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 editorialwritten 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.