Could Riots Akin to those in Britain Happen Here?
By Hilary Hall
A young man, when asked by a British television reporter whether violence is a proper way to express discontent, said, "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"
That statement alone is a revealing commentary on the frustration that young, low-income people in England feel. By now, it's well known that England earlier this month turned into a maelstrom due to social unrest, creating a political hotbed over the root causes of the turbulence. British authorities pegged the initial impetus behind the rioting as police shooting of a 26-year-old man who resided in a low-income neighborhood in London. But as the riots persisted, many politicians and citizens alike pointed to issues that go much deeper.
News report after news report pointed out that in recent years, the British government has implemented cuts to government spending, severely slashing many social programs. In addition, youth unemployment has climbed, hitting an unprecedented 20 percent in 2011. Many of the poor youths at the center of the riots felt the worst effects. The violence is inexcusable, but it nonetheless underscores doubts about the stability and wellbeing of a society that is increasingly unequal, and where many youths feel they are not given opportunity to participate in the economy.
Writer Michelle Chen, in a piece for alternet.org, wrote, "Though it's not inevitable that these trends will provoke disorder, it's clear that youth have little incentive to conform to a social order that makes them feel utterly powerless."
The United States is certainly not England, but there are several indisputable similarities in the underlying issues behind the British riots that raise questions about what happens when disadvantaged youth feel marginalized or wholly disconnected from larger society.
The overall youth unemployment rate is now at 17.8 in the United States - but it is much higher for minority youth, at 39.2 percent. In Washington, D.C., the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 50.1 percent. In New York, it is 25 percent. In Oakland, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Cleveland, and across the nation, the numbers tell a similar story. And it has not been a quiet summer.
In early June, youth "flash mobs" hit Chicago's most touristy locales for days on end, looting stores, pick-pocketing and pushing other passersby. In recent weeks, there have been reports of youth assaulting fellow citizens and robbing businesses and homes in Philadelphia. Earlier this week, more than two dozen teenagers were caught on video shoplifting items from a convenience store in Montgomery County, M.D., just across the border from Washington D.C.
It's far too easy to make judgments about these young people. To dismiss them. But for their benefit and the benefit of larger society, we owe it to them and to ourselves to ask more probing questions and to admit that some of these behaviors are the direct result of idleness and lack of opportunity. CLASP Senior Policy Analyst Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt has written about the need for a national youth employment strategy as well as why we have to make sure youth are connected to the economic mainstream.
In this nation and for our youth, we should reject the way of thinking that prompted Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron to publicly blame the riots on "a complete absence of self-restraint." Instead, we should ask more philosophical questions such as why there are so many young people who feel that they have nothing to lose - and no futures to save, as Labour Party leader Edward Miliband asked of his nation.
Many young children know what they want to be when they grow up, but only some ultimately receive the tools to do so. It's highly doubtful that the young people in Chicago, Washington D.C., Oakland, or Philadelphia aspired to participate in the anti-social activities that have made headlines.
Perhaps the days-long riots that occurred across Britain would not happen in the United States. But we are sowing the same seeds of discontent, and it shouldn't take a riot for us to realize it and address it.
It is time we strengthen and put adequate resources into programs that keep disadvantaged youth connected, so that, in years ahead, we don't have to continue asking these tough questions. We have the tools to make sure more youth lead productive lives. But it means investing in them, not dismantling or disinvesting in programs that serve them. We should not in the future be grappling with the disappointment of youth violence, but instead reaping the benefits of the more stable cities and communities that come from providing idle and disadvantaged youths with pathways to equal education and work opportunities.