Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Outside agitators

I've been in a couple near-riots. The first was in 1989. Michigan had just won the national championship in basketball and the students (of which I was one) erupted on to the streets of Ann Arbor in a frenzy of celebration. As with most large gatherings that involve a) sports b) victory and c) alcohol, the cheers and hugs and dances soon turned to collapsed awnings, torn down street signs, and broken windows. In their rush to outdo each other as to whom can CELEBRATE HARDER, destruction became easier than doing a better dance. The university's response was to declare all such destruction to be the work of "outside agitators" and not their highly intelligent and presumably civil-to-a-fault student body. (Strangely, on a trip to a town of 60 people on the north end of Hawaii's big island 12 years later, I encountered someone whose only visit to Ann Arbor had been that very night, as he attended a concert at Hill Auditorium and later said: "And I walked out into the midst of a riot." I responded: "Yeah! I was in that riot!" Small world...)

The other was a few years later when I went to see the fireworks over the Detroit river with a couple friends. It had been one of those deathly humid July nights and something, somewhere, sparked a bunch of the locals to start intimidating, then threatening, and then assaulting and robbing the wealthier folks who had come down from Oakland County to see the show. By the time we were leaving, there were a dozen melees erupting all over Jefferson, Washington, Griswold, and Woodward and crowds of people naturally screaming and fleeing the ruckus. The city's assessment? "Outside agitators"... until someone pointed out that most of the young men arrested were, in fact, residents of the city. Then they became "hardened criminals."

I had first-hand exposure to the perpetrators in both incidents. The first group were students. Period. They were drunk and they decided to party to the limit, as it were. The second group were no more "hardened criminals" than my grandmother, unless average high school kids in Polo shirts had become the most fearsome element of society.

As I'm sure you've all seen, London and other communities are on fire:


Events were triggered by police shooting an unarmed man as they attempted to make an arrest last Thursday. The man, Mark Duggan, happens to be black. A candlelight vigil two days later soon erupted in the first wave of violence and it's been proceeding since then. PM David Cameron's and Home Secretary Theresa May's responses: "a certain element", "outside agitators", "hardened criminals." It's like training parrots: One says it, then the others follow.

In addition, they mentioned "more robust police action", "prosecuting to the limits of the law", and general harsh justice and recrimination all around. What they didn't stop to do was question why this much unrest amongst the typically staid British populace might be taking place with no Premier League win to be seen. Likewise on this side of the pond, only a few people have brought up the diverse array of motivations, any or all of which might be responsible for the outbreak: youth unemployment, racial tensions, police brutality, austerity measures. That's a pretty toxic combination of economic and social conditions that would strain most societies to a potential breaking point (unless they're distracted by the latest episode of Toddlers and Tiaras like, you know, Americans.) And yet London's response is typical British (and American) Empire: Control and punish.

Certainly, some swift action has to be taken to contain a situation that could easily boil out of control, if it hasn't already. And, of course, the stiff upper lip must always be displayed to reassure the rest of the obedient population that reacting to the government's draconian treatment of its non-wealthy citizens must not be tolerated. Can't go giving anyone any ideas or tolerating any new ones, for that matter. Like telling schoolchildren that they can't bring a nail clipper to class because of a "zero tolerance" policy, it's simply inconceivable to those in charge, especially annoyed as they are from having been dragged home from their Mediterranean vacations, that wielding the hammer even harder might be precisely the wrong thing to do. After all, if the trigger event for this was police brutality (only exacerbating the bad economic straits that many find themselves in), what happens when Cameron's order for a "more robust response" is taken seriously by the police on the ground?

As is the situation with most riots, the eruption of same in lower-class or middle-class neighborhoods has only engendered the disgust and enmity of the people suffering many of the same problems (leaving the racial issue aside, for the moment.) As Jello always said: "Tomorrow you're homeless. Tonight it's a blast!" That's not exactly the best way to effect social change, but some outbursts can't necessarily be controlled. All the same, just as in politics, making enemies of those who might otherwise be your allies and support you is, in a word, stupid. But I don't think anyone's ever seen an intelligent riot.

If I had my way, I wouldn't necessarily try to control it but, rather, direct it. No sense in tearing up your own community when the problem is the rather ritzier locales elsewhere, where the people who own your community actually live. It's like the old Q&A: Q- Why rob banks? A- That's where the money is. If you're going to cause general mayhem, you might as well do it where the money is. Nothing gets the state hopping faster than threatening the paymasters.

Am I talking about class war again? Tsk, tsk, old boy.

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