After San Francisco's 7.1 earthquake in 1989, a friend who writes comic theater started a new movement, the Society for the Prevention of Seismic Events (SPSE). In those pre-internet days, this concept "went viral" in the way that gripping innovations did in those days: soon lots of Bay Area cars sported bumper stickers for this humorous response to fear, destruction and disruption.
I think about this as I read and listen to commentary on the awful riots in British cities last week. (Previous post on this topic.) The prosecutions and pontificating, the mourning and the recriminations, seem to me just as likely to prevent such eruptions as the SPSE was to prevent further earthquakes. People who've ever seen a riot on the ground know that, in the moment, riots consist predominately of ordinary people milling about and acting stupidly, swept along on a high tide of less than rational feeling that can seem to participants much like a party.
Open Democracy shared impressions from a Londoner, Nick Smith, who writes as Motown. He passed through this scene while trying make his way home from work.
Walworth Road - Only Fools no HorsesA messy situation, confusing, ripe for injury -- whether inflicted by the smash and grabbers or by law enforcement reasserting control -- but not terribly frightening at this location. That's most of a riot as seen on the ground. Post riot commentary from the heights of politics and the media invariably reads false if you've ever seen such a thing.
... I decided to head further down the street. There were a lot of people out on the street, but relatively few involved in looting. There were a lot of people (my estimate is 30% of people there) who looked as though they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (like the two girls and the guy on the bike in front of the bus).
It wasn't really a scary environment, I'm not saying that people weren't frightened, but I think a better description would be shocked and disgusted. I saw a middle aged woman walking with her elderly mother through the worst hit area and they were obviously concerned, but I (and I hope they also) didn't feel that they were unsafe.
It sounds stupid to say it, but the atmosphere amongst everyone else seemed like carnival - I actually saw a girl getting chirpsed (chatted up). There were plenty of people (my estimate is maybe as many of 50% of people there) hanging around, fascinated by everything and enjoying watching the 'entertainment'. They didn't seem to be in the wrong place, they wanted to be there and to see what was going on.
I got the feeling that they wouldn't get involved in smashing any shops in, but if there were goods dropped by looters, they wouldn't hesitate to pick them up and I actually witnessed this later on. Lots of these onlookers were females and young kids (10-13) and they came from ALL races. I didn't notice any racial tension, Walworth is a very diverse area and white and blacks were mixing together whether that was in watching or in looting. ...
I'm really angry about ALL of those involved.
Social scientists naturally have weighed in on when we should expect urban riots. Their conclusions are pretty straightforward.
The connection between joblessness and violence comes to life in a timely August research paper Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009, which found "a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability." Authors Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth examined the relationship between spending cuts and a measure of instability they termed CHAOS -- "the sum of demonstrations, riots, strikes, assassinations, and attempted revolutions in a single year in each country."My emphasis.
Their conclusion: Austerity breeds anarchy. More cuts, more crime. ...
We could wish that Republicans and the President would think about this as they slash budgets and refuse to tax the rich in the midst of economic carnage. But actually, conservatives rather like the riots that ensue from fiscal austerity: to them, disturbances just prove that the poor are undeserving.
Urban riots have a lot in common with weather: when the right combination of temperature and moisture come together, storms can gather force and break explosively. When the right (wrong) combination of unemployment, misery, and alienation coincide, riots become possible, even likely. At any given time and place, it's hard to predict whether the storm will break, but given the prerequisites -- youth unemployment amid social squalor and hopelessness -- the potential is very much there.
Photo from Motown.