As London burned, the U.S. watched with a fearful, reflective gaze.
We’ve been there. Our riots of the 1960s and as recently as the early ’90s, saw far higher death tolls and tallied billions in the calculated damages per city. The emotional costs were equally devastating and in many respects remain salient today.
The mayhem that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968 reached more than 100 American cities and resulted in 39 deaths. In 1965, the Watts riots claimed 34 lives. Portions of Los Angeles erupted again in 1992 and 53 people died.
A complicated swirl of high unemployment, racial and ethnic stratifications, distrust of and animosity toward police, gang loyalties and outright lawlessness are emerging as underlying factors in the U.K.’s troubles.
The U.S. can’t claim immunity from those elements, not in the past and not today. So a fair question is rising on this side of the ocean:
Could such mayhem occur here?
The obvious answer must be a qualified “yes.” Anything is possible. And it’s paramount to raise the scary caveat of America’s relative obsession with weaponry. We’re armed to the hilt.
In London, the rioters were bent on destruction of property, burning huge swaths of city blocks, but they were less inclined toward attacking others.
There were at least three deaths. In the U.S., consider how much of our crime is already connected to gun violence. Stir in mob mentality and carnage is all but a certainty.
That’s the cautionary tale.
Yet London immediately turned to the U.S. for expertise. William J. Bratton, a police official who served Boston, New York and Los Angeles has been tapped by Prime Minister David Cameron. Bratton has drawn praise for his efforts to transform police departments into organizations that are more effective against crime and more able to heal fractured community relations.
Cameron is preaching no leniency for the more than 1,400 people arrested during the rioting. Not all fit the stereotype of disaffected youth. Indeed, some were employed and seemingly looted merely because they had the opportunity. That speaks to a different type of social breakdown.
It’s just another area where the U.S. can’t smugly claim immunity.
Cameron is speaking about broken community norms, citing the phone hacking scandal and corporate greed, alongside the problems of generational poverty.
Like Britain, the U.S. is faced with tight budgets and huge decisions on which government programs deserve funding. Issues are multi-faceted and exacerbated by the current economic turmoil.
A conversation in Britain is beginning about what it truly takes to help those ostracized either by racial hatred, nationalistic concerns and a lack of upward mobility. Deciding what is simply window-dressing, pouring on government funds with few outcomes to show will be paramount.
Another point is that the rioting in Britain began with a tried and true formula: A confrontation of a citizen by police in an economically deprived area is protested and then spreads when police response to the initial violence fails to squash the unrest.
In Watts of 1965, it was the arrest of Marquette Frye. In Los Angeles in 1992 it was Rodney King.
And in London it is Mark Duggan, killed by police after being pulled over as they sought his arrest. A small peaceful protest followed. And then went horribly wrong.
Britain will likely go through much the same process the U.S. did after each of our riots.
Reports that will unravel the volatile mix of mob mentality, the boldness of anti-establishment youth/gangs, simmering tensions and the cement that often binds it all; a backlash by the undereducated and unemployed.
Mistakes and missed opportunities will be tallied. Hindsight is always such a clear view.
But the U.S. should deny the inclination to simply observe from afar. We’d be better served if we turn our gaze inward.