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.

Usually the relationship between the disturbances and the context—deprivation, discrimination, 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. America 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. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it is, after all, a riot—yet the looting, damage to property and general violence invariably seem to shock those who prefer more honorable conduct with their social disturbance.

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 the shoes she would loot in order to find the right size 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 for control of the streets is on a par with a shootout at a crack den.

Third, with public sympathy on the side of the mayhem’s victims—forlorn small business owners who have lost their livelihoods, traumatized 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” and a 23-year-old student with no prior convictions was imprisoned for six months for stealing $6 worth of water. Worse still, the polarizing effect can build public support for that authoritarianism, counterposing the minority of “riffraff” against the law-abiding majority. Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishized, 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 wealthy this is not a problem. The rich don’t riot because with the democratic process in their pockets and the state or private security firms to protect them, they don’t need to. For the poor the question is not so much whether the risk is worth it but what are the alternatives? Who lobbies for them? What candidate, petition or protest would even get their issues discussed? There are real lives behind those statistics. What are they supposed to do? How bad does it have to get?