When Hope is not Enough, Riots Eventually Follow

Community Organizing International

Ne0_63_040109_protest18w Orleans Headlines blaring that Britain’s leaders were “caught unprepared” at the outbreak of riots throughout metropolitan London and now spreading to Birmingham were surprising to me.  Persistent, structural unemployment, marginalized housing and living conditions, no prospects for the future, severe and draconian austerity cutbacks in social services and family support, are all coming together in a confluence on London’s streets, so why would these riots have not been virtually inevitable?  These were calculated government policies that lit long fuses that smoldered for years, perhaps so long those policy makers forgot there was dynamite at the other end.

The New York Times had a bizarre quote about the story:

“With huge fires burning into the night in several of the neighborhoods overrun by the rioters, Home Secretary Theresa May said she had issued instructions that officers do everything possible to restore order and arrest the principal culprits in the disorder. Striking a note that was common among community organizers in the neighborhoods where rioting has occurred, Ms. May said that social deprivation was no defense. ‘There is no excuse for violence, no excuse for looting, no excuse for thuggery, and those who are responsible must know that they will be brought to justice,’ she said. ‘I think this is about sheer criminality.’”

“Community organizers,” I doubt that seriously.  These are street and community workers perhaps whose job is to advocate, adjust, ameliorate, and generally “keep the peace” usually on the public payroll.  No doubt they are good and sincere folks, but they have to make a living too and with no tools to work with certainly they join the chorus for calm and ending violence, but….these are not community organizers.  Community organizers understand that the point of organizing is to build power, and the rioters fully know they have no voice for their grievances and no vehicle to create change.

The rioters catalyzing the turmoil in London are dangerous because they are not operating solely from anger and rage, but from a more calculating plan.  They are communicating shrewdly with text messages, twitter, and blackberries and are expressly targeting different areas and shops.  These are not disappointed hockey fans in Vancouver, but stealth strike forces with ski masks and scarves over their faces.  The calls on my twitter feed to help identify them with Twitter are hilariously off the mark.  The Home Secretary has a problem.  Naming something as criminal and deploring violence is easy enough.  We can all join in those sentiments.  Understanding the violence and doing something about the root causes are a much, much harder problem indeed.

Let’s not pretend about America.  The deepening recession reveals the stark fault lines in cities in the USA that are identical to the conditions in London:  high and persistent unemployment, no future prospects, deplorable living conditions, and continuing cutbacks in social services.  The fuse is burning here, too, and there is dynamite at the end of the wire. Unless something serious is done, it’s just a matter of time before “the fire” next time is the fire this time.

This is a problem for Obama and the country as well.  When you run on “hope” and then either refuse to deliver or can’t deliver on that visceral demand and desire for change, there are consequences that are more profound than political shifts and seasons.  Those of us who have organized in these areas can recognize a hardening of the malaise, a resignation and acceptance of mean, brutish life as a definition of normal there no matter the rest of the country and the world, and alienation outside of usual experience and common expectation.  That condition of powerlessness will find expression, either in movements and demands for change or in outbreaks of rage, violence, and riot.  It will not simply sit there and smolder forever, quietly and invisibly.

Unless people are allowed some legitimate power and there is real change at the least there should be no stupid and patronizing expressions of surprise at the inevitable consequences of inaction and avoidance.