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America Is a Spark Away From Riots of Its Own

Posted on Aug 11, 2011
AP / Nick Ut

A shopping mall burns in 1992 on the second day of rioting in Los Angeles. The acquittal of several white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King lit the fuse.

By Bill Boyarsky

As President Barack Obama tried to calm a United States facing the threat of financial disaster, riots raged across the Atlantic in London and other British cities. Could it happen here, as our nation adopts British-style austerity and suffers through worsening unemployment? It certainly could, just as it has in the past.

As a reporter and then a columnist for the Los Angeles Times 20 years ago I covered the genesis, the explosion and the aftermath of the Los Angeles riot of 1992, described by author Lou Cannon as “the nation’s deadliest race riot since the Civil War.”

As I followed the accounts of the British rioting on the BBC, The Guardian and other media, I was struck by how it resembled what we saw in Los Angeles—looting, arson, random attacks on people and buildings burning, often without police or firefighters in sight. We also saw ethnic minorities—mainly African-Americans and Korean-Americans—locked in combat in a city where “minorities” constitute the majority of the population. What began as anger over the acquittal of police officers in the beating of a motorist, Rodney King, unleashed the community’s long-ignored tensions.

The British rioting, triggered by a police shooting, followed severe cuts to the welfare state by the government of Prime Minister David Cameron. The New York Times said, “For a society already under severe economic strain, the rioting raised new questions about the political sustainability of the Cameron government’s spending cuts, particularly the deep cutbacks in social programs. These have hit the country’s poor especially hard, including large numbers of the minority youths who have been at the forefront of the unrest.”

In his excellent book dealing with the Los Angeles riot, “Official Negligence,” Cannon found the same factors at play. He explained that the riot was preceded by a sharp diminishing of the area’s industrial base, particularly aerospace, and major reductions in government aid programs.

Here in the United States, the continuing recession’s impact on the poor is being highlighted by a month-long tour by the Congressional Black Caucus, with stops in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Georgia and California. The tour, which began in Ohio on Sunday, combines efforts to find work for African-Americans with a call for attention to the disproportionately high rate of unemployment among them.

“We didn’t want to just sit around and complain. We decided to do something about it,” caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said at a Cleveland jobs fair. In a story by McClatchy Newspapers, he said, “This will send a message to Washington that this is a crisis that can be ignored no longer. If the images of what’s going on here reach Washington … it would take a very mean-spirited conscience or no conscience at all, to allow people to ignore this.”

It’s been previously reported that the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Hispanics substantially exceeds that of whites. Last week, a congressional Joint Economic Committee report on the long-term unemployed provided another gloomy picture of the situation.

“The majority of long-term unemployed workers are white,” the report said. “However, long-term unemployment remains extraordinarily high among the black community, given their share of the labor force. In 2010, 21.5 percent of workers unemployed for more than 27 weeks were black and 22.4 percent of workers unemployed for more than 52 weeks were black, compared with 11.6 percent of the labor force. Hispanic workers’ share of long-term unemployment also exceeds their share of the labor force although to a lesser extent than for blacks.”

The plight of these workers should add urgency to Obama’s own jobs tour of the country. So far, he has remained all too calm, both in his comments made Monday as the stock market plummeted and in what he has said since then. He has done little to counter the deep pessimism noted in a story by Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times on Tuesday: “It is now conventional wisdom among forecasters that the economy will plod along through the end of President Obama’s first term in office. Millions of Americans will not find work. Wages will not rise substantially.”

Causes of an urban riot are not always clear, as The Guardian reflected in an editorial written in the heat of the London riot: “The riots are a product of the lives which the rioters choose or feel constrained to live. Blaming the riots on individual wickedness, conspiracies or on government spending cuts is too glib for such complex issues, though they cannot be dismissed altogether. … Both conspiracy and deprivation are part of the complex and grim story, as is the cult of violence, especially guns, and a rage against exclusion from consumerist fulfillment.”

But what these urban riots all have in common are economic hard times, unemployment and the withdrawal of government aid, causing social tension that remains just below the surface in poor minority neighborhoods until ignited by a spark.


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By Michael Cavlan RN, August 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

There is a saying, common in Irish Republican circles.

Rioting is the language of the unheard.

Folks in northern Ireland happen to know quite a bit about rioting. Grin.

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By "G"utless "W"itless Hitler, August 12, 2011 at 11:44 am Link to this comment

It’s not a level playing field to be sure, but if you’re poor in a First World Country it’s probably at least as much your own fault as it is the system.

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By kingharvest, August 12, 2011 at 11:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Man, you folks sure do love the “us” vs. “them” stories. Riots there, but we are fine. Stock markets in Europe are in a tizzy but we’ll be okay. Wars in far off foreign lands but we are safe.

Hands clean, move on to next topic.

