Why Did Britain's Riots Happen Now?

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Street struggles are part of our modern history. The uprisings in the Arab world, the daily neighborhood protests in China's major cities, Latin America's piqueteros and poor people demonstrating with pots and pans—all are vehicles for making social and political claims. We can add to these the anti-gentrification struggles and demonstrations against police brutality in U.S. cities during the 1980s. And now, most recently, the 200,000 people marching in Tel Aviv, a first for that city—not to bring down the government, but to ask for access to housing and jobs. (Another first: Tel Aviv's tent city, housing mostly impoverished middle-class citizens.) The indignados in Spain have been demonstrating peacefully in Madrid for jobs and social services and are now on a 1,300-kilometer march to Brussels. These are movements that seek to engage the powerful, not just protest against them.

The recent upheavals in Britain are also about social claims. The agitators come from the most disadvantaged urban areas across the country. Their chances of being heard by power are very limited, so riotous violence is one way of being heard. In many ways, the riots are similar to the ghetto uprisings of the 1960s and '70s in U.S. cities. These were short, intense eruptions confined to the ghettos and causing the most damage in the neighborhoods of the disadvantaged themselves. In those uprisings, there was no engagement with power, because power (a.k.a. the political class) was twice removed, and couldn't register the political speech of poor minorities. But it could register urban violence. Such violence has traditionally been one of the few options for the disadvantaged in big cities, especially in the West. It has become a form of speech, as French criminologist Sophie Body-Gendrot found in her study of the Paris upheavals of 2005 and 2008.

In any uprising, there's a specific mix of elements that allow general discontent to cross a tipping point and morph into street action. In Britain, three main forces converged to provoke rioting all across London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and so on. First, and key, is the sense that the street is a space for political protest for those who don't have access to formal political instruments. We saw this also in Paris's low-income minority neighborhoods in 2005 and 2008, and in the uprisings in the U.S. in the 1960s and again in the mid-'70s, particularly during a massive blackout in New York City that paralyzed the metropolis and sparked widespread looting and vandalism. This particular kind of street action is characterized by violent encounters with the police, arson, and destruction of property, sadly in the poor neighborhoods themselves. This action is quite different from the peaceful demonstrations that filled the streets of many cities in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and contributed to the downfall of their communist regimes. It's also different from Tahrir Square in Cairo, where protesters sought to maintain peace, both in relation to government forces and also among the different ethnic, religious, and tribal groups camping out in the square.

The second factor affecting London's riots is the economic losses that have hit Britain's poor urban areas especially hard: lost jobs and income, lost entitlements, lost government-sponsored neighborhood social and cultural services. In my view, these conditions were far more significant in provoking the riots than the unwarranted killing of a young man by the police. Indeed, the victim's family and neighbors were intent upon staging a peaceful protest. But youth unemployment in the U.K. stands at 19 percent, a level that rises sharply in disadvantaged areas. If you live in the U.K., you hear regularly about rising income equality, described in vivid terms by newspaper stories. There is far more chattering about income inequality than in the U.S., even though inequality is worse in America and there are far fewer social services for the poor. The Labour government that was in power for well over a decade did bring amenities to poor neighborhoods. But the current government has passed draconian austerity measures, implemented over a very short period of time—less than a year—that have made them visible simultaneously across the whole country.

The third factor is social media, which have given even a disadvantaged teen the power to raise a mob. Twitter, a sort of minimalist social media—free of the quasi governance of Facebook—was the main medium used in Britain to organize the riots. BlackBerry, a highly protected medium, was used more often on the second night, when police—by then on full alert—might have checked Twitter for pertinent information. The effectiveness of social media was particularly clear in London, where rioting broke out in more than 30 locations on Aug. 8. This was not a massive gathering at one iconic site, such as the Mall in Washington, D.C. This was a far more elaborate and hence effective type of organizing, akin to street protests in Iran in 2009, also organized partly via Twitter.

Each of these factors by itself couldn't have produced four nights of widespread rioting. But brought together, they fed off each other. Yet are these three ingredients really enough to explain why riots erupted? We can't establish this with total certainty. Social unrest brings together people with very different histories of pain, anger, and hopelessness, and different expectations for the future. Youth unemployment has been high in the U.K., particularly in poor minority areas, for years—and yet only this month did it tip into violence. The "street" has been available to these communities for a long time. So should we add a fourth factor, the uprisings of the Arab street this past winter, as a sort of demonstration ripple effect? The available evidence suggests not. We see the Arab-street effect in Tel Aviv's tent-city protests and in the movement of the indignados, but it hasn't been cited as inspiration by London's angry rioters.

If there's one underlying condition that these movements share, it has to do with unemployment and bitter poverty among people who desire to be part of the middle class, and who are keenly aware of the sharp inequality between themselves and their country's wealthy elite. These are in many ways social revolutions with a small "r," protests against social conditions that have become unbearable. The middle-class youth in Tahrir Square were able to make their demands heard through peaceful protest. The poor in Britain, living next to enclaves of wealth and privilege, chose street riots to deliver their message. For the British government to treat the matter as a mere question of criminal youth, and to treat the rioters as a teacher might treat naughty pupils, is a misreading of what is really going on, and a huge political mistake.

Sassen Is A Professor Of Sociology At Columbia University And The Author Of Territory, Authority, Rights.