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Can We Head Off a Long Hot Summer of Riots and Rebellion?

05/26/2015 11:34 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016
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The nation's attention has been focused on the recent riots in Baltimore, but the harsh truth is that they could have happened in any major city. Indeed, we could see a long hot summer of urban (and, as in places like Ferguson, suburban) riots that would make the two-day disturbances in Baltimore seem trivial in comparison.

We can surely expect more turmoil next year, too, if social and economic conditions continue to deteriorate, and if candidates for president and Congress fail to make specific suggestions for addressing the suffering and hardship facing the nation.

But promises can only quell riots for so long. Hope soon turns to frustration, and then anger, unless there's real action to change conditions.

The turmoil in Baltimore followed the trajectory of the urban riots of the 1960s (in Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and 161 other cities) and subsequent civil disorders in Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992) and elsewhere. It typically begins with an incident of police abuse against an African-American resident. Outraged members of the black community organize nonviolent protests, the police over-react and the protests become violent and threatening.

In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed black man, at the hands of the police, triggered the demonstrations, but the city was already a powder keg of economic and racial grievances. The same is true in cities across America.

Fixing racist police practices and bias in our criminal justice system is important. But the underlying cause of riots is the hopelessness that comes with persistent poverty, unemployment, slum housing, widespread sickness, underfunded schools and lack of opportunity to escape such intolerable conditions.

Since Baltimore exploded, many pundits have taken to quoting Martin Luther King, who once said that "a riot is the language of the unheard." But few pundits have discovered another one of King's profound insights: "There is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of a determined people."

Riots are not truly political protests. They are expressions of hot anger -- outrage about social conditions. They do not have a clear objective, a policy agenda or a strategy for bringing about change. They are a wake-up call to those in power.

In contrast, social movements reflect cold anger. They are intentional and strategic. They take place when people are hopeful -- when people believe not only that things should be different, but also that they can be different.

Riots tell us what desperate people are against. Social movements tell us what hopeful people are for.

To avoid a long hot summer this year and in the future, but also to address the underlying causes and tensions in our communities, we need to do two things. First, strengthen and invest in the social movements -- grassroots organizing and coalition building -- that have emerged in cities across the country. Second, engage the country in a policy conversation about full employment, and then take action to guarantee every American a good job.

Invest in Grassroots Organizing and Coalition Building

Visiting the U.S. in the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, was impressed by the outpouring of local voluntary organizations that brought Americans together to solve problems, provide a sense of community and public purpose, and tame the hyper-individualism that he considered a threat to democracy.

Every fight for social reform since then -- from the abolition movement to the labor movement's fight against sweatshops in the early 1900s, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the environmental and women's movements of the past half century -- has reflected elements of the self-help spirit that Tocqueville observed.

America's struggling families -- including the residents of poor communities, like inner city Baltimore -- need stronger vehicles to gain a voice in their cities and the larger society. This is the most effective alternative to riots.

Studies show that voluntary associations and interest groups today are titled toward affluent Americans. As political scientist Martin Gilens demonstrates in Affluence and Influence, America's policymakers respond almost exclusively to the policy preferences of the economically advantaged. But under specific circumstances -- especially during impending elections, and when ordinary Americans are well-organized -- the preferences of the middle class and the poor do matter.

Around the country, there are thousands of local nonprofit community groups that organize and mobilize people around their everyday concerns -- from the lack of stop signs at dangerous intersections, to police misconduct and racial profiling, to the proliferation of killings by people with assault weapons, to environmental and health hazards in poor communities, to predatory bank lending and the epidemic of foreclosures, to the repression of basic voting rights, to inadequate funding for public schools, to the shortage of decent affordable housing, to the lack of jobs and decent pay.

Groups such as the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement (created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin's murder in Florida) channel people's anger into constructive action around specific policy demands. Some of these groups are part of regional and national advocacy networks, such as the Center for Community Change, National People's Action, the Partnership for Working Families, US Action, PICO, the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Center for Popular Democracy.

