the main thesis here. I think you are right to argue that the reason for no major street protests in the fact of a rapidly deteriorating economy has to do in part with a desire to give Obama a chance to turn things around. This would be the flip side of the legitimacy crisis that we faced when the US entered an “age of protest” during the 1960s and much of the 1970s. In addition, I would suggest that part of the explanation may be due to the behavior of inflation. Unlike the case in many past economic recessions, inflation has been fairly low during this recession. If inflation increases dramatically, it could make things bad enough to promote more unrest. And finally, some earlier work by Rick Rosenfeld and others suggests that compared to actual economic measures, perceptions of economic well being seem to be better predictors of criminal behavior. It could be that we are still getting a bit of this effect here and again, it could be in part an Obama effect. But like you say, if things continue down the path that they have been following, it is hard to imagine the lull lasting forever.

  2. Pingback: Notes on the riots (Part 1) « thenextwave

  3. Pingback: LENIN'S TOMB: The competing common senses of the riots

  4. johngame says:

    There is very little evidence indeed that the middle class took part in the riots: aside from one or two arrests highlighted in the media. When riots happen there is always the sense that they appear wholly novel, mark a new low etc, etc. One might argue that in London there is because of gentrification a more cheek by jowl existence between classes of people then in some cities, which may explain how some got caught up in events but its not statistically at all significant. One of the slightly comical things is to witness politicians claiming that previous riots were political whilst these riots had no political justification. No mainstream politician ever claims that riots are justified or ever says anything different to the things that politicians are saying today (ie criminality pure and simple, opportunism etc, etc). I see very little to suggest that these riots are, in any significant sense, different to previous riots. Riots are not and never have been political protests. Looting is not a novel phenomenan in riots and nor is shocked condemnation of it. Innocent people being caught up in violence is similarly not novel and, perhaps most significantly, nor are poor people burning down their own areas and shops at all novel (it was a popular soundbite in the mid-1960s in the US). What is interesting is the rabid mixture of race and class hatred in response. Not novel but pretty extreme in Britain at present. Collective punishment of families through evictions (something which I think was seen after the LA riots) the revival (and mainstreaming) of deeply nasty forms of racism one had hoped were gone forever. On the other side more and more interviewers with the rioters, revealing often deep political anger as well as social alienation. One suspects that as the moral panic subsides it will be this aspect that seizes more and more attention.

  5. reg says:

    Jack, I share your assessment of events to come in the US. But what’s been happening in the UK (where I am right now) in the last days is really hard to press into your more traditional assessment of the recurring riots either in the UK or the US.

    This is not at all like previous riots, which is why politicians AND the media have little sensible to offer in the way of explanations. It’s defintely not about minorities, this was cross cultural looting. It’s not about traditional class lines either. Yes, more of the rioters were from poor backgrounds but there was a large number of well to do people who were looting-for-the-fun-of-it. Anyone who has witnessed the riots agrees on this and the people appearing in court right now do not fit any of the traditional cleavages. No claim to some collectively felt injustice has been voiced. Ironically I think this will be in hindsight interpreted as the first post racial, post ethnic, post class riot in the UK. What that means I don’t know, but Rodney King this ain’t.

    Whether the initial police shooting was unlawful is not clear yet, since the victim was carrying an illegal loaded gun (this is the UK – carrying a gun is a BIG thing; that is why firearms police had been sent to do the arrest). The police was slow to react, but not because of the New of the World related resignations, but because they are unarmed! They cannot confront looters unless they can outnumber them and getting the bodies in took time. Once they had the numbers they shut it down pretty quickly and, importantly, without casualties. (The tragedy in Birmingham was caused by youngsters running a car into a group of people)

    The one way in which European riots were always different from the US is because they generally beat up each other but are in little danger of being killed. The opportunity cost of rioting is traditionally low. That has upsides and downsides: its a better valve to vent the sort of grievances you mention within a democracy. Europeans would not have put up with what has happened (and is going to happen) in the US since the crisis. (vid Greek riots, Spanish indignados, French strikes). Yet, it also leads to riots that have next to no “justice” message. What happened here in London this week was more like football hooliganism than any directed social movement. There is of course a message in hooliganism too. But it’s harder to identify precisely because it is not a collective call for justice. The danger is that when the real social/economic/political grievances start biting (cuts here have only just begun), people in the UK will ignore it.

    • Reg, I completely share your view that the UK riots are too complex and too varied to constitute any “one” thing. There was certainly an element of football hooliganism (even in the US we have had urban riots with fires after big college football games, with some looting and vandalism in the chaos as opportunistic individuals took advantage). There were criminal looters, joyriders, opportunists, and all races and classes involved. Still, if we have to ask — did these riots have anything in common with the Greek riots of last year, or the Rodney King riots, it seems there are:
      (1) They started with protests against an alleged but highly publicized incident of police violence against a local
      (2) They started in areas of high unemployment well into a serious recession
      (3) They spread mainly because of a lax or inadequate response by police forces unprepared to act against riots on a large scale.
      (4) Once the police stepped in with reinforcements, the riots quickly died down, within a few days.

      Given this pattern, I think it is not fair to say that the UK riots were somehow different — more hooligan-driven or more criminal. They may be the first post-racial, post-ethnic, post-class riot, but they may also be the first post-austerity riot. After all, the middle class and the working class are BOTH suffering because of, and compared to, the upper upper elites.

  6. Pingback: Riots « Thinking Things Through

    • My favorite crazy explanation is David Cameron putting the blame on ‘absent fathers.’ What, they all left town in early August and their kids ran riot?
      (No, that was the bankers in the City of London leaving for summer vacation — presumably their kids were well behaved….)
      Seriously, if Cameron is worried about a generation of broken families or children not learning the discipline of work, how about some support for poor families and support for youth employment? At least LA after the Rodney King riots tried to develop some social programs…

  7. russell1200 says:

    They may have no “buy-in” with society – for whatever reason.

    But they loot because they can get away with it.

    Looting is not rioting.

    Egypt was rioting. London started as a riot, but very quickly became looting.

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