I lived through race riots in New York City between 1964 and 1969 and again in 1977 and 1991. In April 1968 my older sister was attending the City College of New York in Harlem the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. My father called me from work when he heard the news of King's death and told me to take the family car and pick her up before trouble broke out. In 1977 my wife and I were coming home from vacation with two of our children the night of the blackout riot. Our car broke down in East New York, Brooklyn and we pushed it home, afraid to park it on the side of the rode.
I never felt directly threatened during the riots. After the initial riots the police strategy was containment rather than suppression. Rioters generally remained in their own communities and that is where most of the property damage took place. If you were not involved, you stayed out of the troubled area and waited for the pent up anger to burn itself out.
I usually had some sympathy for the rioters, although the riots themselves seemed counter productive. When you destroyed the landlord's house and someone else's store, even if the landlord was irresponsible and the storekeeper was biased, you still had no place to live, shop, or raise your family. The rioters' grievances, unfair treatment by police, high unemployment, deteriorating housing, life in underserved communities, racism, and a general sense of hopelessness, were all too real.
As you watch the scenes on television, the current rioting in London and other British cities is eerily similar to the rioting that took place in the United States, although there are some significant differences. In the United States rioting always seemed to be along racial and ethnic lines. In Great Britain, the rioters bridge color lines and ethnic boundaries. There appears to be an emerging diverse underclass of young people in Britain with very little hope for the future.
A New York Times article focused on a nineteen-year old unemployed white school dropout named Louis James who joined the rioters to get what he called his "penny's worth." Louis stole a designer sweater worth about $200 while looting in a gentrified area of north London. Louis and his friends are young people left behind by globalization, business strategies, and government policies that have shifted work to other parts of the world and left economies in the metropolitan centers highly imbalanced with a super-rich upper class and large numbers of permanently dispossessed. In the interview, James complains that basically there is nothing for him to do most of the time. He receives just enough money from the dole so he can sit in his state subsidized apartment watching television all day.
I find I am worried by the riots in London in ways that I did not worry about earlier rioting much closer to home. Perhaps I am just getting older, feel more vulnerable, and have more to lose. But I think my worry is based on concern that this generation's rioting is a response to a much broader global economic malaise marked by rising long-term unemployment, mortgage defaults and evictions, the failure of governments to meet their financial obligations and to delivery vital social services, and the emergence of right-wing and nationalist political movements. The 1930s were before my time, but these things happened then, and the result was global war and genocide.
I worry that the conditions that led to the rioting in London and other British cities exist in much of the world, including American cities, and it is only a matter of time until riots break out in other places -- including right here.
I worry because the British Prime Minister, whose summer vacation was unceremoniously interrupted in sunny Tuscany, dismissed suggestions that the rioters may have some legitimate grievances. He declared, "this is criminality, pure and simple." I worry because a massive police presence, rubber bullet, water cannon, and tear-gas response to urban unrest will only leave deep wounds and set the stage for future uprisings.
Tariq Ali, a British commentator whom I respect wrote a column where he asked "British riots: Why here and now?"
Ali believes the riots are a response to race and class bias, institutionalized poverty, and the "sheer grimness of everyday life." He blames the British political parties, which he sees as standing together in an alliance with the wealthy and powerful, for the economic mess in Europe and for the explosion. He also worries that "dehumanizing" the rioters will justify further cuts in services for the poor and repression.
I worry we are seeing the Tea Party future unfolding in London. It is a future where the wealthiest citizens are not taxed and vital health, educational, and welfare services for everyone else are cut. It is a future in which both the working class and middle class shrink as labor unions are destroyed, pensions are decimated, and ordinary people lose their jobs because private corporations ship them overseas and government jobs are eliminated in the name of frugality. It is a future in which government officials like the Governor of Texas pray for heavenly guidance rather than develop solutions to social problems. It is a future of gated communities to protect the affluent while the rest of us try to survive in shantytowns. Most of all I worry for my grandchild who someday may join the rioters because the future offers them nothing.
If you fear that future, as I do, you have to fight back now.