So yea, it can happen there -the riots and anarchy- and it will not be like There because You have guns galore and people are just beginning to figure out just how bad things are.

Why do you think the gated communities were built and the private cops hired and the cars armored?

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By Inherit The Wind, August 12, 2011 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

What fascinates me is that there’s always some tone-deaf leaded, in this case Cameron, who says something really stupid like “They aren’t political. They are just criminals using this as an excuse to steal Nikes and plasma TVs”.

Well, yes, but the out-of-control fire burns down everything it touches. Now, get this: I’m not excusing or apologizing or defending looters.  They are simply an inevitable result of a breakdown in civil justice SO severe that people get angry and rioting begins.  So focusing on the looting is missing the point, Prime Minister. It’s the icing on the cake of the problem, not the problem.

Can it happen here? Stupid question! Of course! Usually, what happens in Britain is a bell-weather of what’s next here.

More importantly: what’s being done to prevent it? Nothing! What’s being done to accelerate it?  Ask Congress and their crazy, maniac driver, the TeaParty!

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By justmiming, August 12, 2011 at 9:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

President Obama made a telling statement in his speech to that Michigan battery
factory yesterday. He said:
“Now, challenges like these — earthquakes, revolutions — those are things we
can’t control.  But what we can control is our response to these challenges.”
So Obama now claims that revolutions are uncontrollable? Obama is an agent for
the demolishment of the social contract we share with each other through our
government. The President wants to disassociate his actions from the effects of his

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By Rodney, August 12, 2011 at 8:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Republican and tea party policies could very well push America into riots.Denying unemployment extension benefits,gutting food and affordable housing programs for poor people.Taking away health care and collective bargaining for the working class while giving trillions away in tax breaks for the richest Americans sets the tone for the masses to rise up and begin to riot. Add to that destroying Social Security and medicare passing laws to make it difficult for minorities to register and vote,the overt disrespect and racism directed towards America’s first black President is a receipe for riots. The only thing America hasn’t had so far is a spark. God only knows what would happen if our President is harmed. Or if a incident percieved to be racist causes America to explode into violence. America is at the brink.The tea baggers who want to take our country back are playing with fire. And when America plays with fire,usually people get burned.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, August 12, 2011 at 7:56 am Link to this comment

The spark will surely come… and will likely be done at the hand of those who create chaos in order to instill plans long-waiting to be implemented.

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By christian96, August 12, 2011 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

Don’t forget the riots in Greece in 2008. I posted
the following comments yesterday:

By christian96, August 11 at 12:17 am

As we watch angry youths destroy businesses
throughout England perhaps we have forgotten what
happened in Greece in 2008. Angry youths attacked
the Athens courthouse with petrol bombs.  Broken
glass and burned-out wreckage lay in the streets.
The rioting started on December 6th after police
shot and killed 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos.  But Alexandros’s tragic death was
simply the spark.  The real fuel for the fire
came from Greece’s troubled economy.  High unemployment contributed to pent-up hostilities
which erupted when Alexandros was killed.  Greece
and England.  We much ask ourselves a sobering
question, “Can the same happen in America?”  As
unemployment and under-employment continue to rise
so does the anger and frustrations.  Do Americans
just need a spark to ignite what could be an ugly
scene with Americans killing Americans across the
country?  Only time will tell! It’s ssd our leaders
in Washington are listening to Economists from the
Univ. of Chicago.  They better listen to human
growth and development specialists about the possible consequences rising from angry frustrated
unemployed and under-employed people.

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By prisnersdilema, August 12, 2011 at 7:33 am Link to this comment

Oh no, it can’t happen here….

Unless you consider that this country has more of it’s population behind bars than any
other country…

from that perspective, it looks as if we have already been having riots in slow motion….

Since we’re never going to be able to run Wal Mart on sea weed, it’s only a question of
time until the pace picks up a bit…

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By madisolation, August 12, 2011 at 7:21 am Link to this comment

aacme88, when you write:

“Oh goody. Another thing caused by the gopers that they’ll blame on everyone else.”

you are acting as if we’re all so stupid, we can’t see what you’re doing. No one is buying the “Look over there! Nasty Republicans!” game, anymore. Look at the recent Congressional poll numbers. You can’t possibly think you’ll influence anyone to support Democrats, because “it’s the Republicans’ fault.”
By leaving out the Democrats in your assessment, you are absolving the Democrats. It makes you look either unaware of what’s going on or like an Obama/Democratic shill.
We all know the Democrats are just as, or more, complicit in the fall of our country. They pretended to be something they weren’t in order to get elected, and then they shed us like a snake sheds its skin in order to make their own personal fortunes. I’m sick to death of this kind of “it’s all the Republicans’ fault” propaganda. It diminishes the seriousness of the situation.

