The Meaning of Riots
While in Madrid in March I asked a renowned Spanish blogger, Ignacio Escolar, why, with 43 percent youth unemployment, Spain had not seen a wave of militancy like those in Greece, Italy and Portugal. Escolar shrugged. “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 center 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 this country suggests that the American streets are pretty combustible right now. Unemployment for African-Americans ages 16 to 19 stands at 47 percent; one in five African-American and Latino borrowers, and one in seven whites, are at “imminent risk of foreclosure”; more than one in seven Americans and one in three black kids live in poverty, the highest rate since 1993.
People can carry on in such dire circumstances only 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 anytime soon. Indeed, quite the opposite. Add to this the fact that corporate profits are soaring and an inept political class is in stasis, and even the pretense that this country is underpinned by a social contract that might lead to economic renewal disintegrates. It takes no great genius to predict that unless something changes radically, and soon, America 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 ratings 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 United States, 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. In Watts in 1965 it was a traffic cop who insisted on impounding a woman’s car rather than letting her brother drive it home; in Detroit in 1967 it was the raiding of a “blind pig,” an after-hours drinking establishment. In Tunisia in 2010, it was the confiscation of a vegetable cart and subsequent police humiliation that prompted the seller to burn himself alive in front of the local town hall.