Could Riots Akin to Those in Britain Happen Here?

Aug 18, 2011

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, 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.


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