Most of these organizations, however, operate on shoe-string budgets. In addition to dues and bake sales, they rely on private foundations to help them hire staff, maintain an office, conduct research and, occasionally, engage a lawyer. Their funding for organizing, research, publicity, policy advocacy and other tasks is minuscule when compared with big corporations that have armies of high-paid lobbyists, donate billions in campaign contributions and have huge war chests devoted to public relations and propaganda.

Despite a playing field that is tilted heavily in favor of big business and wealthy people, grassroots organizing groups and advocacy networks have won some significant victories at the local, state and federal levels.

  • A growing number of cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, have adopted municipal wages that will reach $15 an hour within a few years.

  • In response to pressure from community groups and its own employees, Walmart -- the nation's largest private employer with 1.3 million workers -- earlier this year, announced that it would boost pay for its lowest-level workers to at least $9 an hour starting this spring, and raise that to $10 next year. Walmart estimated that about 500,000 employees will receive a raise, totaling roughly $1 billion a year. In April, McDonald's announced its own wage increases -- also in response to protests by employees and community groups, as well as support from elected officials. The company said that, beginning July 1 of this year, starting wages at company-owned McDonald's would be one dollar over the locally mandated minimum wage.

  • Last year, minimum wage increases passed by wide margins in five states, including decidedly red states like Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and Nebraska. Paid sick time passed by a wide margin in Massachusetts and in three cities.

  • New York is moving rapidly toward high quality, free, full-day pre-kindergarten educational options for every family -- every child, rich, middle and poor.

  • In California, there are significant efforts to curb carbon emissions and explicitly link those efforts to job creation and investment in low-income communities.

  • The criminal justice reform movement has secured breakthroughs on "ban the box" that open up employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated

  • The immigrant rights movement has successfully pushed 20 states to authorize in-state college tuition for undocumented students

  • The Black Lives Matter movement is connecting criminal justice and police reform to the "Fight for $15" among low-wage workers of color.

These and other movements represent a powerful convergence of constituencies and social forces with the potential to reshape the national agenda. But to be effective, they need more resources to hire staff, reach more people in their communities and workplaces, and get their voices heard in the corridors of power.

America's foundations -- which are funded by wealthy people and corporations that get generous tax breaks for their philanthropic giving -- donate about $55 billion a year to a wide variety of causes. They devote less than to 10 percent of that amount to groups engaged in organizing and advocacy for social justice.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most foundations allocate the vast bulk of their donations to institutions (such as elite colleges and universities, hospitals, museums and others arts organizations) that primarily serve the affluent. It is time for these tax-exempt foundations to invest in organizations that promote grassroots organizing and help give working families and the poor a stronger voice in our democracy.

Inequality, Poverty, Joblessness and Economic Insecurity

Ironically, while most of the media were focusing on the Baltimore riots, it was John Angelos, the Baltimore Orioles's chief operating officer, who seized the opportunity to redirected attention to the root causes of the city's turmoil. He tweeted:

My greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night's property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American's civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The shape of the current crisis is by now very familiar. The harsh reality is that no other wealthy nation allows the level of sheer destitution and misery found in the United States, including poverty, hunger, slums, homelessness and ill-health.

About 50 million Americans live below the official poverty line. One-third of the country-- over 100 million people-- cannot make ends meet. They don't earn enough to sustain their families. One in three American households say they are living paycheck to paycheck, continuously on the brink of financial disaster. A staggering 36 percent say that they or someone else in their household had to reduce meals or cut back on food to save money during the past year.

Because incomes and wages have declined, a record number of Americans are in debt. They mortgage their future to pay for their homes, a college education, and, with credit cards, day-to-day expenses

Some $7 trillion of Americans' household wealth evaporated in the housing crash that began in 2007. The burden has fallen disproportionately on African American and Latino families, who saw more than half of their total wealth disappear as a result of Wall Street's risky and reckless practices.

