The meaning of riots

2011-09-17 10:52

While in Madrid, Spain, in March, I asked renowned Spanish blogger Ignacio Escolar why, with 43% youth unemployment, the country had not yet seen a wave of militancy like those in Greece, Italy and Portugal.

Escolar shrugged and said: “It’s like there is oil on the streets. All it needs is a small spark and it could blow.”

Sure enough, a few months later the “indignados (the angry ones)” took over the centres of many Spanish cities in protest against the austerity measures that had left them a “lost generation”.

Even the most cursory glance at economic conditions in the US suggests that its streets are pretty combustible right now.

Unemployment for African-Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 stands at 47%; one in five African-American and Latino borrowers, and one in seven whites, are at “imminent risk of foreclosure”; and more than one in seven Americans and one in three black kids live in poverty.

People can carry on in such dire circumstances only for so long without some hope of a reprieve from the misery.

Sooner or later something has to give, not least because none of these trends look like they’re going to improve any time soon. Indeed, quite the opposite.

It takes no great genius to predict that unless something changes radically, and soon, the US is headed for a spate of social unrest. And there’s a reasonable chance that it could turn violent.

And yet, however obvious that may seem from the figures, a recent trip to England suggested to me that when riots do happen, all the geniuses go on vacation and the ridiculous people take over.

A few years ago, everyone from the police to Moody’s, the credit rating agency, predicted that the economic crisis would create riots.

Once they took place, most mainstream politicians insisted the riots were acts of pure criminality that had nothing to do with economic hardship.

These inconsistencies show the general way political and media classes misunderstand riots. So, if and when that moment does come in the US, one can expect three things.

First, no one will be expecting them. The actual spark that lights the flame will most likely be minor – a relatively banal incident that for whatever reason turns explosive.

Usually, the relationship between the disturbances and the context – deprivation, discrimination or police brutality – is not difficult to fathom.But establishing a causal link between a particular event that is proportionate to the ensuing social unrest is harder.

The US right now feels like a context in search of a cause.

Second, it will be chaotic, dangerous and unfocused – all features that will be amplified by the fact that most of the rioters will certainly be young.Indeed, there has been a wistful nostalgia wafting through the British left since August, as older radicals mourn the days when violent disorder had an air of decency about it.

The most recent unrest, they argue, was just kids running amok.

The sight of one young woman trying on shoes before looting them suggests a generation not in search of political equality and social inclusion, but a reckless and self-indulgent expression of consumer entitlement.

Accusations of criminality will fly, as though looting is shoplifting and challenging police is on a par with a shoot-out at a crack den.

Third, with public sympathy on the side of the victims – forlorn small business owners who have lost their livelihood or traumatised residents – the political class will close ranks against the “mob”.But riots are insurrections, politicians are not supposed to like them.

All of this is by way of explanation and prediction, not excuse or praise.Riots can produce progressive outcomes in terms of social reform and economic concessions, and shift the balance of forces politically.But they are more likely to provoke an authoritarian backlash, as they have in England, where magistrates have been told to “disregard normal sentencing”.

Worse still, the polarising effect can build public support for that authoritarianism, counterposing the minority of “riffraff” against the law-abiding majority.Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishised, because ultimately it is a sign not of strength but weakness, often the last weapon available to those with the least power.Riots raise awareness of problems but they cannot solve them.

Often disconnected from social movements, they are more likely to vent pent-up frustration than advance a radical agenda.

Given these uncertain outcomes, rioting carries great risk.

For the poor the question is not so much whether the risk is worth it, but what the alternatives are.Who lobbies for them?

What candidate, petition or protest would get their issues discussed?

There are real lives behind those statistics. What are they supposed to do? How bad does it have to get?

– The Nation, distributed by Agence Global Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi) and Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press).

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