Leaders of American cities, facing fiscal crunches and the threat of diminishing federal support, were looking nervously across the Atlantic this week at the riots that shook one of the world’s premier metropolises.
But American mayors and big-city members of Congress who spoke to POLITICO – and several mayors declined to participate in a story that would include their cities’ name and the taboo word “riot” – said they thought the unrest in England was unlikely to be replicated in the United States.
“I can only tell you that in communities of color and in economically depressed communities of the city we have worked hard to build relationships in those communities – there’s a lot more trust for our [police department] today than at any time in our history,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, adding that his city is the safest it’s been since the Eisenhower administration.
The London riots began in a way that was jarringly familiar to followers of American politics: Police shot a suspected drug dealer in murky circumstances, producing first peaceful, and then violent clashes in Afro-Caribbean communities. What began as political complaints turned into an orgy of looting that recalled the worst of American urban turmoil a half-century ago in the late 1960s and England’s own wave of clashes as recently as 1981.
The reaction to the events has divided Britain, as conservatives blame politically correct policing and liberals blame social alienation. Some British analysts and Labour Party leaders have tied the riots to the “austerity” policies of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tory government, with the former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, describing them as a “revolt” against cuts. And some of the American Democrats who have looked up from domestic problems to London’s woes see, too, a worrisome foreshadowing.
Similarly, to the extent that Americans have been able to tear themselves away from a roller-coaster stock market, staggering economy and political stalemate, reactions have been split: Many conservatives have suggested Britain has been made soft by entitlements, while liberals speculated that social alienation and economic hardship were to blame.
“It is possible that something similar to what has happened in London could happen in America. Sometimes you never know what will spark such an incident,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement. “I think that unless we move and move very fast to help that segment of our society that has been left out and left behind … then we’re really playing with fire.”
“I hope and pray that we are not entering that era again, that period again. And I don’t want to see a replay of the past,” he said.
Other Democratic policy analysts had a similar premonition.
“Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic identified the symptom rather than the disease – they focused on deficits, instead of growth. And they chose to focus on deficits in a way that further victimized those who were already victimized by the financial system’s failures – making the middle class and poor bear the brunt of deficit reduction tactics,” said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress, of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. “While lawbreaking of any kind is not acceptable, political leaders ignore large-scale demonstrations of social unrest at their peril.
“And from the perspective of the working class and others, it’s not crazy to think, given the history of the last few years, that the game is rigged against them and therefore, to lose faith in the system entirely,” she said.
Public policy in the United States has, since the 1990s, turned away from considering riots and urban disorder any form of social protest, and toward treating them simply as crime. Big U.S. cities like New York pride themselves on their speedy reaction to brewing storms, and there’s little sense of immediate threat. (Most American mayors, though, are sensitive enough to the memory of the late 1960s and early ’70s that they were not about to participate in a story that would put their cities’ names next to the word “riot.”)
Some American cities – like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee – have had to cope with small-scale versions of London-style “flash mobs,” said Fred Siegel, a more conservative urban scholar at the Cooper Union in New York, who blamed some of London’s problems on its governance.
“The British police subject to the house of mirrors produced by the official multiculturalism imposed by the Home Office were thoroughly demoralized before this all broke out,” he said. “U.S. police departments are decentralized, i.e., closer to the problems and thus less likely to be taken by surprise and have a far wider range of tactics – such as nonlethal gases and water hoses – should trouble break out. And then, of course, American store owners are far more likely to be armed, an effective deterrent in the U.S. discouraged in England.”
The challenge, others said, in an era of austerity is not so much to avoid chaos as to avoid the stalling of what has been a remarkable urban recovery.
“There is a real concern that you’re losing opportunities, the momentum has been lost,” said Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz. “The one thing that you work against is resigning yourself to being in survival mode.”
“I hope that new reality doesn’t lead people to take actions like you’re seeing in London,” Smith said. “This is just where we are, and we just have to learn to live with it.”
Even veterans of the worst of the urban political era are hopeful that the United States can avoid a repeat.
“The most recent circumstances where you had large crowds of people out of control is when a college wins a championship and there’s too much alcohol,” said veteran Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah. “In terms of civil disobedience for economic purposes, I don’t think we will ever see that happen.”