The current official unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, but it varies considerably by race. It is 4.7 percent for whites compared with 6.9 percent for Hispanics, and 9.6 percent for African-Americans. But several years into the so-called "recovery," the real unemployment rate -- which also includes discouraged workers who've given up trying to find a job and those who are employed part time but not able to secure full-time work -- is double the official rate.

Almost one-third of America's jobless have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Among those lucky enough to have jobs, women earn only 78 percent of what men make. African American women make 64 percent and Hispanic women 54 percent of men's earnings.

The United States is the most unequal of the world's wealthiest societies. The richest one percent of all Americans take home approximately 20 percent of the country's total income and owns 40 percent of the nation's wealth. Since 1979, wages for the richest one percent have increased by 138 percent; in contrast, wages for the bottom 90 percent have increased just 15 percent. In the last few years, as the country has struggled to recover from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, this top tier has received nearly all of the added income generated from economic growth.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the $26.7 billion in bonuses handed to 165,200 executives by Wall Street banks in 2013 would be enough to more than double the pay for all 1,085,000 Americans who work full time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25-per-hour.

The low wages paid by many employers cost taxpayers about $153 billion each year by forcing employees to rely on public assistance to afford food, healthcare and other basic necessities, according to a recent study conducted by the University of California's Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. This is more than the annual budgets of the U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services combined.

A Policy Agenda for Good Jobs and Shared Prosperity

Fortunately, this situation can be fixed. In previous periods of American history when we faced an economic and moral crisis -- the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, the Depression of the 1930s, and the explosive racial divide of the 1960s -- reform movements mobilized new constituencies to promote bold solutions that changed public opinion and pushed elected officials to adopt new policies. Ideas that were once considered radical -- the minimum wage, Social Security, women's suffrage, the Voting Rights Act, consumer and environment protection laws and many others -- became viewed as common sense.

In response to our current crisis, a new wave of advocacy groups and policy experts has emerged to put new ideas on the table.

With the support of local advocacy groups, a growing wave of progressive mayors and other local officials in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Newark, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and elsewhere have sought to address the widening economic divide and persistent poverty in order to build an economy that works for all families. The growing number of cities with municipal minimum wage laws is only one aspects of this crescendo of conscience in favor of shared prosperity.

Think tanks like the Center for American Progress, the Roosevelt Institute, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the Economic Policy Institute have released reports that provide bold prescriptions to the problems of inequality, poverty and joblessness.

A growing number of enlightened business leaders now recognize that we need policies that invest in good jobs, rather than our current short-term focus on enriching the already rich, especially those in the financial sector that caused the economic crash in the first place. Many now recognize that we cannot put most of our hopes simply in improving skills and education. Over the past generation, overall skills and educational levels have increased, but wages (even for those with college degrees) have stagnated.

Earlier this month, in the wake of the Baltimore uprising, and in anticipation of the next election cycle, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz released a 115-page report, Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy, that offered proposals to address income inequality and poverty. The "trickle-down" economics that has prevailed since 1980 has "decimated America's middle class," according to the report. "It's time to try something new," Stiglitz said, taking aim at excessive executive compensation, declining wages and labor standards, weak regulation of the financial industry and generous tax rates for the wealthy. They also called for universal pre-kindergarten, a federal paid family leave policy and a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage.

Also, last month, a coalition of advocacy groups -- including the Center for Community Change, Center for Popular Democracy, Jobs With Justice, Working Families Organization and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights -- launched a national campaign to advance the idea that every American should and can have access to a good job. Their plan, called Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All, is both audacious and simple: Everyone who wants a job should have assured access to a good job that provides dignity, a voice on the job, fair wages and good benefits.

A good job means one that pays enough to allow a family to buy or rent a decent home, put food on the table and clothes on their backs, afford health insurance and child care, send the kids to college, take a yearly vacation and retire with dignity. A good job means that parents don't have to juggle two or three jobs to stay afloat, and that they still have time to spend with their kids.

