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Americans Are Protesting, But What Stops Full-Scale Rioting?

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This story was originally published on Alternet.

Michael Katz's Why Don't American Cities Burn? is both a crushing reminder of seemingly intractable problems that still face American cities and an exploration of why things aren't worse. It is a slim book that serves as a general overview of the current state of the urban studies field, and although it went to the presses before Occupy Wall Street broke out, it provides some insight into the structural challenges facing the protesters who have recently flooded the streets of American metropolises.

Katz lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania. The book's engrossing prologue is told in the first person and uses a murder trial, at which Katz served on the jury, as a framing device to set up his major themes. He gives us a portrait of the North Philadelphia badlands, where the underground economy is the largest employer and violence is a normalized part of life. Katz weaves fascinating insights on urban America into the larger narrative, which centers on a deadly confrontation between two black men, Shorty and Herbert, and ends with the former dead of a knife wound.

Why Don't American Cities Burn? returns to these two men again and again, but readers hoping for a continued easy read will soon be disappointed. Chapter 2, titled "The New African-American Inequality," looks at almost every imaginable metric by which well-being can be measured and shows that inequality persists in every way, despite significant advances, between black Americans and their counterparts. It is as enlightening an as unremitting litany of statistics can be, but the effect is numbing.

Katz uses Herbert and Shorty as the catalyst for the titular chapter, which asks why anger at the crushing conditions in many urban neighborhoods resulted in a wave of criminal violence, rather than acts of collective rage. The conditions that inspired urban violence in the 1960s still exist and, in many cases, have worsened: unemployment, police brutality, failing schools, segregation and poverty.

Similar conditions led France's immigrant youth to a two-week spasm of violence in 2005, an event that captured headlines across the world and provided Katz with the inspiration for Why Don't American Cities Burn? But the United States has seen very little urban rioting since the 1960s -- the L.A. riots of 1992 being the obvious exception.

Katz traces the lack of urban unrest, both peaceful and violent, to America's complex web of freedoms and repression. In contrast to European immigrant communities, the Hispanic-American community has not typically turned to burning cars, instead favoring non-violent protests and organized political pressure. Katz hypothesizes that this may be because the United States assimilates immigrant communities in a fashion alien to most industrialized societies. After five years in the U.S., documented immigrants can be naturalized, and their children are considered American at birth; most European nations are far more stringent.

Still, there is persistent inequality between whites and blacks, and the African-American middle class and those who were not given the chance to take advantage of the gains of the 1960s. Anger over this injustice is kept corralled within heavily segregated neighborhoods by a militarized police force and the political repression of most non-mainstream political organizations, thus curbing "collective violence against perceived injustice or organized political protest." And America's masses of undocumented immigrants are kept in line by the fear of ICE raids, while "the twin mechanisms of deportation and unemployment constitute an effective method of social control."

Instead of collective violence or mass protest, Katz argues, despair and rage have been turned inward, resulting in heightened personal or criminal violence, like the confrontation between Herbert and Shorty. (Katz notes that of the 375 Philadelphia murders in 2005, 308 of the dead were black men, most of them young.) Massive unemployment and deeply troubled school systems contribute to the rise of criminal activity. The problem metastasizes as the influence of the underground economy (reinforced by the hostile tactics of many urban police departments) strains, and often breaks, the community's relationship with law enforcement.

The first factor complicating Katz's thesis is Occupy Wall Street. Although OWS's decentralized nature makes it difficult to assert that it is and will always be completely non-violent -- some say claims of protestor violence have been exaggerated while police brutality runs rampant. In a December podcast Katz said: "I see no evidence... whatsoever" that the Occupy movement will lead to cities burning. He does see the movement as a new form of social movement in America (no leaders, very diffuse) using organized, largely non-violent protest tactics to make demands upon city governments in an age of austerity and ever-increasing inequality. Since the interview, Occupy Oakland has been the site of sustained protestor and police conflict, with reports of militant occupiers attacking property and police. But the city seems to be an outlier, with a tense history between activists and a police force that is currently being threatened with a federal takeover due to its checkered history.

But mostly OWS still fits into Katz's formulation. The movement's effectiveness may be hindered by the fact that it is almost entirely rooted in Northeastern, Midwestern and West Coast metropolises, which are dramatically underfunded and underrepresented in national and state politics. There are immense structural limits to the power of the local politicians who actually deal with OWS. When Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter declared his allegiance to the 99 percent, the claim actually held more validity than occupiers might think. Cities have suffered immense fiscal losses over the last half century, as many of their more affluent citizens decamped for the exurbs taking their tax dollars with them. To make matters worse, conservatives in D.C. ended most national spending on cities: "Between 1980 and 1990 the share of big city expenses covered by the federal aid dropped from 22 percent to 6 percent," Katz writes.

Following the Great Recession and the end of the Obama administration's stimulus spending, conservative state legislatures are raining hellish cuts upon helpless and already cash-strapped city governments. Right-wing politicians know that urban dwellers don't vote Republican anyway, so making them suffer won't lose them many votes.

In short, the Occupy movement is running up against the same problem that previous generations of urban social movements faced: They are marching and making demands far from where real power is located. Faced with another brutal round of state-imposed cuts to everything from higher education to Medicaid, Donald Schwarz, deputy mayor for health and opportunity, told the Philadelphia City Paper, "Philadelphia will do all it can to blunt these effects, but given the city's fiscal situation and the magnitude of the estimated cuts... there's not much we can do."

Another recent phenomenon complicating Katz's thesis brings criminal violence, as collective violence, into more affluent areas. In recent years, low-income, largely black youth have been engaged in seemingly spontaneous mass gatherings (some organized through social media), which often result in violence and theft in predominantly white or ethnically diverse business centers. Dubbed "flash mobs" by the media, incidents usually involve a great mass of youth idling in, or sprinting down the street, while some members vandalize, thieve and viciously beat bystanders.

The impetuous behind these collective attacks is murky, but the answer could relate to one reason Katz provides for the 1960s riots: "boundary challenges," when shifting boundaries between ethnically homogenous areas provoke violence. Philadelphia, along with many of the other flash-mob afflicted cities, experienced a downtown boom and the gentrification of some neighborhoods close to the city center, while adjacent low-income areas, populated by people of color, have seen little benefit. Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated cities in America, and the wealthier downtown neighborhoods are the only places where white population grew in the last 10 years. The revitalized core makes disparities clearly visible to impoverished youth, who have been slammed by dramatic cuts to school budgets and youth programs. (Philadelphia youth program funding fell from $16 million in 2002 to $1.2 million in 2010, according to the New York Times.)

Katz ends his book with a cry against despair. Too often, he argues, leftists have internalized a fatalistic view of urban problems, when progress has been and is being made. The public housing high-rises that justly earned so much scorn in the 1960s, have largely been torn down and today public housing is often better and cheaper than the offerings of the private housing market. The living-wage movement carries on, and on a parallel track, market-oriented anti-poverty programs are generating new interest in social programs. Defeat is not inevitable.