The British (Style Riots) Are Coming

In the aftermath of the riots in England, analysts have been discussing social problems underpinning mob violence, wondering if Americans could see similar widespread destruction in cities across the US. Pundits at ABC News , The Week, The Telegraph (UK) and Truthdig, among others, have already asked if it’s possible that Americans might soon face their own outbreak of unrest. Given the similarities between British and American maladies, those that predict a riot are more credible.

Some British politicians were quick to imply that the chaotic smash and grab wasbereft of sociopolitical undertones and merely the result of post-modern moral decay. But Britain’s social and economic problems were hard to ignore in the context of the unrest. As one commenter on Twitter, @simondebrux, remarked “These riots are political only in that those rioting are so disenfranchised they have no sense it’s their own communities they are burning”. Social immobility, unemployment, anxious economic times, general hopelessness, police brutality and a sense of alienation all set the stage for the unrest in Britain.

The US is plagued by a similar set of problems. Chaz Valenza, writing for OpEdNews.com, documented how the recession has created a combustible situation in a piece entitled “America’s 14 Most Ready to Riot Cities.” Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Cleveland have already seen smatterings of mob violence. Rising unemployment, low average incomes and graduation rates, and high rates of poverty, inequality, single household parents, crime, homelessness, and police misconduct, have made these cities breeding grounds for unrest.

Apart from the recession itself, how did we arrive at such a point? How has an underclass of disenfranchised Americans emerged? For starters, the US is becoming less meritocratic. Americans like to think that The American Dream differentiates us from class-obsessed England, but the stats call this into question. A 2005 study financed by the Sutton Trust found that an American father’s income was more likely to determine his son’s income than a British father’s income; another study by the OECD (2010) showed that Britain is more socially immobile, but just barely. Either way, the wealth inequality in both countries makes them more likely to tend towards inequality of opportunity and disenfranchisement. Power dynamics in the US illustrate this perfectly: 41 percent of House Reps and two-thirds of Senators are worth $1,000,000. And since the Citizens United decision uncapped the monetary influence of Wall Street oligarchs, this exclusivity – and the hiving off of the economy to a smaller number – is bound to get worse.

Americans can ill-afford things getting worse. The economy is sputtering. The U6 unemployment rate, which accounts for underemployed and discouraged workers, puts the joblessness rate above 15%. We should all be wringing our hands. “Flashrobs”– retail marauding organized on social media – have already proven to be a Great Recession phenomenon. Boehnernomic austerity could easily make the country more socially tense.

If it does, one egregious incident of police brutality could set America alight. NAACP CEO Benjamin Jealous told the AP during England’s riots that in economically neglected areas, “the spark is typically an incident of police brutality in the absence of a culture of police accountability.” In England’s case it was the Mark Duggan incident. Duggan, a 29 year old father, was killed in police custody in Tottenham, a north London neighborhood. A peaceful demonstration at a local police station ensued, where a girl was allegedly assaulted by a police officer. The crowd responded with violence/ Economic rot and sympathetic social anger made the unrest spread like wildfire throughout England.

If Jealous is right, the US is no more immune to social unrest than England was. It has nothing to do with racist policing, which was alleged to be a significant factor in England. Law enforcement has become more racially sensitive in the US since the Rodney King and Mount Pleasant Riots of 1991. But police departments have only become more authoritarian since 9/11.

A series of articles by Alternet’s Rania Khalek describes how departments have become increasingly militarized. Officers have equipped themselves with and Robocop-like “non-lethal” weaponry, and conducted reckless Afghanistanesque nighttime raids to carry out search warrants. Furthermore, a recent Supreme Court Ruling has made the 4th amendment more malleable than ever. And a “culture of police accountability” is so absent from the American political landscape that people are being arrested and threatened with lengthy prison sentences merely for filming police officers in public; sometimes catching their brutality on camera in the process. It’s only seemingly that police brutality is rising. According to CBS News, the Department of Justice filed 52 civil rights cases against police officers in 2010 alone; the highest number since the DoJ started keeping track of such suits. Tragically, another Oscar Grant type incident, and America’s emaciating cities could blow sky-high.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.