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By Mark, August 12, 2011 at 6:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The oligarchs who rule this country have been planning this austerity thing for some time.

You have to grudgingly acknowledge their genius.

How else to explain the meteoric rise of BHO from obscure Illinois politician (State Senator!?), to giving the keynote speech on prime time national TV at the ‘04 Democratic Convention?

By the time the ‘08 election was over, an African American had been elected to the Presidency for the first time in the history of the U.S. This despite the fact that until then only four African Americans had served in the U.S. Senate since the 1940s, one of them being BHO himself.

And he became POTUS while collecting more Wall Street money along the way than John McCain!

Once elected, he installs Wall Street regulars to policy making positions in his administration, bails out Wall Street and the Banks, expands the wars, and extends the Bush tax cuts without ANY quid pro quo relative to the approaching debt ceiling deadline.

When the debt ceiling deadline finally arrives, he initiates discussions with the “opposition” by offering cuts to social programs without any quid pro quo relative to tax increases.

The cuts to social programs will fall most heavily upon the poor and especially upon minorities.

When the teaming masses riot in the U.S,. an eloquent, African American President will be trotted out to sooth them, and failing that, he will institute a crack down that would be unacceptable and wildly opposed if the same were undertaken by a white President.

You heard it here.

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By Kurt, August 12, 2011 at 5:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

An empty hand soon turns into a fist.  Point a finger, and three fingers point back
at you.

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By Gas, August 12, 2011 at 4:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And the rich people will hang on lamposts.

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By Billy Pilgrim, August 12, 2011 at 3:49 am Link to this comment

London Calling.

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By brianrouth, August 12, 2011 at 3:00 am Link to this comment

all three parties are totally out of touch with the reality….capitalism has failed and
is imploding and things will go from bad to worse….the rich at the top including
Cameron and his toff buffoons and the Lib Dems and the Labour party are looting
the middle class and the treasury just like the their buddies in the US but it’s ok
for them to rob and cheat with tax avoidance and expenses etc…..throwing force
and police at the problem is not going to change things…...eventually the army
will get dragged in and pretty soon it will be like New Orleans during
Katrina…......but permanently!

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By Marian Griffith, August 12, 2011 at 2:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Americans generally are optimistic about their future beyond reason, but they react all the more strongly when they perceive there is no chance to get out of a situation.
Prolongued high unemployment is going to create a significant group of young men who feel they have nothing to lose. While this in itself will not entice them to -start- a riot, it will most likely make them join in once something sets the accelerant soaked pile of frustrations alight.

But I fear the USA will have to go through its own winter, or summer, of violent discontent before there is a chance of changes. Half the politicians do not care about the disadvantaged 20pct of the population (presumably out of a subconscious social darwinist belief that anybody who is poor deserves to be so), and the other half of politicians is either too busy to fight for re-election or is in confused disarray and unable to form any coherent policy that might actually -do- something about the explosion that is waiting to happen.

If Obama wants to rescue his presidency he needs to get serious with creating jobs for the people who most need it, and which will actually benefit the economy rather than trying to shore up parasites on the system. Of course Bush -should- have started with that, but he was too incompetent and his economic advisors where the ones more likely to think nothing of 30 million people slowly starving to death in the USA as long as it did not impact them (all in the name of supply side neocon economic theories of course).
I am not sure how much discretionary powers the president has, but he should us every little scrap of them to push through a program that will create jobs for the people most hit by the recession and that will lay a foundation for recovery, first by returning a little spending power in the hands of millions of unemployed (and through that increase demand that will tide shops and small scale manufacturers over the new slump) and when recovery sets in by having infrastructure in place. And no flashy high tech projects like high speed rails either, but things that will benefit communities throughout the country. Build and install solar panels and wind turbines. Fix the crumbling infrastructure. Turn suburbs into real neighbourhoods. Dig trenches all through the country for high speed internet -everywhere-. Anything really as long as it remains and will help people building up a business again.

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By Ralph Kramden, August 11, 2011 at 11:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You must mean by America, the USA. I don’t forsee urban riots in Costa Rica or Canada. Please be more specific in your forecasts and less imperialistic by assuming that America is synonymous with the USA. Have you ever seen a team in the Olympics with a jersey emblazoned America?

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By aacme88, August 11, 2011 at 10:07 pm Link to this comment

Oh goody. Another thing caused by the gopers that they’ll blame on everyone else.

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By grokker, August 11, 2011 at 10:06 pm Link to this comment

I had the privilege of “attending” the 1968 riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago as well as “attending” the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Interestingly, the Seattle Police Chief resigned 4 days after the riots under attack for heavy handed police tactics, but most of the Seattle populace typically thought the police should have used real bullets instead of rubber bullets and teargas. I have a strong feeling that Seattle could be the first eruption when party time arrives. The situation is past critical.

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