As a society, we have to make sure that people who work can support their families and assure that everyone can retire in dignity.

During this election cycle, and over the next few years, this coalition of conscience hopes to inject the goal of a good job for all into the political debate and the national conversation. It is proposing solutions commensurate with the scale of the challenge -- rather than tinkering at the margins. The Putting Families First agenda has five key elements:

  • Guaranteeing Good Wages and Benefits. Requiring every job in the United States to meet a minimum standard of quality -- in wages, benefits, and working conditions -- and offer unhindered access to collective representation and a real voice for workers.
  • Unlocking Opportunity in the Poorest Communities. Investing resources on a large scale to restart the economy in places where racial bias and sustained disinvestment have produced communities of concentrated poverty.
  • Taxing concentrated wealth. Funding new investments in job creation, care, and economic renewal by taxing those who benefit most from the current economic model - investors, financiers, wealth managers, and individuals in the highest income brackets.
  • Building a Clean Energy Economy. Using the large-scale investments required for transition to a clean energy future to create millions of good jobs that are accessible to all Americans, especially those hardest hit by hard times -- workers of color, women, and economically distressed communities.
  • Valuing Families. Ending the systematic devaluation of care work, which disproportionately keeps women in poverty, by making high quality child care available to all working parents, raising the quality of jobs in the early childhood education and care fields, transforming homecare and providing financial support to unpaid caregivers.

These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. Many of them have already been adopted in cities and states, such as municipal minimum wage laws, paid family leave policies, green jobs ordinances, and state laws to improve conditions for nannies, maids, and other domestic workers. In many other countries, including the social democracies of Europe, Australia and Canada, most of these ideas are taken for granted.

It may appear paradoxical to propose a bold agenda for change at a time when Congress is paralyzed and the immediate prospect of bold federal action appears dim. But the moment is ripe. America seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be. We seem to be at one of those crossroad moments when attitudes are rapidly shifting, and significant reform is possible.

Americans are upset with widening inequality, the political influence of big business and declining living standards. Public opinion is generally favorable toward greater government activism to address poverty, inequality and opportunity. A national survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that 60 percent of Americans -- including 75 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents, and even 42 percent of Republicans -- think that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. The poll discovered that 69 percent of Americans believe that the government should do "a lot" or "some" to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Nearly all Democrats (93 percent) and large majorities of independents (83 percent) and Republicans (64 percent) said they favor government action to reduce poverty.

Over half (54 percent) of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor, compared with one third (35 percent) who believe that lowering taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment and economic growth would be the more effective approach. A new national poll found that 63 percent of Americans support raising the federal wage threshold to that level.

These are clear signs of a tectonic shift in our national thinking. But public opinion, on its own, doesn't translate into public policy. It has to be mobilized. As Cong. Keith Ellison of Minnesota has said: "Being right is not enough! We've got to organize."

The coalition behind the Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All plan intends to engage millions of Americans in multiple layers of civic action -- organizing, demonstrating, voting and advocating for legislation. They also want to encourage opinion leaders -- faith leaders, enlightened businesspersons, academics and policy analysts, columnists and editorial writers, and others -- to participate in a broad and deep national conversation about shifting our country's priorities toward full employment, clean energy and the other components of their agenda.

No time is better to do this than during a national election season, when the country is focusing on what candidates for president and Congress have to say about America's problems and potential.

If the voices and concerns of ordinary Americans aren't at the center of this debate, we can expect the ticking time bomb of urban unrest to explode in more and more communities. Without major reforms, the recent upheavals in Ferguson and Baltimore may simply be a precursor to a wave of 21st century riots.

To avoid more turmoil in our streets, and to address the growing frustration of a large segment of our society, we must focus the nation's attention on bold policy prescriptions to address the roots causes of poverty, inequality, joblessness and economic insecurity.

This isn't just an insurance policy against future riots. It is also a blueprint for a more livable, prosperous, and healthier society.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His recent books include The 100 Greatest Americans of the 21st Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame and Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (with John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom).