Are U.S. conditions ripe for London-style riots?

In the wake of the London riots, professionals and amateurs are working to decode the exact “causes” of the riots, both proximate and ultimate. The initial spark may have been police brutality toward Mark Duggan, an alleged “drug dealer and gang member” who fired on police, at least according to initial police reports. The official story quickly began to unravel when the shot fired at an officer turned out to have come from another officer, rather than from Mr. Duggan, who may have been unarmed. Police brutality has been the spark for numerous violent riots over the years, perhaps most spectacularly in Los Angeles, in t after the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

Earlier this year, reggae star Smiley Culture died of a knife wound to the chest while police were executing  a search warrant. Police stated that he stabbed himself to death while making tea in the kitchen. The family found the story rather incredible, given that police would have had to allow him to go into the kitchen with many sharp implements, hot water, etc. in order to make tea while they continued to search his house. As in the death of Mark Duggan, Smiley Culture was a member of a minority who died in an encounter with police under bizarre circumstances.

Still, what is evidently a pattern of prejudice and corruption in the police department is not the whole story. It is certainly true that the keg might not have exploded if police had acted better, and afterwards been held to the same standards as those they are supposed to protect. In the last ten years, over 400 persons of minority origin have died in London police custody, with not a single conviction of wrongdoing on the part of police. This situation is aggravated further by the failure of the police watchdog group, Independent Police Complaints Commission, to get the story straight for reporters and acting as a rubber stamp for the police.  The sad fact is that these incidents are endemic in many urban centers, not just in the UK and the US.

London’s riots were likely primed by cuts to critical social services at the very time when those in need rely upon them the most. London’s financial elite are laughing all the way to the bank at the very time that austerity measures are hurting those who are suffering from the economic downturn the most. Making this statement is not the same as claiming that the gratuitous violence involved in the riots was justified, but ignoring the background and ultimate causes of the violence is downright foolish.

Like the U.S., Britain has been going through a conservative reactionary campaign to cut spending in order to balance the budget, while refusing to budge on taxes, even for the wealthy. This has resulted in the same sort of inequity between the uber-wealthy and the poor that has been taking shape here in America. Predictably, the right-wing in England is stressing the need for more police action to prevent similar incidents from recurring.

Britain has gone so far as to recruit American “supercop” Bill Bratton. This move combines with tougher sentencing for crimes committed during the London riots: sentences of 5 months in jail for receiving a pair of shorts that were looted, and 8 months jail for a few looted water bottles. Officials are recommending that children as young as 11 and 12 be remanded for involvement in riot-related offenses. The biggest problem with the tactic of police crackdown is that spending cuts are also targeting the police force.

The US is faced with many of the same problems: police departments in major cities with problems of police abuse;  and social services cuts at Federal State and local level. We’ve seen unrest in the past under these conditions. All it takes is the wrong incident on the wrong day (usually a hot one) in the wrong area. and the US could see riots such as those in London.

There is always the police option. As Jay Gould (robber baron of 1800’s) said “I can always hire half of the poor to kill the other half. Unfortunately, this means spending even more on police enforcement and prisons in a nation that already surpasses China for numbers of prisoners.

Of course. the US could also choose to address its problems. There is a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of people looking for work. Why not put people to work? We can begin to fix America’s infrastructure, take care of those in need, and in the process jump start the economy that is currently on idle. For those who ask about where the money will come from, we could listen to one of the uber-wealthy and stop coddling the super-rich. There is also the possibility of ending a couple of overseas commitments that seem to have gone beyond their expiration dates. We can be sure that doing nothing, retrenching and generally emulating Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression are not the smartest moves to make at the current moment.