Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When are we going to deal realistically with riotous conditions?

Fires and looting have hit the streets of London. As of today, London has experienced three days of rioting, which has caused England’s Prime Minister David Cameron to cut his vacation short and return to the city. When these types of disturbances occur, there is one key question that is always asked: Why? Why is the rioting occurring? The answer, which various community members in London give as seen in the above video, sound all too familiar.
Unfortunately, the scenes from the rioting are also all too familiar. They are reminiscent of the disturbances that swept several cities in the United States after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. They are also reminiscent of the Los Angeles riots that hit Watts, a decade ago, after the not guilty verdicts that were handed down during the prosecution of the officers who beat Rodney King.  It wasn’t long ago, when America was worried about “the long, hot summer” and the potential spark for a riot that the summer months brought.
After Dr. King’s assassination, the government ushered in the Voting Rights Act and the “Great Society” legislation to fight the “War on Poverty.” But over the years, there have been major cutbacks to that legislation, and we know how the “safety net,” spoken of by the Reagan administration, had major holes that too many of the poor fell through. With the high level of unemployment in this country, and cutbacks in social programs, this country probably has a greater level of poverty now than it did when the war on poverty began.
Whether it is in London, England or in America, the script for rioting seems to be the same and a theme throughout the script can be summed up in one word “frustration.” 
In previous years and in all too many cases, disturbances in America followed the fatal shootings by the police of men of color.  True to form, the current riot in Tottenham and in other cities in North London followed the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year-old father of four.  The police said that Duggan shot at them, but the latest investigation into the shooting revealed that Duggan did not have an available gun to shoot, since it was found in his sock.
Given the unanswered questions surrounding Duggan’s shooting, young people in the community are in an uproar and are protesting what they consider the harassment of young men of color by the police. As the above video excerpt shows, community leaders also cite widespread frustration over the lack of summer jobs, high unemployment, cuts in social services and glaring disparities between the country’s affluent communities and their impoverished neighbors.  There is frustration with the police and frustration over inequities in housing, employment, healthcare, income and education.

People who feel that they have a stake in their surroundings, don't burn things down around them. What is happening in London reflects a situation where high expectations are met with few opportunities for the fulfillment of those expectations.
Isn’t it time we find a way to change the same, old script that is playing out. It’s the same script, highlighting the same theme that has been around for decades. If the script stays the same, how can the public expect a different outcome? The Tottenham riot of 2011 could, obviously, have occurred in America. Fortunately, it is not occurring in this country. But we must learn the lessons of the past and find meaningful and lasting ways to change the conditions that spark riots rather than put Band-Aids or temporary fixes on riotous conditions. If you let certain conditions simmer, then certain outcomes should not come as a surprise. It will be interesting to see what the British will do to address the riots taking place in their country. This is London’s second major riot. So, how long will it take the British to learn the lessons from their past? The actions taken by our neighbors across the pond might be instructive