Tag Archives: riots

Police Violence Changes Riot Impacts

Pearl River     Riots are often studied, but little understood.  They are unpredictable by definition.  Why does a riot erupt in one place, but not another when the combustible conditions for a conflagration seem to exist in both?  How does a peaceful protest one-minute cross the line into a riot the next? Importantly, what impact do they have?  Are they effective in advancing causes, winning attention, and change, or do they have the opposite impact by provoking fear and repression?

In the ongoing reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a black man living in one of the whitest cities in America, there have been days of riots in that city.  Protests have broken out in dozens of places across the country, some of which have also targeted specific buildings and involved arson and arrests.

The conservative, but thoughtful, columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat opined about whether these current outbreaks of social disruption would help or hurt the Democrats’ chances in November.  He cited contending arguments on the issue, mysteriously finding it significant to litmus test the political leaning of the authors within a matter of degrees.  On one hand is “the research of the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans… Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that ‘proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines’ — enough to tip the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Nixon.”  On the other hand, “columnist Ryan Cooper argued that, in effect, that was then and this is now: Maybe riots weakened liberalism in the past, but the riots of 2015 were more localized and therefore less threatening, the America of 2015 was less white and therefore less easily threatened, and the Republicans of 2015 were ‘talking about prison reform, not Willie Horton.’”

Nothing too solid to hang onto with either hand there, that points a direction now, but 2020 holds a different weight in both hands:  police brutality and ubiquitous cellphone footage.  This morning as dawn was breaking, mi companera, was traumatized by one video after another from the previous nights’ protest of police violence.  A policeman was kicking a pregnant woman in Oakland. A policeman in Salt Lake City pushed over an elderly, white man for the crime of standing on the street.  Police in Atlanta were pulling people out of cars and macing them at curfew time.  Police in Seattle maced a child at 5:03 where there was a 5pm curfew and bus service had been stopped then and pulled people’s masks off to mace them in the face.  In Columbus, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pellets were fired by police at protestors and bystanders an hour before curfew began.  The stories were endless.  The police in many cities seem out of control.

An equation that tries to determine the impact of mass civil disobedience that takes a violent turn is going to have to factor in a new variable:  police overreaction and violence.  Arsonists and rioters are never going to win popular support, but the political impact is mitigated when police are both the incipient trigger for the protest and the explosive, violent reaction captured in response to the protest.  The line between protestor aggression and self-defense becomes blurred, confusing the public, and therefore the politics.

White policemen beating and killing black men, women, and children is Bull Connor gone viral and national.  As long as President Trump fans the flames, there is no spin that benefits the conservatives this time.  Of course, few will defend a riot. If they continue, it’s another story, but right now is different, and in the immortal words of comic Chris Rock, the American people are thinking, “I understand.”


The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part I

New Ostudent-riots-chrisjohnbeckett-360x270-300x225rleans Another day of rioting in the United Kingdom finds more police on the street, more protestations from conservative Prime Minister David Cameron about “criminality,” and little relief or recognition of the crises stripped bare by the mess and mayhem.  Given the rise of community organizing in the UK and the reported government efforts to enlist “community organizers” as a legitimizing force behind their position in quelling the riots, it is important to understand the backstory that community organizing is playing the UK political and social situation.

Certainly the discussion starts squarely with the growth and ambition of London Citizens, its chief organizer, Neil Jameson, and the strong work and record it has assembled over the last dozen years in London and other cities as it has expanded.  Over the years I have been an admirer of their work and have met and collaborated with Jameson as we have compared our experiences on Living Wage campaigns in the USA and Canada versus their work in London.  (More detail on Citizens UK is included in an essay by Kirk Noden on starting Birmingham Citizens and my discussions with Jameson in the recently published Global Grassroots:  Perspectives on International Organizing available now at www.socialpolicy.org).

Over the last year the national profile of the organization has changed dramatically.  Their ambition to begin a national training institute for organizers drew the major party candidates in the British elections to a large 2500 person gathering solicited a much heralded commitment of support to move forward in this direction from David Cameron, who emerged as the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, who was dealt in as Deputy Prime Minister in making creating the government.

From this point on it becomes very, very tricky to follow, particularly from over here across the pond.

Cameron’s government has driven a major austerity and social services cutback program, part of which is being harvested now in riots in the streets of lower income communities spreading around the UK.  At the same time perhaps shrewdly and contradictorily he trumpeted a so-called “Big Society” program that was claiming to focus on reducing poverty.  In the catch-22 of modern politics it is bizarrely ironic that one can deliberately increase poverty while simultaneously claiming to be committed to programs to reduce poverty.  Fortunately for many of the politicians since they are mainly just screwing the poor there is often little downside payback for the contradiction, which Cameron is no doubt no ruing while whining about “criminality” and the consequences of his government’s actions.

A centerpiece of the “Big Society” and a seeming tribute to the decades of developing relationships and growing love affairs between political figures and Citizens was the announcement that 5000 so-called “community organizers” would  be hired, trained, and dispatched to communities throughout the country so that they would enable more participation in the radically downsizing government and ostensibly more accountability.  The universal assumption was that the huge contract being tendered for bid was being designed and written as a shoo-in for Citizens UK (Guardian, 2.14.11).  Citizens UK was cited in the “request for proposal” as was Saul Alinksy, which continues the ironic and embarrassing bear hug from the right of his work and principles. Despite the obvious philosophical conflicts between the rightwing government and its programs and community organizing’s core commitment to empowerment, Citizens UK continued to rationalize and legitimize this effort as an important step in realizing its vision of a national training institute in the UK.

Meanwhile in the throes of budget cutbacks the “promise” of 5000 “community organizers” was whittled down to a three year program to develop 500 such people.  There were additional curiosities like the problem of sorting through how these “community organizers” would be essentially government employees, yet also be involved in pushing on local governments for accountability.  There was speculation that rather than being about power, accountability, or whatever, these “organizers” were a Cameron stink bomb being planted in local communities as problems for local mayors and officials.

There was remarkably little discussion about what organizations would be built and how they would operate.  Importantly, the entire program seemed a lot like the old Texas Rangers slogan, “one riot, one ranger,” which takes on even more meaning given the events of these days in the United Kingdom.

And, tomorrow in Part II we will discuss that issue and look at the surprising development of this Big Society program when the announcement of the contract winner was made earlier this year.